Over the month of October a group of parishioners discussed the Papal Encyclical and considered its implications for us as individuals, as a parish, as Catholic Christians and for the planet. The Encyclical is unusual in not having a Latin name from its opening words but instead using the Umbrian dialect of Italian in which St Francis wrote his hymn to creation, more commonly known in English as the Canticle of Brother Sun. The Canticle deserves to be better known, although we probably know of it through the hymn, All Creatures of Our God and King.
The Encyclical was publicised as being about Climate Change, although it takes a far wider stance on environmental degradation, the sanctity and beauty of God's Creation and on the imperative for global social justice. We were able to see how Pope Francis and his advisors had drawn on both the rich Catholic traditions of care for Creation but also on modern work on the environment in science, social science and the humanities. Many scholars have suggested that the 1960s saw the birth of modern concern for the environment, with publications like Rachel Carson's influential book, Silent Spring, and Lynn F White's well-known paper The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, in which he blamed Christianity, environmental pollution incidents such as the wreck of the Torrey Canyon off the Cornish coast in 1967 and the famous pictures of the Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts orbiting the moon. The Encyclical engages with all of this and more.
Chapter OneWhat is Happening to Our Common Home, The Encyclical opens by establishing the magnitude of the threat to the Earth as the common home of all of humanity. It calls for humility and honesty in the face of what we do not know of the operations of the complex environmental systems of our home on planet Earth. It also points the finger at the weakness of responses from both the international community and from some national governments to this crisis. Equally, the Encyclical makes the crucial connection between environmental degradation and social decay and underlines how the poor disproportionately bear the burden of both types of malaise. Of course, love of the poor and love for God's Creation were two central features of St Francis's life and, one suspects, were also the motivation for the Pope taking the name Francis for his pontificate.
Chapter TwoThe Gospel of Creation, reminds Christians of the richness of scripture when it comes to the goodness and beauty of God's Creation. We are told throughout the Creation narrative in Genesis 1 that God saw that it was good. Too often, especially in the west, we have tended to see nature as fallen, inferior to humanity and as ours to do with as we see fit. As Lynn F White argued, the grandiloquent words, particularly in the King James translation, in Genesis 2 'to have dominion over the Earth', have been taken as licence. Far more often in Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the Wisdom literature, nature is praised as God's handiwork. Creation is a sign of the glory of God and to abuse it is to abuse Him.
Chapter ThreeThe Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis, is a deliberate echo of the title of Lynn F White's paper. The Encyclical accepts science and technology as a blessing but cautions humanity from seeing it as a licence. There is a profound difference between what we can do and what we should do in regard to nature. The Encyclical also warns of the perils of the excesses of modern anthropocentrism. Humans are not the centre of all things but when we indulge in such fantasies, we become the slaves of technology and turn everything and everyone in to commodities to be bought and sold and to be manipulated and exploited. Another theme of this chapter is the essential dignity of work and its role in human identity and existence. Work is more than mere economic necessity and its absence or its debasement is an affront to our humanity.
Chapter FourIntegral Ecology, reminds us of both the interconnectedness of all living and created things (the scientists would call this the functioning unity of the biosphere - where we and all creatures live) but also of the interconnectedness of environment, economy, society and our human imagination. The environment is not merely a technical matter, nor reducible to economic values. The chapter also emphasises the integration of the whole human family and not merely those loving today, but those of future generations, yet to be born.
Chapter FiveLines of Approach and Actions, to some extent summarises previous chapters and calls for all of humanity to engage in serious thought and then to take considered action on the various ecological crises. Decision making should be open and transparent and it is about moral values and sympathetic choices not merely technical rationality or economic efficiency.
The final chapter, Ecological Education and Spirituality, moves towards the sorts of actions and values that as Catholics we should espouse and embody. Individuals and societies need to move towards new lifestyles and a better balance between the material and the spiritual, without denying the imperative for the poor of the world to have more of the Earth's riches and to enjoy a dignity and sufficiency in their lives. The Encyclical sees a central role for environmental education, not just in school, universities and places of learning, but also in homes, work-places and churches. We are called to ecological conversion, to live in moderation but with joy and humility and to promote and practice civic love. As Catholics we should acknowledge and celebrate sacramental signs and their connection with nature. We should remember that every time the priest says the preparatory prayer over the bread and wine: "Blessed are you Lord God of Creation, through your goodness we have received the bread we offer, which earth has given and human hands have made…" we offer on behalf of all Creation, Creation itself to God.
What might we do as a parish to make the Encyclical a real part of our lives? Our discussions merely touched on all of this and we agreed that we should cherish and celebrate those moments of nearness to God through contemplating the beauty and richness of His Creation. As for parish life, perhaps this is something for us to explore further and for the Parish Council to consider. Perhaps we should join other Christians in celebrating Earth Sunday (which is the Sunday after Earth Day, itself the 22 April).