By Scott Wright, Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
This week, Catholics around the world celebrate the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ ground-breaking encyclical letter on ecology, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. This year the letter takes on new meaning, as we live in the midst of a global pandemic, compounded by a global epidemic of forced migration and the threat of global economic collapse.
The pandemic has revealed to us the deep divisions and inequities in our societies, including the systemic racism that puts many communities at greater risk. Depending on our social location, our experience of the pandemic will be different: some will be able to work at home, and some must risk their health as “essential workers,” either to save lives or simply to support their families and survive.
How, then, do we “celebrate” when faced with so much division and suffering in the world? How do we speak of hope, when so many are grieving and dying? We may no longer feel quite at home in the world, and for many, particularly migrants and refugees, this experience is deeply rooted. In some ways, we feel as though we are living in exile: our daily patterns disrupted and our future plans uncertain. In a very real sense, we experience the anxiety and despair so well expressed by the Hebrew people in exile, when the psalmist asks: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (137:4)
We need new eyes to see the devastating reality unfolding before us, and new hearts filled with deep compassion to respond to the many victims of the virus and the collapse of the economy. We need to return to the deep well-springs of our faith, to encounter anew the biblical sources of wisdom and prophetic imagination, of lamentation and hope, of justice and Gospel nonviolence.
We also need to listen to scientific evidence. Columban eco-theologian, Fr. Sean McDonagh, worked many years with the T’boli people of Southeast Mindanao in the Philippines, where he witnessed how logging companies brought devastation to the environment and people. He writes:
“For a long time, we have known that viruses and pathogens have leaped from other species to the human population. However, the destruction of biodiversity means that these events are happening much more frequently now than in the past … Large-scale deforestation, habitat degradation, intensive agriculture, trade in species and climate change all contribute to biodiversity loss and, in the process, facilitate the rise of new pandemics … Covid-19 will change history dramatically.”
In this liminal space and in-between time brought about by the global pandemic, we have the opportunity to hear the words of Laudato Si in a fresh way, enabling us to deepen our capacity for lamentation and grief, even indignation, but above all our capacity for prophetic imagination and hope. Let this be an invitation to all to drink from the wellsprings of our faith traditions and move forward to reclaim a sense of responsibility for the common good and our common home.
Pope Francis opens and closes Laudato Si on a note of praise: “Praise be to you!” he says, echoing the words of St. Francis and his love for all creatures great and small. Indeed, throughout the encyclical letter, “the cry of the earth” and “the cry of the poor” are united in one cry. The conviction, “everything in the world is connected” (Laudato Si, 16), threads itself through the letter and binds all of creation in a “sense of deep communion with the rest of nature” (LS91).
In recent years, the “cry of the earth” has made itself ever present in the devastating impact of climate change, from extreme weather events and rising sea levels to severe droughts and devastating floods. Laudato Si points to the vital concerns about access to clean air and clean water (LS28-31), and social and economic structures that are both equitable and sustainable (LS43-52). Less attention, however, has been given to a silent and more devastating concern hidden in “the cry of the earth,” namely, the disappearance of entire species from the face of the earth and the loss of biodiversity of its ecosystems, forests and woodlands, river basins and oceans (LS32-42).
Both climate change and biodiversity loss are the result of human activity, and call for urgent and systemic responses at the local, national and international levels: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system … as a result of human activity” (LS23), especially with the burning of fossil fuels. “If the present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us” (LS24).
Not only is our global economy based on an insatiable production and consumption of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), but also on the limitless extraction of natural resources through mining and logging, with the consequence that entire communities of indigenous and peasant farmers are forced to migrate just in order to survive. Already, we have seen the “tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation” (LS25).
The earth’s resources are also being plundered, and species are disappearing because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, to commerce and production. “The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species … The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity” (LS32). Beyond their potential value to us, for example, as life-saving medicines, a much greater concern is that we have ravished the earth and destroyed forever a precious gift of God’s creation: “We have no such right” (LS33). For this, we must humbly ask forgiveness.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! … She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks … she has no one to comfort her … Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering all the precious things that were hers in the days of old … Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me.” (Lamentations 1:1-12)
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen powerful images of great cities like New York and London, Paris and Rome, once teeming with people, now empty. Think of Pope Francis’ lonely walk through the streets of Rome accompanying the icon of Mary, or his slow and deliberate walk to the outdoor altar in St. Peter’s square to celebrate mass prior to Holy Week.
The virus has shown us in new ways the reality that has always been in our midst, and revealed the underlying inequalities in the global economy and in our societies, where some have access to clear air and clean water, to quality health care and education, to decent housing and a living wage, but many who are poor and people of color, and have the underlying health conditions due to poverty and racism, do not. It is the same reality about which Laudato Si speaks as well.
In the past five years, much of what Laudato Si has to teach us has been taken to heart by people of faith, despite the continuing presence of powerful climate deniers and corporate interests. The planet is warming, the weather is more extreme, the seas are rising and migrants are crossing treacherous seas and inhospitable borders in ever greater numbers. If we are attentive, we might notice as well the disappearing birds and pollinator bees that used to frequent our neighborhood gardens and farmlands. The disappearing species are harbingers of what is in store for the human species, if we don’t change course and address the social and ecological catastrophe we face.
