At the very beginning of the sweeping encyclical on the environment that he released on June 18, Pope Francis inserts a richly symbolic musical allusion. The Pope’s initial words, Laudato Si’, serve as a functional title for his writing, but these words also refer to a historic hymn called The Canticle of the Sun, written by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1224 and sung in cathedrals around the world for centuries. Roughly translated as “Be Praised,” the phrase “Laudato Si’” is repeated at the beginning of each verse in the body of the Canticle. Objects of St. Francis’ praise include Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and the air, water and earth that make plants, animals and human life possible. In these opening words, the Pope not only honors the beloved saint whose name he has chosen, but also reminds us that a respect for nature is deeply rooted in ecclesiastical tradition.
The Pope’s musical reference seems to me especially appropriate for our time and place, because I believe the faculty of a liberal arts university are like singers in a great choir. Scholars from Bellarmine’s professional schools and from the arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences contribute unique voices which, when combined, create rich harmonies of discourse. The Pope’s encyclical, dedicated to “care for our common home,” has provided our faculty with a complex score demanding just this kind of interdisciplinary attention. As an academic community dedicated to sustaining a wholesome environment for everyone on Earth, Bellarmine professors feel that Pope Francis is singing our song.
I invited several of my colleagues to share their thoughts about how the encyclical speaks most directly to their academic disciplines. I think you will agree that their lyrical prose flows from the heart and the soul, as well as the mind. We hope our alumni and friends will join in our academic chorus, and assist our search for better ways to respect and preserve our planetary home.
As a geologist, I think about the age of our planet through the lens of “deep time.” The age of the Earth is so much longer than the length of the human lifespan that it is difficult to comprehend. Yet in 40,000 years of human civilization (just 0.0009% of earth’s history), we have profoundly altered the landscape and affected virtually every ecosystem on the planet in some way. For me, a practicing Catholic, contemplating the enormity of geologic time and the evolution of creation is a source of wonder and awe. On the other hand, observing the profound changes we have made to our air, water, soil and their connected ecosystems in such a short span of time is a source of sorrow. The hubris of humanity has caused our magnificent planet to be turned into a virtual mine that we are determined to strip for our own material gain.
The encyclical challenges us on many fronts to consider the way that our lifestyle creates a world that is not ecologically or ethically sustainable. As Pope Francis points out, “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained.” Our lack of far-sightedness has created an economy that is based in excessive extraction, consumption and pollution. We must think on a longer time scale and begin integrating sustainable development into our communities now.
A thousand years from now, when scholars are analyzing this document in the context of the way that humanity responded to our current ecological crisis, what conclusions will they draw? Did humanity respond to the appeals of the Church to make ethical choices for the future? Did we listen to the information presented by the scientific community about anthropogenic climate change and make adjustments? If we don’t amend the way we care for creation, what will future humans say about our short window of 200 years of industrialized history that created this mess? We must grapple with questions like these and many more if we are to turn the tide.
In a very important sense, Pope Francis’ message is a plea for new models of human behavior and thought. The encyclical condemns lifestyles built around the unbounded desire for material goods (“throwaway culture”) and political and economic systems that are neither sustainable nor just. But where should we turn for alternative models? Anthropologists have long lived at the interfaces of various cultural and social worlds where they witness both the frictions and creative fusions of value systems, norms, worldviews and cosmologies. Good ethnographic fieldwork allows such systems-in-flux to be analyzed as they react to changes emanating from the kinetic forces of markets, media, politics and missionizing religions.
In my own work, I’ve seen the emergence in Ecuador of debate over “sumac kawsay,” which is Kichwa for “the good and beautiful life.” This has long been a set of guiding principles for the Kichwa people of the Andes, encouraging reciprocity, mutual obligations and a respect for the wellbeing of Mother Earth. Anthropological research has allowed me to consider what this means as an alternative model for being. Others doing similar work with marginalized groups will recognize forms of collective governance and standards of behavior that align well with the Pope’s call for greater stewardship of the natural world. For many people, the natural, social and spiritual are intertwined to the point where the neglect of any one of these diminishes what it means to be human.
Interwoven throughout the Pope’s encyclical we can see indications of his understanding that art can communicate with a vividness that is at least as powerful as that created through scientific and technical language. And, because he notes that intellectualized reflection can sometimes come off as tiresome and abstract, I think he believes that the arts can offer an alternative platform from which to raise awareness and promote meaningful responses. As someone who has studied visual art for many years, I’m heartened that Pope Francis believes that the arts have a role to play in addressing the urgent issues he discusses.
