Pope Francis writes about ecology in Laudato Si, but he does so in various ways. One way is to relate human ecology to the natural environment (where many of you would situate your understanding of ecology more generally). Ecology concerns the study of the "household" (the "oikos" in Greek). Words such as economics share the same stem; in this case we have "oikos" + "nomos" where the additive means "law." Economics thus attempts to study the "laws" pertaining to "household" management. In contemporary parlance, economists speak of the "law" of supply and demand. (In what ways it satisfies what we mean by "law" is a debate open for philosophers, and the problems are real and thorny; is such a law the same as or different from law as it applies to physics? Are the laws of gravity the same as the laws of economics?). At any rate, let us return to the modifier above, namely "human." Since you have access to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) through our library, you will notice definition 1b for the noun ecology: "Chiefly Sociology. The study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment; (also) the system of such relationships in an area of human settlement. Frequently with modifying word, as cultural ecology, social ecology, urban ecology." The modifier "human" we used is complementary to this definition and even shares in sense 2: "The study of or concern for the effect of human activity on the environment; advocacy of restrictions on industrial and agricultural development as a political movement; (also) a political movement dedicated to this. Cf. deep ecology." Our root word from the Greek remains "household," or "home." The subtitle of Pope Francis's encyclical is "On Care for our Common Home." It is a home we share, and since we share it, and can only hold ourselves responsible for how we manage it, shape it, cultivate it, enjoy it, then a focus on the human person remains central to his account of that care only we can offer. Before moving on to what the letter says about the human person, let us acknowledge where we have been with our theme of "Love and the City" and notice that the letter contains reference to Dante in a way that is pertinent to our work thus far:
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice. The universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wis 11:24). Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection. Saint Basil the Great described the Creator as “goodness without measure”, while Dante Alighieri spoke of “the love which moves the sun and the stars”. Consequently, we can ascend from created things “to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy”. (Laudato Si, par. 77)
The care we are to show creation, then, shares in the loving care God is said to show in creating and sustaining all things. Hence we are introduced once again to a Christian "theology" of creation guiding who we are and what we are to do. To reiterate our opening comments; the human person shares this common home, and thus must be understood as always in relationship with the home sustaining its existence. If we move directly to an account of the human person, then, we can quote firstly Dr. Seuss; a "person is a person, no matter how small."
Dr. Seuss offers us meditations on what the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching is attempting to highlight when it refers to the human person, namely its intrinsic dignity no matter the conditions. For example, notice how far into the text, Pope Francis uses an idea like Seuss's to make a point about the ways we treat each other that impacts our treatment of the environment at paragraph 117: "Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”." Clearly not everyone will agree with the principles or the logic marshaled here, but let us just see if we can grasp the fundamentals prior to full-blown disagreement. Everything is connected in fundamental interdependence. To be "independent" is already to assume the position of a god-like figure, supposedly standing apart from it all. When we try to separate ourselves from the inter-dependency, we mar the harmony, a harmony in place due to the true God who made it all in the first place. (Reserve presently the counter-arguments about nature being "red in tooth in claw" and go with this for a minute.) A key way we begin this faux-separation, violating the "inter"-dependency we all naturally share, is to separate ourselves from the "least one among us," which renders humans more prone to mistreat the rest of creation.
Remember one of our earlier presentations? What does Pope Francis desire of us as we enter into dialogue with one another about these matters pertaining to our common home?
"Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it." (Laudato Si, par. 19)
We shall work together, he thinks, to fight "to the death,"--"No!" "To the pain!" That is, we shall share the pain, unlike Prince Humperdink, who suffers alone, and by sharing the suffering and the pain, making it "our own," we shall finally be motivated to work together for change.
"Nor must the critique of a misguided anthropocentrism underestimate the importance of interpersonal relations. If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships. Christian thought sees human beings as possessing a particular dignity above other creatures; it thus inculcates esteem for each person and respect for others. Our openness to others, each of whom is a “thou” capable of knowing, loving and entering into dialogue, remains the source of our nobility as human persons. A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others, much less the transcendent dimension of our openness to the “Thou” of God. Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence." (Laudato Si, par. 119)
Even though social distancing practices isolate us--some more than others--and though we are all struggling with the implications of social distancing in our daily lives, such practices are for the sake of public health. Our attention is focused on the health of the wider whole rather than simply focused on the self. Remember that quotation from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI? "To love someone is to desire that person's good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of “all of us”, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it. To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity." (Caritas in Veritate, par. 7). Today, if we are to love our city, our neighbors, and our families, then the "effective steps to secure" their good, and thus the common good, involve following guidelines of trusted health professionals versed in sound public health initiatives (CDC, Johns Hopkins, NHS).
The US is particularly hard hit economically at present as a result of the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
Recovery plans nevertheless suggest that we pay attention to the data arriving from space agencies showing us the precipitous decline in dangerous levels of pollution in our air following upon our lockdown practices.
Perhaps today we are more aware of just how radically human health is inextricably tied to the world's overall health. Due attention to the human person, situated as that person is within diverse environments, leads to an increase in a healthy planet. Or so thinks Pope Francis.
"A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. This compromises the very meaning of our struggle for the sake of the environment. It is no coincidence that, in the canticle in which Saint Francis praises God for his creatures, he goes on to say: “Praised be you my Lord, through those who give pardon for your love”. Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society." (Laudato Si, par. 91)
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