Pope Francis' encyclical: a summons to a decision

It is not news that Christianity rejects selfishness. So why is the encyclical being issued now?

Pope Francis is not the first pope to address environmental issues; Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI firmly addressed them. And the U.S. Catholic Bishops have been issuing significant documents about energy, natural resources and climate change since at least 1981. So why a full-blown encyclical? And, most importantly, why now?

The content of the encyclical, released Thursday, revolves around two ideas that are not at all new.

First, Francis calls us "to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God's eyes." The rest of the world — animals, plants, even mineral resources — is not merely raw material for human consumption. Pope Benedict insisted that there is a "grammar of creation," an "inbuilt order" that is from God and must be respected and cherished.

The second idea, strongly connected to the first, is that proper care for the environment is only really possible if we love our neighbor rightly. The idea that "everything is connected" is repeated throughout the pope's encyclical. The concept of "integral ecology" in the encyclical signals that our breakdowns in caring for creation are the same destructive dynamics present in human relationships when we use other people for our selfish purposes. This is the dynamic of an economy where workers are just another "resource." This is also the dynamic of a sexual culture where we use other people for our own pleasure. And the pope is saying this same disease of reckless, irresponsible use — an extension of a mistaken understanding of freedom that Francis calls "practical relativism" — distorts our use of the resources of Earth's bounty. Not caring for the environment and not caring for people are really rooted in the same moral stance: a practical relativism that, in Francis' words, "sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one's own immediate interests."

It is not news that Christianity rejects selfishness. So why is the encyclical being issued now? This "urgent now" is actually the challenge of the encyclical, particular for Catholics in America: Pope Francis is summoning us to a decision about a very big "prudential judgment" he is making. That phrase gets thrown around a lot by Catholics. We shouldn't confuse this phrase with personal opinion. A prudential judgment involves a wise and accurate weighing of multiple factors contributing to a crucial decision that cannot be avoided. We must decide, and to be prudent is to decide well, rather than badly.

What is the wise judgment the Pope is making, and asking all people to make? We may hear a lot about his stance on climate change, about particular policies, about the United Nations and the like. But the real prudential judgment in the encyclical is the pope's answer to the decisive question: Does our present way of life care responsibly for creation? Yes or no? The pope is offering a resounding "no."

Ever since Pope Leo XIII, popes have used social encyclicals to utter a "no" to a present social order that is somehow broken: to relations between employers and workers, to relations among rich and poor nations, and more recently, in 2009, Pope Benedict's "no" to a financial system that put mathematical formulas over human relationships. Francis is saying "no, we cannot go on living like this; things are messed up." As he summarizes, "Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change."

This is so important to hear, especially for people in the United States, where even the most modest environmental claims seem subject to endless contestation. What must we do? The Pope indicates that we don't just have to change a little, we have to change a lot. Most estimates suggest that the United States, with 4 to 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 to 30 percent of its natural resources. Some other countries might have to change a little. But if the world cannot go on living like this, it really means that we in the United States can't go on living like this. This should not be seen as a Democratic or Republican encyclical; it is rather a call for everyone to come together in naming the problem.

So we must look beyond the technicalities of Pope's Francis' letter to see what he is really offering the world: a summons to a decision. Often, the Bible portrays Jesus as asking a person a decisive question; his whole ministry is a matter of summoning people to a decision (and what made him such a troublemaker to many). This is often represented by the Greek word kairos, which means "it's time" or "time's up" or "the time is here."

That is the real challenge of the encyclical: The pope is saying, on the environment, "it's time to act."

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary's University; his email is cloutier@msmary.edu.

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