Since the Renaissance, artists have communicated the beauty and wonder of nature by recording various aspects of its appearance, but they will increasingly be turning to ever more innovative ways to further connect art and its audience to the natural world. For instance, instead of art that tells us what nature looks like, many artists have started to actually collaborate with nature by using elements such as wind, water, and soil as their media.
Consider the work Ice Watch by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Ice Watch was composed of huge pieces of ice totaling over 100 tons that were fished from the waters of a fjord in Greenland, cut into 12 pieces and arranged in the form of a clock in City Hall Square in Copenhagen. Each piece of ice represented the amount of the earth’s ice that is currently melting every 1/100 of a second. One gigantic clock of ice melting before our very eyes may well be worth 1,000 words!
Eliasson worked on Ice Watch with geologist Minik Rosing, and the piece was created in conjunction with a conference addressing climate change organized by a group of scientists and supported by the United Nations. Such interdisciplinary cooperation will be an important path for artists to follow in the future.
Pope Francis’ urgent appeal for an informed dialogue about “how we are shaping the future of our planet” necessitates K-12 teachers’ involvement in preparing students for these import-ant discussions. The new Next Generation Science Standards (2013) include more focus on sustainability than many of the previous state science standards. However, research suggests that only teachers with a strong personal interest in nature and the environment take the time to infuse sustainability into their curriculum. Furthermore, teachers are often unsure how to broach some ecological topics in the classroom because they can be considered controversial in the social sphere.
Pope Francis directly addresses environmental issues that are highly controversial in Kentucky. In one such statement, he writes, “Technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay…There are too many special interests, and economic interests.” Teachers are now more than ever faced with the daunting task of engaging in communictative exchanges about topics involving unresolved disputes over issues of socioeconomic interests, political power, moral judgments, and the religious implications of scientific theory or research practice. It is essential for teachers to not only support the understanding of content and processes of science, but also the ability to critique and communicate in these public discussions.
The Pope also urges immediate action to protect and honor Earth’s natural resources. Issues such as global climate change, deforestation in the rainforest, or compromised water quality are too often not addressed in ways that connect to students’ daily experiences. Teachers should situate instruction on these import-ant topics in a local context and aim for students to become active participants in their community through the study of environmental science that affects their own lives. Although these are undoubtedly enormously complex questions and undertakings, they are inescapable if we are genuinely interested in helping young people deal with the complex, contentious, and multi-faceted socio-scientific problems and opportunities of tomorrow.
“Care of the earth” has always been one of the easiest tenets of Catholic Social Teaching to convey to our students. Some take the Catholic Climate Pledge each year on or near the Feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4) when we host the Blessing of the Animals. Most can sing the verses of Canticle of the Sun from our liturgies. And many have been involved in sustainability campaigns of various sorts on campus. The beauty of Laudato Si’ is how Pope Francis captures the mystical poetry of St. Francis, anchors it in history, documents current situations, and uses biblical imperatives to connect the wonder of nature with the call for the care of our Mother Earth and her most vulnerable.
St. Francis was a mystic who understood the relationship of the Creator to every element and every animal. He preached to flowers because in their blooms, they honored God. Thomas Merton spoke of this in Thoughts in Solitude where he noted that the hills praise God by being themselves as we honor God by being ourselves. Bellarmine University’s mission invites us all to search for our true selves and thus to participate in the orchestral response to the Creator. Pope Francis invites us to be part of the answer to the signs and sighs of a planet in distress.
When we see nature and give thanks; when we pay attention to what simplicity will bring us; when we are humble enough to recognize our need for Sabbath and see the planet in need of rest; then, we will see the connection between the waste of over consumption or the disaster of crowded, filthy, urban spaces and be moved. When we come to know that those geographically apart from us are dying for lack of clean water because of our thoughtlessness, our hearts cannot help but be moved. Living in the love of truth, perhaps then we will embrace the change we hope to see and work together to save our home.
We are interconnected. Who are we, one might ask? We are all who inhabit the earth: human, plant and animal life alike. This concept is both powerfully and poignantly spelled out in Pope Francis’ encyclical. Reading in some instances like a sociological essay, the encyclical lays out a very well-articulated case that we, as global citizens occupying a common space, must understand that our decisions are important to the detriment and/or the well-being of all. He raises our collective consciousness by suggesting that, like a family, we should embrace a mutual responsibility to take care of the earth, our “common home.”
