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Laudato Si — What DID Pope Francis Call us to DO? — Part XIII

August 26th, 2015, Promulgated by Diane Harris

What are the “Action Points” for Individuals?

Most of the prior parts in this series have dealt with the general principles which Pope Francis promulgated through his teaching office and, in a number of cases, with his personal opinion.  It is difficult to consistently distinguish teaching from opinion but, since the Encyclical appears at least on its surface not to be binding, the need to distinguish minutely is abated.  Nevertheless, respect for any pope’s writing is sufficient reason to search for any statements in Laudato Si which ask for specific individual actions (as contrasted to the more obvious macro recommendations for actions at various governmental levels, from industry or from other organizations.)

Examples of Matters not Included in this Part XIII: Water and Food

To isolate the specific individual actions,  it is also necessary to leave out all the generalizations, all the calls for actions other than from individuals, and then attempt to answer the question from the pew: “But what can ‘I’ do about environmental and ecological issues?”  The following discussion will leave out implied calls for action which identify needs but not how to solve those needs, such as certain remarks regarding water and food, for example.  Pope Francis clearly decries the waste of water.  For those living in areas with abundant water, providing care to lawns, golf courses and gardens, washing cars, taking daily showers, even visiting water parks, how are individual conservationists of good heart to save water for people living in remote desert areas?  Water cannot be shipped effectively, and self-denial may have some spiritual benefit, but for others it may be a health risk.  Since there is no specific action called for on this matter in Laudato Si, it therefore is not included in this particular discussion below.

Another example, would be the sentence regarding food waste, which cannot help but apply to many communities and families considered affluent on a world wide basis.  Pope Francis writes: “… whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.”  (#50)  Such a dramatic statement has an element of both truth and drama to it, but how is an individual to respond beyond some of the methods in place locally, like food kitchens and pantries, often run by church communities?  In the U.S. there are restrictions and government regulations on recycling food, such as from restaurants, and especially related to USDA and FDA guidelines.  It is already reported that over half the U.S. is on food stamps. Pricing in most stores prevents one from buying only what is needed, say, a half head of lettuce, or 3 eggs, or a third of a loaf of bread.  And living at some distances in more rural communities we can see where it is better to buy something in the market which may not be fully used, rather than driving again, many miles round trip, if and when it may actually be needed, thus wasting fuel and time.  There are encyclical assertions which better fit the overcrowding in cities in nth world countries than life in more rural areas or in what is often called “first world.”  That is not to discourage solutions which may be developed from one location to another, but only to make the point that such “brainstorming” pertains more to the dialogue and discussion which Pope Francis requests between individuals, rather than to being listed directly as individual actions decided worldwide.

Specific Individual Actions Prescribed

Thus, statements of genuine concern, not translated to specific individual action in Laudato Si, are not included below, because it is not the function of this review and dialogue on Laudato Si to try to extend the general words of the encyclical to specific actions.  That is a role for implementation groups. This Part XIII only lists those specific, identifiable actions in the Encyclical for which individual actions are urged.

1. Dialogue and discussion regarding the environmental and ecological issues raised are mentioned prominently throughout the Encyclical.  Not only does such dialogue refer to the Encyclical itself in paragraph #3, but also dialogue between individuals affected.  Such dialogue would seem to be appropriate, both as a means of educating and involving people in taking care of their communities, and in mobilizing broader, well-aligned efforts. Pope Francis writes:  “… local individuals and groups can make a real difference.  They are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land.  They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.” (#179)  A good local example might be how individuals were able to unite in various ways regarding hydrofracking concerns.  Spontaneous action from citizens can have impact when it flows from rational dialogue.  It becomes complicated by government interference.

Unfortunately, the Encyclical itself has an apparent clash between the principle of subsidiarity (see Part IX), with actions rising from the bottom up, in which needs and possibilities are generated and implemented by those closest to the problem, and an imposition of top down rules and penalties on a worldwide scale, in a collectivist setting.  The two methods inevitably clash at the point where strategies conflict, and then power reigns.