But have we really taken to heart Laudato Si’s message? Perhaps the disruption that we experience due to the pandemic might be a “wake-up” call to the disruption of climate change and biodiversity loss and enable us to hear more clearly “the cry of the earth” and “the cry of the poor.” Perhaps the urgency with which the younger generation views climate change, and the urgency with which the poor experience this current pandemic and global economic collapse, might be a crucial opportunity to change the way we live, and to transform our societies and the global economy in ways that are hospitable and inclusive, equitable and sustainable.
That surely is one of the messages that Laudato Si offers us, and the pandemic presents us with a unique and urgent opportunity to hear once again Pope Francis’ prophetic call to all of us to undergo a profoundly social and “ecological conversion.”
“Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! … Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste … I looked on the earth and lo, it was waste and void ... I looked on the mountains and lo, they were quaking … I looked and lo, all the birds of the air had fled … I looked and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.” (Jeremiah 4:18-26)
It may be instructive to hear the message of Laudato Si as we would hear a prophetic utterance. In addition to revealing our vulnerability and dependency on one another, Laudato Si and the pandemic reveal to us how our indifferences have contributed to the great inequalities that exist among us, and how our consumerism has contributed to a system of production destroying the environment and its inhabitants.
Laudato Si reminds us that our responsibility to creation is not optional, but is “an essential part of our faith” (64). We don’t have to travel far to see the ravages of a global economy based on fossil fuels and extraction of natural resources. We see their fruits in the massive pollution, human-induced climate change, and global inequality that is evident both between nations and within our own country. The pandemic is revealing to us what was already in our midst, but we did not have eyes to see.
Pope Francis asks: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (LS160). In addition to our responsibility to creation and to each other, especially the poor, we have a responsibility to future generations, what he calls “intergenerational solidarity” (LS159).
More recently, in his reflection following the Synod on the Amazon, Pope Francis does not mince words: “We need to feel outrage, as Moses did (Ex 11:8), as Jesus did (Mk 3:5), as God does in the face of injustice (Am 2:4-8; 5:7-12; Ps 106:40),” in the face of “an exploitation that is leaving destruction and even death throughout the region … jeopardizing the lives of millions of people” (Beloved Amazonía, 15). He adds: “The powerful are never satisfied with the profits they make … For us, the cry of the Amazon region to the Creator is similar to the cry of God’s people in Egypt” (BA52).
We need to hear these prophetic words and respond with the indignation of the prophets, to both “the cry of the earth” and “the cry of the poor.” What is at stake is not only the lives of the poor, the indigenous, and the peoples of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, but the future of the very earth itself, in all of its essential and wonderful biodiversity. Everything is connected.
“Do not remember the former things nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? ... For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth … No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress … The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox … They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 43:18-19; 65:17-25)
When we think about the prophets, we often think about their indignation and judgment. In doing so, however, we may fail to see their profound sorrow and identification with their people. Ultimately, their vision is one of hope and promise for the future, if only the people will change their ways. The prophet Isaiah is one example of a prophet who invites us to imagine another world that is possible, a new heaven and a new earth. Pope Francis is another example.
Laudato Si is a visionary document, and builds on the earlier dream of the Earth Charter (1992), itself the collective vision of many peoples and many faiths: “As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning … Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life” (LS207).
During this week to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si, we are invited to reimagine our story, the human story, and this anxious moment of a global pandemic and threat of global economic collapse, as part of a bigger story, the story of “the mystery of the universe” (LS243). One way to imagine this story is to construct a timeline: If the universe began on January 1, our solar system formed on September 1, life on earth started on September 25, then human beings emerged on December 31, ten minutes to midnight.
This is the story the Bible tells, in the language of faith, of a loving God who creates, sustains and ultimately redeems all of creation, beginning with the Book of Genesis “when God created the heavens and the earth,” and concluding with the Book of Revelation when “God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more” (Rev 21:4).
This way of looking at the world is sometimes referred to as “deep ecology,” or in Christian terms, “deep incarnation.” Laudato Si is a beautiful expression of this theological vision, in which every creature great and small is celebrated: “God holds each creature in love, God is present interiorly to each of them, and each of them is to participate with human beings in God’s final transformation of all things” (Denis Edwards, Deep Incarnation: God’s Redemptive Suffering with Creatures).
The global pandemic and the threat of global economic collapse remind us that we still live in a world crucified by powerful political and economic interests embedded in institutions that oppress the poor and ravage the earth. In Pope Francis’ words: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used” (LS104).
Yet our faith tradition is rooted in a vision that from beginning to end is filled with hope, as eloquently described in these words: “The cross is a mysterious and profound sign that God enters into the darkest trials of human suffering, death and near-despair.” This suffering solidarity of God is not limited to human beings: “The logic of deep incarnation gives a strong warrant for extending divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering and the silence of death of all creatures … Each will be blessed according to its own nature as part of the whole creation that will be made new” (Elizabeth Johnson, Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril).
Ultimately, the vision of Laudato Si is one of hope, if we are willing to use our freedom justly and wisely, seeking to transform global institutions through the power of active nonviolence in order “to live in harmony with creation” (LS225). That is the challenge, and it will come with a price. But we take heart knowing that “God does not abandon us … nor leave us alone,” even in this apocalyptic time of global pandemic, “for God has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward.” (LS245).
Copyright © 2021 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.