Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Lutheran Pastor Reads the Pope's Encyclical: On Care for Our Common Home, Part I

"Many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest" (12-13)
It's hard to write compellingly about Christian faith and the environmental crisis. Christians, who find endlessly interesting things to say about the church, the Trinity, and human being, come up short when analyzing the "book of nature." 


That the pope would author an encyclical on the environment caught at least some prognosticators by surprise, because from their perspective, this is the pope stepping outside his area of expertise. The environment is for scientists to analyze. The pope is to focus on the care of souls.

So the pope's first task in this encyclical is to convince readers that the topic is worth their time, and worth the attention of an encyclical letter. 

He makes this argument well.

First, theologically we are called to consider the environment because "the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since 'the book of nature is indivisible,' and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that 'the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence'" (6, quoting John Paul II).

Second, consideration of the environment has been elevated by many church leaders, not the least of whom are his two predecessors, John Paul and Benedict, but also the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew (who Francis names specifically, anticipating talks in 2020 towards the sharing of full ecclesial communion), and Francis's namesake himself, Saint Francis, perhaps the patron saint of all who care about ecology.
"I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God's creation and for the poor and outcast."
This quote brings up two themes central to Pope Francis's theology. He hopes to connect with non-Christians. He is one of Christianity's greatest living evangelists. His previous apostolic exhortation took as its primary theme the call to evangelization.

Francis's focus on evangelization has as its energizing center care for the poor. This is also illustrated in his encyclical on the care of the earth. Repeatedly, when he mentions concern for God's creation, he immediately then mentions the poor. For Francis, there is an "inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace." He is especially appreciative of those who "tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world's poorest."

I wish this specific point were more widely publicized in all the press around this encyclical. To my mind, it is the most focused theological locus in the encyclical. Francis cares about climate change because he cares about our common earth, and he cares about our common earth and how we care for it because poor stewardship of the earth harms those who are poor more than another part of the human population.

So why does our interest in the environmental crisis wane? Why are Christians on average less articulate about ecology and faith than many other aspects of faith? In the next section of the encyclical, the pope begins a close consideration of the science of climate change, beginning with an analysis of what he calls "rapidification." We will turn to this in the next installment.

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