SASKATOON — Those working for environmental awareness and action in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon were among the people around the world welcoming Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, released June 18.
“What excites me is that Pope Francis is calling us to discover our home as St. Francis did, where earth and all creatures are a gift from God, reveal God and are family — Brother Sun, Sister Water,” said Sister Judy Schachtel, a member of the Sisters of Mission Service, who has a baccalaureate in theology and a master of arts in culture and spirituality. She is a well-known speaker on creation and the environment.
“Over the last 300 years we have lost that relationship with earth, seeing it as a machine and using machines to plunder its resources. Thomas Berry says earth is not an object to be exploited but a subject to be communed with,” she said.
“Pope Francis speaks of our interconnectedness and interdependence with earth and all beings, and that the cry of earth is the cry of the poor. He calls for a change in lifestyle, for education, and a spirituality that leads to an ecological conversion.”
Myron Rogal of the diocesan Justice and Peace Office described the encyclical Laudato Si’ as a refreshing read that was difficult to put down, as well as being a timely response to a broken relationship with creation in crisis.
“Pope Francis reminds us that a vibrant society requires the gifts and input of each individual, and to be mindful of all of creation,” Rogal observed. “Politics therefore needs to be a participatory process directed by the people and not economic powers.”
Rogal said he was struck by the urgency of loving and caring for the Earth as our common home — which permeates the document — and appreciated the profound focus on faith, rather than on ideologies. “As Pope Francis writes: ‘reality is greater than ideas.’ ”
The encyclical holds that ideological justification — whether political, economic or activist — can never break “the tri-fold relationship between people and God, person to person, and person to creation as a whole, (which) is permanently part of our existence... without ending in self worship or worship of the Earth,” said Rogal.
“What concerns me is that the document will be taken out of context or that certain parts could be used as weapons to build division,” he said. “I’m certain that those in political office, business and even environmental activists will feel uncomfortable, as the document is driven by faith and reason, not ideology — and this is a really a good thing.”
The encyclical is a continuation of teachings by earlier church leaders, Rogal noted, citing the work of Benedict XVI, who posed serious questions of ecological concern. “St. John Paul II’s influence is very evident in this document in (saying) that the developed world bears nearly all of the responsibility for the impoverishment of peoples and the environmental destruction of all developing countries.”
Rogal said he hopes the encyclical will help to restore dialogue, particularly with scientific communities operating in isolation from the world’s major religions. He said he hopes Pope Francis’ words will help society move from indifference and fear to a spirit of inter-dependence.
Christians are being called to “always include poverty and care for creation as two sides of the same coin,” as well as to admit that consumerism is western culture’s most widespread addiction, Rogal said. “Let us regain the freedom that God wishes each of us to experience in becoming caretakers rather than takers.”
Sharing more, supporting local economies and demanding policy from all levels of government “to protect the fragility and sacredness of our planet,” are among actions that individual Christians can immediately take, he said.
The encyclical can hopefully also help us in questioning “ideologies that call us to division and fear, and to question laws and policies from a moral perspective, to ask what the true cost of endeavours are. Just because we can do something does not mean we should,” said Rogal.
Rogal is convinced that faith has a role in an issue that involves commerce, economies and politics. “Any discipline which does not seek knowledge outside of itself quickly becomes unwell and unable to grow. For commerce to learn from the church and the church to learn from commerce is simply a vital practice,” Rogal said, suggesting that the church needs to be in deeper dialogue with business.
It is important to pay attention to the emphasis Pope Francis places on the moral dimension of climate change, stresses Dr. Jim Penna of the local ecumenical group Churches for Environmental Action.
Laudato Si’ is calling individuals to take moral responsibility for their actions upon the earth and the impact: “to ourselves, to future generations and especially to the poor,” said Penna.
“Human beings are moral agents because of their capacity to make decisions and make free choices resulting in human actions that are not neutral. Pope Francis is drawing our attention to the reality that the impact of human action has dramatically changed in a techno-scientific world,” said Penna. “As the moral philosopher Hans Jonas has pointed out, human action has undergone a qualitative change from a time when we only polluted our own back yards to the present, when polluting our back yards we pollute the world because of technologically enhanced human decisions and actions.”
The pope is highlighting that the reach and the change brought about by technologically enhanced human activity operates without limits, Penna added. “As Einstein said when the atom was split, everything changed except our thinking. For example, nuclear bombs can wreak havoc and destroy the earth. Nuclear power plants produce waste that will last forever and risk accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima that have irreversibly polluted the atmosphere and contaminated lands and seas. Our use of fossil fuels has caused the crisis of climate change.”
Rev. Lawrence DeMong, a member of the Order of St. Benedict from St. Peter’s Abbey who has a longtime concern for the environment, welcomed the encyclical. “Even though it may appear like the eleventh hour, I truly believe that this is a God-event, that this very well-received spiritual leader is calling us all to save our beautiful oikos (as in ‘ecology’) — our home — for present and future generations.”
The encyclical Laudato Si’ is in direct continuity with previous teachings and with Scripture itself, said DeMong. It also has “the punch of vast human experience confirming this clarion call from a truly prophetic spiritual leader.”
DeMong prays that the document will challenge the collective conscience to move beyond words to effective action. “As followers of Jesus within the rich and vast array of biblical and prophetic calls throughout our history, I hope that this will tip the scales in favour of serious concrete action for transforming our society, with individual change leading to real political, societal and even planetary transformation,” he said.
“If all of us pooled our collective wisdom with practical and concrete suggestions for action, we could make a huge difference. A simple example for parishes would be to get moving on building retrofits, and, in Saskatchewan with its extremely polluting electricity production, to drastically reduce consumption and even to work towards producing our own electrical energy,” he said, invoking the memory and patronage of the late Rob Dumont, a member of the local Catholic community who died May 29, and who was a world-renowned pioneer in reducing energy consumption in housing.
Criticism of Pope Francis for speaking on matters that touch on policy and economies are a typical response from those who don’t want to hear a demanding message, said DeMong.
“Look at the gospel: Jesus was crucified because his message did not fit the expectations of those who wanted to maintain the status quo. In reality Jesus came to save us from ourselves, from our own selfishness and open up a new world of abundance rather than scarcity, sharing and loving instead of hoarding and hating.”