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Pope Francis' encyclical is a call to recognize 'human ecology'

Pope Francis waves to the crowd outside the presidency building in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Saturday, June 6, 2015.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd outside the presidency building in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Saturday, June 6, 2015.
Darko Bandic, AP

Pope Francis is no stranger to controversy, and his newly released encyclical about climate change has a number of conservative observers complaining he is commenting on subjects he would do better to leave to others more qualified in the eyes of the world.

Indeed, Pope Francis seems determined to offer advice and counsel not just on esoteric, spiritual matters, but on practical, down-to-earth realities that have a direct impact on people’s lives.

In fact, that was evident in comments the pope made at the Vatican’s November 2014 Humanun Conference on marriage and family life and their roles in the human society. In his comments, which served as a precursor to his environmental encyclical, he underscored the integration of natural and social environments.

“[The] crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection,” Pope France said. “And although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower — we have been slower in our culture, and also in our Catholic culture — to recognize that our fragile social environments are also at risk. It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology.”

It will be interesting to see how the media note any similar attention given in the encyclical to the protection of social environments. More on the encyclical in a moment.

But first consider his recent advice with regard to children and computers, with the pope noting too many kids being “too attached to their computer” and having access to “dirty content” is “bad for the soul.” He recommended that parents keep all computers in common areas so that they can more easily monitor their family’s online activity.

Pope Francis acknowledged computers have the capacity to do a great deal of good and are “part of the progress of mankind,” which is an attitude you might expect from the first pope to have 19 million Twitter followers. But he also expressed concern that “when it takes away from communal and family life, social life, sport, art and we remain attached to our computers,” the virtual world can “distract attention away from what is really important.”

Of course there’s nothing in the Bible or Catholic tradition that directly addresses Internet decency standards or the concerns of climate change. How could there be? Ancient prophets and apostles lived in a world so far removed from today’s industry and technology that it would be difficult for them to conceive of the environmental challenges and moral pitfalls that threaten us at the start of the 21st century. Thus, sermons in staid cathedrals quoting words written centuries ago are too easily dismissed as anachronisms better suited to a bygone era than a planet filled with laptops, iPhones and all sorts of fossil-fuel-burning mechanisms. Too often, people compartmentalize faith and treat it as a sort of museum piece to be taken out and admired on Sunday and then put back on its shelf and ignored during the rest of the week.

Which brings us back to the current 192-page encyclical titled “Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home.” With a draft leaked earlier this week, it was interesting to watch how politicized and polarized coverage became in the few days before the official release. Consider such a “progression” as evidenced by the following select headlines, from “Pope Francis calls Global Warming a Threat and Urges Action” (Wall Street Journal) to “Pope Francis blasts global warming deniers in leaked draft of encyclical” (Washington Post) to “Jeb Bush’s Response to Pope Francis’s Climate Change Encyclical is Hogwash” (Time magazine) and on to “Leak of Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change Hints at Tensions in Vatican” (New York Times).

And the media are already wondering if this encyclical is the start of a bigger message to be given on higher-profile platforms, pointing to the pope’s planned visit to the United States this fall and anticipated stops at the United Nations, the White House and before the U.S. Congress.

Those types of coverage and projections suggest the media’s views fall victim to political blinders. For example, two key events on Pope Francis’ fall U.S. itinerary are in Philadelphia in conjunction with the World Meeting of Families, which in turn serves as a precursor to the Vatican’s Synod on the Family the following month. One wonders if the pope’s messages on family matters will garner the media attention given this week to his environmental encyclical.

And so, are those who are praising the pope’s environment-oriented pleas going to listen to him on matters of the spirit or society? Are those who are critical by saying that the pope is out of his league in the climate-change conversation going to listen when he speaks of family and faith?

As such, while our stewardship of the natural environment is critical to life, just as critical are our stewardships of societal and spiritual environments. All too often, the latter are downplayed, overlooked or given a condescending, even sometimes critical sniff in media coverage and commentary.

Pope Francis is counted among the religious leaders who recognize faith should be a vital, living thing and not be removed from everyday experience. By providing contemporary application to timeless principles, Pope Francis is demonstrating that religious thought and application can be relevant in the modern world.

We welcome his practical contributions to the modern moral discussion that includes both our natural and human ecologies, and we hope people are wise enough to take his advice.