There's a lot of talk about the political reaction to Pope Francis' 192-page encyclical on climate change. But part of what's being missed, say Catholic leaders, is a message about better caring for communities and families — the "human ecosystems" that allow humans to thrive.
The document refers to the family as "the basic cell of society," and repeatedly calls on believers and nonbelievers alike to care for those in our “human family,” especially those who are poor and struggling.
“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” said Pope Francis. “I would like us all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation, to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste … to promote a culture of solidarity."
The encyclical frames care for the natural world and the poor as a moral imperative and also a spiritual one, says Helen Alvare, professor of law and religion at George Mason University and a consultor for the Pontifical Council of the Laity at the Vatican.
“It’s a spiritual document,” says Alvare. “He points to consumerism as the real killer of nature and peoples. Environmental and human degredation — from clean water to opportunities for dignified work and housing — effect the potential for satisfying family lives.”
While the mandate is a call to believers and nonbelievers alike, it also has a strong message of faith, says the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, president and founder of Interfaith Power & Light, who notes that reverence for the Earth is a tenet of all faiths and an “indication of our relationship with God and with each other.”
Bingham also believes that the faithful have a particularly powerful role to play as people of conscience take up “care for our common home” as a moral imperative.
“There has never been a significant cultural change without religion, going all the way back to slavery and the civil rights movement,” said Bingham. “They were all led by religious voices and the moral authority that comes with it.”
A gift from God
Pope Francis issued a strong challenge to rethink wasteful behavior among those in rich countries and oppose a lack of ethics in economics and finance. Time and again, he re-issued a moral duty to look after the needy.
"At various points he says, 'I know that not everybody is a believer, but we all have a vested interest in this [stewardship of nature]," says Father Michael McCarthy SJ, executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University.
"He's saying, 'It's important to recognize differences of opinion, and yet really the large consensus is undeniable, folks,’” says McCarthy. “He's saying it's not a scientific claim, it's a larger human moral claim."
The notion of having a moral duty toward creation is firmly rooted in Catholic theology, says McCarthy, which considers nature to be more than just a system of processes. "What we all call creation is an act of love of God toward us," he says. "We view creation as a gift of God to us, and therefore we have a moral relationship to it."
While most papal documents rely on the authority of popes and scripture, this one also calls upon the testimony and experiences of Catholic leaders and followers around the world, from Africa to Latin America who are seeing the effects of climate change in their homes — from drought that’s causing families and whole villages to migrate and lose their homes to the depletion of necessities like firewood.
The encyclical knits natural ecology with "human ecology," seeking to show the interdependence of all living creatures, citing Genesis as well as New Testament examples of Jesus praising the beauty of creation and God's love for it. Alvare points out that the encyclical praises the beauty and value of every living thing, from dogs to bugs to blades of grass and human bodies.
"He is saying here that degradation of the environment degrades human communities when people have to leave or move because their neighborhoods or villages are polluted," says Alvare. “When the economy uses human beings as ends for profit, it despoils neighborhoods and families."
The Rev. Sally Bingham also emphasizes the scriptural roots of stewardship for the earth. “Nobody who is following [biblical] scripture denies that God put Adam, or us, into the garden, the earth, and was told to till and keep it,” she says. When speaking on environmental concerns, people sometimes tell Bingham that politics “don’t belong in church.” “That’s when money and politics have trumped faith,” she says.
A moral, human obligation
The encyclical specifically calls out finance and corporations run amok as threats to 'integral ecology," or the common good that allow humans to thrive.
Francis describes maximization of profits as a “conceptual distortion of the economy” that fails to take into consideration the full cost of damage to the environment, and the response to the global financial crisis as a failure to "develop a new economy, more careful to ethical principles, and for a new regulation of speculative financial activities and virtual wealth."
The message is not anti-capitalist, says McCarthy, but it is very critical of the harms of "unbridled capitalism." There is "respect for the market," he says, which can lift people out of poverty with economic opportunity and job creation. "But it does not hold the market as an absolute good — it needs to be moderated when the goals are not for the common good."
Alvare agrees that wealth accumulation is necessary to make enterprise possible, but it has its limits when it serves the few. "For example, if you're making $40 million a year it would be better to provide a living wage for the people who work for you," she said.
Kirk Hanson taught business ethics at Stanford University for 20 years and is now the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school. He sees the encyclical as a challenge to the financial preoccupations of Silicon Valley and New York and says that community is the way to fulfillment. "That's a different message than American culture offers," he says.
Hanson is hopeful that messages like the encyclical will lay the groundwork for companies to consider their "moral communities," including their neighbors and their own employees.
"I think this could raise questions about the minimum wage, benefits, family leave policies and other things that allow families to thrive," he said. "This will help us move past helping disaster victims and into our own communities. What are you doing for the poor in Baltimore if that's your neighborhood? How are you contributing to it?"
As much as the encyclical calls for institutional and policy change, it's also a call to the individual to look toward their neighbor. In one passage, the document even lists practical actions that individuals can take, including turning off air conditioning, using less water and using public transportation.
Father McCarthy says he has never seen anything like that before in an encyclical, which frequently points to the overconsumption of the rich. It's easy to think of that as institutions, or as the 1 percent, but it refers to all of us in wealthy countries.
In fact, Father McCarthy is having pangs of conscious himself. "I like my air conditioning but I don't really need it," he says, "and I fly around in planes a lot for work, and now I'm really thinking about the net effects of this."
The encyclical highlights degredation of the environment and of families — from water pollution to dignified work to housing and says that "everything in the world is connected."
The Rev. Bingham says that individual responsibility is “the most important part” of the pope's message, and challenges each of us to recognize the effect that we have on our neighbors, from the electricity that we use to the coffee that we drink to the clothes that we buy.
A recent Pugh study showed that 65 percent of Americans attend a house of worship on a regular basis, which gives clergy a powerful role in changing hearts and minds, says the Rev. Bingham.
McCarthy says that it’s easy to look at rapacious corporations, but that the responsibility is on each of us, especially those of us living in relative ease in wealthy countries. One prayer at the end of the encyclical asks that we will “be filled with peace to live as brothers and sisters, harming no one.”
“It’s wonderfully positive,” says McCarthy, “but it’s implying that we need to rescue the forgotten and protect this world, not prey on it.”