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Pope’s encyclical takes fresh approach to dialogue

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’ seeks a dialogue with the whole world and gives new insight into the relationship of human beings to creation, say informed Canadian readers.

While the message about humanity’s place in creation is welcomed, however, some are critical of Pope Francis’ attitude toward markets, technology and even fossil fuels.

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) was primarily directed at Christians, but now he wants to dialogue with the whole world in Laudato Si’, said Marist Father Yvan Mathieu, a biblical scholar and dean of faculty of theology at Saint Paul University.

Mathieu described Laudato Si’ as both “in the tradition and new.” It is not the first time a pope has tried to have a dialogue with the world, but the way he has done it is new, he said.

He speaks of wanting to enter into a dialogue with “all people about our common home,” but this dialogue “is present even in the way he wrote it,” said Mathieu.

“This is not a man locked up in the Vatican reflecting on his own,” he said. “He is humble enough to consult and be informed by others, so the encyclical is the fruit of dialogue, and he is clearly wanting to promote dialogue. So that, clearly, is really something new.”

While Francis quotes extensively from his predecessors, he also quotes the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. “I don’t think I’ve seen that very often in an encyclical that the pope is quoting an Orthodox patriarch.” A representative of Bartholomew’s was present at the news conference at the Vatican for the release of the encyclical.

Dialogue to find solutions

Mathieu also finds the tone of the dialogue interesting. “He is really pointing at very serious problems,” yet he even in front of those problems he is speaking to “people of goodwill who have tried to find solutions.”

The tone Pope Francis uses is not condemning, even as he states things very clearly, Mathieu said. He shows the problem, invites dialogue and proposes some guidelines to help.

While some people are going to be enthusiastic or not so enthusiastic with the encyclical, he’s “taking a very clear position in favour of ecology” and showing the consequences of “wild capitalism” and consumerism.

Joe Gunn, executive director of the social justice think-tank Citizens for Public Justice, notes that environmentalists have moved away from the position held in the 1970s and ’80s that population control is the solution to the environmental crisis. In the encyclical Pope Francis firmly comes out against both population control and abortion.

“I’ve seen a real change, where the environmental movement is now wanting to work with churches,” Gunn said. “They’ve seen it’s not just about protecting wetlands, or using alternative technologies, but what we’re really talking about are pretty massive changes in how we operate on the planet.”

Faith communities have much to contribute to the environmental movement through their stress on the benefit of thinking about the common good, and of sharing and caring for others.

“I think environmental leaders will feel they have a friend in the leadership in the Vatican,” Gunn said. “When he talks about the spiritual roots of environmental problems, I think quite a few of us are getting to the point where we appreciate that; it crosses ideological boundaries.”

Encyclical a ‘tipping point’

He thinks the encyclical may bring about a tipping point in the debate on climate change and the ecology.

The pope has issued a challenge to community networks, including the Catholic community, to work with politicians on shaping a policy response on issues such as replacing fossil fuels, developing renewable energy and helping poor countries, Gunn said. “It’s remarkable how weak international responses have been.”

“The fact that he uses the word sin when he talks about attacks on nature allows us to move the debate” into asking people what they are doing when they deny the peer-reviewed science on climate change, he said.

“He really wants action,” Gunn said. The encyclical should challenge us as church communities. “If our parking lot outside mass looks the same as Wal-Mart’s two hours after mass,” with trash, “the kind of cars we drive, the way we do our shopping, the amount of fossil fuels we use,” he is challenging us that our personal lifestyle has to change, our life as an institutional church has to change and government policy has to change.”

Gunn said the encyclical will also bring about new reflections in theology. He noted that in a search for the word “stewardship,” he finds it only once in the document, in a quote from a bishops’ conference. The idea of stewardship, that humanity is “put in control,” is an idea that CPJ has moved away from, toward a view that encourages “the flourishing of all creation.”

CPJ has been moving away from the idea that the human being is above all nature rather than a part of nature, he said. That’s part of the criticism Christian theology has received, the command to dominate nature. The fact that Pope Francis stayed away from the word “stewardship” will “ensure the encyclical will be studied and commented upon” in theological schools.

New theological insights

Mathieu said he usually teaches Genesis I, which includes the Creation narrative. The Christian view of dominion over creation has often been condemned as “the source of all evil, as if you can pollute as much as you can.”

What God means when God gives human beings dominion is that they are meant to “protect and care for the order God has created,” he said. “We are called upon to be God’s partner in protecting creation against chaos.”

This is exactly what Pope Francis is saying in Laudato Si’, Mathieu said.

“The creation narrative presents order and disorder,” he said. “The human being is called to protect that order and to see to it that disorder doesn’t come back. This encyclical is really putting us in front of our common responsibility.”

Mathieu said he was touched by the way the pope is not only taking a position in favour of ecology per se but is “always spelling out the consequences of the ecological crisis on the poor people at international level and the national level.” The section on the city and city life has “a lot to say to us as Canadian citizens” regarding lack of housing and our treatment of indigenous peoples, he said.

