Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has written a new encyclical about the environment, our common home with all other human beings and creatures, entitled ‘Praise be to you, Lord’. The Pope is calling for a new conversation involving the whole of humanity on ‘care for our common home’.
I urge all Catholics to read the encyclical and to discuss its ideas whenever opportunities arise in their families and among their friends, neighbours, clubs and places of work and sport. In essence, the encyclical gives an overview of the environmental problems we face and invites reflection from the perspective of basic Catholic moral teaching.
The environmental state of our common home
Many, I know, have been as reserved as I have been about the environmental claims of political and ideological groups and parties. The first chapter of the encyclical, entitled ‘What is happening to our common home?’ gives the first non-political non-ideological description I have read about the extraordinary damage being done to our shared environment by humanity. It deals with world-wide
- pollution and climate change
- the diminishing quantity and quality of water
- the loss of biodiversity and its longer term adverse consequences
- the decline in the quality of human life and social breakdown
- global inequality.
Though it is based on a solid scientific consensus, the encyclical is not a scientific document, and does not take sides in scientific debate. However, the overall scale of its description of environmental problems is bracing.
Gospel of Creation
The second chapter of the document reflects upon Catholic teaching on the human inter-relationship with the environment. The Pope’s emphasis on Catholic moral teaching about the dignity of the human person highlights where the encyclical parts company with those so-called ‘green’ movements and political parties which ignore human dignity. As the Pope writes [Laudato Si 90]
At times we see … more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure.
What the Pope rejects
Pope Francis rejects environmental approaches which treat humanity as if it is harmful per se to the environment; fail to take into account genuine human needs (as distinct from ‘wants’), especially those of the poor; blame the world’s environmental problems on population growth and seek to justify the killing of the unborn.
The Pope points out that the benefits of scientific progress and technology have not been evenly spread. As a result, twenty percent of wealthier materialistic societies of the world today, over-consume well beyond their moral entitlement to the resources of the earth. These nations, which include Australia, owe an ‘ecological debt’ to the rest of the world. They are obliged to correct environmental damage for which they are responsible.
Advocating population reduction is simply advocating the reduction in the number of people who are entitled to their fair share of the earth’s resources, as God intended for creation.
Basic human dignity
The Pope stresses that the earth is our shared home. He insists that any discussion of the environment must include the dignity of the human person. He points to Catholic moral principles which flow from it, including the Principles of the Common Destination of Goods and the Common Good.
The Principle of the Common (or Universal) Destination of Goods insists that everyone on Planet Earth is entitled to the basic necessities of life from the earth’s resources. This precedes the principle of the right to private property.
The Principle of the Common Good insists that human individuals (and groups) share in common certain basic and inalienable rights to what they need for their personal integral development. The ‘common good’ is not giving precedence to the majority over the minority, but the ‘good’ to which individuals are entitled in common with all others.
These moral principles conflict with contemporary pervasive economic policies, such as rationalist economics, which put profits before people and see people’s value in economic terms. From a moral perspective, economic policies should seek to serve the dignity and rights of people and never view people as economic units.
A range of moral issues follow from these principles. They include the family, the right to employment, migration and the cultures of indigenous people. Moral economic thinking, for example, will not see it as just to penalise those on low incomes to address economic challenges and reverses.
Issues in our Diocese
There are many controversial issues in our Diocese, issues which have been and continue to be the subject of critical debate but which nevertheless need to be reflected upon from a human-environmental moral perspective. Examples include the excessive use of fertilisers, the local impact of the Wagerup alumina refinery, the logging of old growth forests, subsidies for farmers, the need for renewable energies, the best of good farming land being subdivided for housing – to name a few. I am not suggesting that I am taking sides in these controversies, but making the point that the moral perspectives identified by Pope Francis need to be included in the debates.
The moral resolution of these controversies should not include solutions which are incompatible with human rights, including that to employment. Economic thinking which focusses upon human dignity and rights will lead to different solutions over time.
Then there are issues related to personal overconsumption and waste for each of us. While many in our society are ‘doing it tough’, do the wardrobes of others show perfectly good clothes not being used because they are no longer fashionable? Do our young give up perfectly good iPhones and other technologies to buy ‘the latest’? Would we not be better to forgo fashions and ‘the latest’ and give the money spent on these to Project Compassion or Caritas for the benefit of the hungry and poor?
A global challenge
These are but a few examples of issues and questions the encyclical raises for people in our Diocese. There are many others. To promote further reflection, I have asked our diocesan Adult Faith Education Team to prepare discussion booklets for parishioners.
The Pope says much about how the environmental challenges we face need to be addressed – but my purpose here is simply to encourage Catholics to reflect on the implications of the encyclical for the south west of Australia.
The fundamental changes needed for the human causes of environmental damage and human poverty and inequality need to start in the hearts of individuals – that is, each of us.
God bless you all.
Most Rev Gerard J Holohan
Bishop of Bunbury
23rd June 2015