Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Thoughts of a Lapsed Catholic Environmentalist on Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si‘ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home”

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by John Barry

The encyclical should be read as being connected to previous encyclicals and statements; for example, Pope Benedict’s “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation,” for the celebration of the World Day of Peace 2010. It’s the latest link in a long chain of Christian stewardship thinking about human relations to and conceptions of the more-than-human world upon which we depend. The earth, its creatures, entities, and processes are “God’s creation”—not humanity’s—and rather than the arrogant anthropocentric claim of domination over the earth, we are tasked with looking after, tending, and husbanding creation. Instead of the earth being made for us, we in fact have been made (by God) for the earth, which is not only God’s creation but our home.

There is much to welcome here: on the one level its beautifully written love letter to the earth, admitting our abuse of it, asking (indirectly) for forgiveness as part of our desire for reconciliation with one another and the planet. A great part of the strength of this extraordinary letter is that one can understand, accept, and agree with it without a belief in God or being a Catholic. Of course, on its own terms the document is a religious one, a Catholic one, and in particular expresses the distinctive religious worldview of St. Francis of Assisi.

It urges humanity to respect nature and humility in celebrating and using our technological and scientific prowess, to see limits (including self-imposed limits, as well as ecological ones) as a constitutive part of what it means to be human and free. We are invited to balance our existential need to view the world as a collection of means for meeting our ends, not forgetting that the earth is also a realm of meaning, of moral and spiritual significance. A key theme is that while the immediate causes of the ecological crisis are economic and technological, the ultimate roots are ethical and spiritual—at least in that our relationship to the earth must have a spiritual dimension. Ultimately, what we need to control is not the earth, but rather our relationship to the earth. We can begin that task by recognising that it is God’s creation and that we depend on it for everything: the appropriate attitude to that which we have not made (whether by God or evolutionary and natural processes), but upon which we utterly depend, and therefore are vulnerable to, is one of respect and care, not arrogant assertions of domination.

There is a powerful eroticism (in the ancient Greek sense of “life affirming”) in this letter, standing in contrast to Thanatos (the death instinct, the impulse to render living entities as lifeless and therefore meaningless). This life-affirming injunction comes through in its Franciscan celebration of the beauty and existence of even the most seemingly insignificant creature (here I am reminded of William Blake’s line “to see eternity in a grain of sand”). It also is evident in the constant focus on the plight of the poor (and its anti-abortion stance), and the argument that the fruits of human work on the non-human world should be shared more equitably. Speaking of work or labour the encyclical rescues it from the negative characterization of it being “Adam’s curse,” i.e., punishment for disobeying God in the Garden of Eden.  The letter speaks of the dignity of work but also the necessity of work for a good human life, and cautions against the temptation to use technology to eradicate the need for humans to labour (though presumably this is compatible with using technology to rid ourselves of undignified, dangerous, and arduous forms of work).

I read the encyclical (which I approached and read more as a love poem than a letter—or if it is a letter, it’s a love letter) in part reminded of the deep ecological practice of listening to the suffering of both the human and the non-human world, acknowledging our responsibility for that suffering, asking forgiveness, and moving towards repairing the damage and seeking reconciliation with the ultimate “intimate other” that is the more than human world.  The human condition is such that we are both “part of” and “apart from” the world. Here, W.B. Yeats’ closing stanza from his poem Among School Children seems appropriate to express this way of looking at the world and ourselves expressed in the Pope’s poem (one poem speaking to and illuminating the other, as it were):

Labour is blossoming or dancing where,

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Is this not what sustainability is, to live in harmony with the world, with one another, with oneself? Just as we need new stories to live by, not least to honor and repair our storied residence in, on, and with our common home, we also need new songs, so that we don’t stand at such an acute angle to the world. To conclude these musings on reading  Laudato Si‘, the famous lines of T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding sum up my reading of this spiritual prose in terms of what it invites us to consider in thinking about the earth as our common home:

We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring,

Will be to arrive where we started,

And know the place for the first time.

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