“They are the ones who suffer the most from the ecological crisis we are going through,” he said. He recalled working as a priest on the border between Texas and Mexico where the asphalt was made with toxic chemicals. Children would run across it with bare feet, he said.

The sections on abortion and on the treatment of human embryos are another section that shows how “everything is interrelated,” Mathieu. It’s also an example of honest dialogue and how respecting the other “does not mean you have to become lukewarm and not say what you believe.”

Gunn said he found the encyclical “poetic as well as challenging and analytical.”

“Really when he talked about St. Francis of Assisi, I just love the part of St. Francis being a mystic, in simplicity, in harmony with God, with nature and with himself,” he said.

Discomfiting for all sides

Co-founder and executive vice-president of Cardus Ray Pennings said the encyclical brings “2,000 years of Christian thought to a contemporary issue that is very political.”

“I think it’s telling that the pope talks about the harmony of God, creation and mankind and the disharmony, the creation that’s broken,” Pennings said.

He finds reaction to the debate even more interesting. “People want to pigeonhole it into their side of the debate, I think actually the document is discomfiting to all parties in that regard,” Pennings said. “On the one hand those who have been resistant to international agreements and to recognizing the seriousness of dealing urgently with some of the environmental challenges, quite clearly the encyclical takes this issue as an important moral and spiritual responsibility.”

“For those who want to focus exclusively on climate change as if that can be dealt with without some of the moral considerations, the encyclical highlights how your view of family and your view of life are tied integrally into your view of creation,” he said.

Pennings said that even though the pope is talking about the scientific consensus on climate change, he also talks about how the church is not an authority in every area. The church speaks to the foundational principles and the framework, but leaves the expertise to develop scientific and political solution to those best qualified to carry them out, he said. “It’s ironic those who are usually most likely to criticize the mixing of church and state are the first to take the pope’s words (on climate change) and apply them as a political solution.”

Critique of markets and technology

Mark Cameron, an Ottawa lobbyist on energy and a former policy and research director to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, does not dispute the pope’s stand on climate change, though he acknowledged that many conservative Catholics, especially in the United States, have responded negatively because either they do not believe the science is settled on the matter, or because they think this is a policy area outside of the pope’s expertise. Cameron’s criticism lies in other aspects of the encyclical.

“I detect a lot of hostility toward both free markets and technology in general, and thought that was shortsighted,” Cameron said. “Even if one accepts that climate change is a genuine threat, you would need the full participation of markets and the full application of technology to deal with the threat.”

“Markets are the most powerful tool for meeting human needs, at least at the material needs,” he said. “The wisdom of market solutions has been proven over and over again. If there’s a problem with markets not adequately dealing with environmental problems, then the solution is to have them priced within the market system.”

Carbon credits, which the pope criticizes, are one method; carbon taxes are another, he said. “These are methods of trying to put a price on carbon emissions and seek the lowest cost responses.”

“It’s been proven with things like dealing with sulphur dioxide emissions and acid rain in the Great Lakes,” he said.

As for technology there’s a sense in the encyclical we should go back to a simpler lifestyle, Cameron said. “At a collective level, when dealing with two billion people still cooking on wood stoves, clearly we need dramatic increases of technology and energy to bring the world to even a modest standard of living.”

He also questioned the pope’s singling out of air conditioning. “It’s essential in some parts of the world and without air conditioning you can have mass fatalities.” He noted that during a 2003 heatwave in France, nearly 15,000 people died.

Fossil fuels have role

Tim Kennedy, a Catholic who has worked in the energy and environmental sectors for many years, said that while the “call, especially for the developed world to whom so much has been given, to reduce waste and use our resources carefully and live more simply is positive and necessary,” the potentially good role of fossil fuels has been ignored.

“Fossil fuels are a gift of God — and our human ingenuity to make them cleaner and better is a gift of God too — and a fundamental project of justice is to work to reduce waste, improve technologies for fossil fuels and provide the poor with access to cleaner fossil fuels which we take for granted in the developed world,” he said.

“Access to affordable, safe and clean energy is critical to the world and lifting people out of poverty,” he said. “Two in five people in the world still use organic material for heating and cooking — primarily dung and wood — terrible for human health and the worst polluting energy in the world.”

“Corruption and lack of education keep people in the vicious cycle of poverty, and the infrastructure necessary to provide energy is never realized,” he said.

He gave some examples from First Nations communities in Canada where so many live in poverty. “The dominant energy is electricity from diesel. Or, if they are lucky, connection to the electricity grid. Their homes are incredibly expensive to heat.”

“If one of these communities is able to connect to natural gas, costs are reduced sometimes up to 75 per cent and air pollution is reduced,” he said. “This is all good. And the move to hybrid electricity/power and other technologies have great promise to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and reduce costs.”

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