Ecological systems theory suggests that environmental systems within which individuals interact also impact said individuals. Pope Francis aptly proposes that global inequality and social injustice, then, are not created in a vacuum. They are the unfortunate result of our careless use of resources to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. Despite outlining a tremendous challenge, Pope Francis leaves us with a stubborn sense of hopefulness in that although the damage to the climate may be irreversible, our ultimate return to working toward the common good is not. If we embrace his words and enact upon the principles that are laid out, we, in solidarity, can once again turn our hearts toward “home.”
For a few centuries now, mainstream Christian theology has focused much of its attention on God’s action as the redeemer of human beings, to the exclusion of God’s will as creator. Consequently, many in the West have been shaped by a sense that Christian faith is about the eternal destiny of the human soul, and not much else. We have become accustomed to the idea that God is encountered in a private, interior realm, but not in the created world. As a result, we have treated the rest of creation as if it has only instrumental value. As Thomas Merton said in Raids on the Unspeakable, we have “constructed a world outside the world, against the world, a world of mechanical fictions which contemn nature and seek only to use it up, thus preventing it from renewing itself and [human beings].”
Many like Merton have recognized our alienation from creation and sought to address it. But the mainstream has largely ignored these voices. That is what makes Laudato Si’ a revolutionary text: It brings an insight formerly reserved for contemplatives and those on the fringes to the center of the Christian imagination.
The central thrust of the encyclical is captured in this affirmation: “In the Bible, the God who liberates and saves is the same God who created the universe, and these two divine ways of acting are intimately and inseparably connected.” In other words, the God in whom Christians find their hope of salvation is the very same God who gives life to all creatures. There is no “saving” God apart from the God who creates. Pope Francis insists that the unity of God’s loving activity makes the natural world a primary place of encounter with the divine: “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” This key insight implies that Christians need to develop new modes of attention to reality. We need “a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge.” We need a theology that can integrate, not separate.
As a young man, Pope Francis studied chemistry and for a short time worked as a chemical technician, so it should be no surprise that according to Laudato Si’, “no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out” of our deliberations about protecting our common home. But science and technology are not neutral, according to the Pope, and their misplaced priority on “being useful” rather than on simply “being” encourages “an unbridled exploitation of nature” solely for our own benefit. The result is a “tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”
To the philosopher, these references cannot help but bring to mind Martin Heidegger and Werner Heisenberg, both of whom addressed the relation between nature and technology.
In a 1954 essay titled The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger explains “the essence of tech-nology is by no means anything technological. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely […] push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it.” Indeed, “we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral.”
Heisenberg’s essay The Representation of Nature in Contemporary Physics voices a concern about anthropocentrism not unlike that found in Laudato Si’. He maintains that “the extension of technology [is] no longer an indication of progress” and notes that because the world has been so “completely transformed by man […] we invariably encounter structures created by man.” There was a time when we were compelled to integrate ourselves into the natural order, but in any contemporary attempt to have a genuine encounter with nature “we always meet ourselves.”
The discipline of philosophy shares the fears and hopes expressed by Pope Francis and is among the “forms of wisdom” we may consult as we think about caring for our “common home.”
Pope Francis clearly communicated his perspective on environmental issues when he chose the name of “the patron saint of ecologists,” as he calls St. Francis of Assisi, for his own when he was elected to the papacy. His encyclical fulfills the promise he implicitly made in doing so to everyone who loves Nature.
“Common” is the most important word in the text. It is an adjective derived from the Old French comun, which meant “belonging to all” in Middle English by about 1300. By 1500, “common” had become a noun in English, meaning resources shared by everyone.
“Tragedy” is the most important word missing from the text. In Greek literature, a terrible outcome that can be seen coming in advance was a tragedy. “The tragedy of the commons” was a concept put forth in the late 1960s by Garrett Hardin, which demonstrates the tendency of people to take more than their fair share of things held in common, leading to the exhaustion of otherwise sustainable resources. The USA personifies this greed: With 5% of the world’s population, we consume nearly a quarter of the energy that the species uses annually. We are guilty of what the Pope calls “cheerful recklessness.”
The worst example of the tragedy of the commons is unfold-ing in the ocean, where more than 90% of the fish biomass is already gone. And yet, we keep on gobbling down species that are on the verge of collapse. From my salty perspective, Chapter I, Paragraph 40, which concerns uncontrolled fishing, sounds an alarm that we have ignored too long. In this long-awaited statement of sanity from a world leader, the clarion call to save the seas joins a cacophonous chorus of warning bells from across the globe. We all need to listen, and act.
Curated By Dr. Robert Kingsolver
Dr. Robert Kingsolver is founding dean and director of Bellarmine’s School of Environmental Studies.
Illustrations by Shae Goodlett