2. Prayer:  Laudato Si issues the following call for prayer: “We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.” (#169)   Specific comments on the prayers offered near the end of Laudato Si will be discussed in Part XIV.  But certainly we recognize that prayer is both for individuals and for communities, and in that sense we all have a call to participate, petitioning that God’s Will may be done, rather than the will of human organizations.

3. Specific Actions: are recommended in Chapter Five of Laudato Si:  “Lines of Approach and Action.”  The following excerpts show some of Pope Francis’s focus:

“… [use] less heating and [wear] warmer clothes … avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights….  Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it….”  (#211)

“Ecological education…” (#213)

“… personal qualities of self-control and willingness to learn from one another.” (#214)

“…stop and give thanks to God before and after meals.”  (#227)

There is a tension between addressing every person individually and inviting individual dialogue, yet recognizing the limited ability of individual persons to achieve change, and also their great potential.  Pope Francis writes “Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness.  Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.” (#219)  Yet he also writes: “…while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference.” (#179)

Such limitations raise the question not only of tension between individuals and collectivist power, but also within individuals and their own obligations and spiritual direction.  Just how important is proposed change involving the environment in contrast to other activities to which we are called in a spiritual and moral sense? Should individuals be encouraged to give themselves over en masse to saving the environment when so much is yet undone in faithfulness to Christ’s full teaching?

The only truly unsustainable, unrenewable resource is our own time.  To be principally consumed with environmental and ecological matters cannot help but detract from even higher spiritual activities, i.e. worship of God and performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. We are creatures, with only 24 hours in a day and a single lifetime to know, love and serve God before He calls us home.  It is not negotiable, but reminiscent of a hymn from the Liturgy of the Hours:

“My destined time is fixed by Thee,

And Death doth know his hour.

Did warriors strong around me throng,

They could not stay his power;

No wall of stone can man defend

When Thou Thy messenger dost send.”

Jesus gave us the priorities by which to live when a Pharisaic lawyer asked Him (Matthew 22: 36-40): “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”  And similar are the words in Mark 12: 28-31.

There is a common distortion in some preaching and teaching of these words, that this is all one commandment, that there is an interchangeability between the First and Second Commandments, or that they are identical.  In my opinion, it is a dangerous teaching, prompting confusion, and taking from God what belongs to Him.  Clearly the Greek source uses the word “deutero,” and that clearly means second.  But given these words of Christ, where are we to fit into the text the words specifically directed to the environment and ecology?  In certain Corporal Works of Mercy one can find a way of serving brothers and sisters in Christ by “giving drink to the thirsty” implying clean water.  Or “feeding the hungry”, with good and nourishing food.  But none of that service is taught to be at the expense or distraction from worshiping God.  Rather, it is a manifestation of worshiping God.  And that is a key point in which it is difficult to see how the overwhelming environmental and ecological concerns of Laudato Si fit in a deeply consistent way in the Greatest and Second Commandments.

That is not to say that such concerns for our environment and for the whole planet have no importance, but only that we know their importance falls in priority below the two Great Commandments, and the challenge is to do what we can without shortchanging God, who is not a pantheistic object nor is He willing to share His Glory in a Syncretistic sense.  These are our convictions, and it would seem that Pope Francis’s words provide a balance if we do not lose sight of our convictions.  He writes: “It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions.”  (#64)  And, we might add: “and we fulfill those ecological commitments without compromising our convictions.”  But I think there is a reason why the specific recommendations to individuals seem somewhat trite or impotent in such a long encyclical.

The Problem of Individualism

And therein lies the “Problem of Individualism.”  Pope Francis states his desire for dialogue with individuals (upon which invitation this half of the dialogue is offered), responding to his words:

“… I will advance some broader proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals….” (#15)

However, most of the Encyclical is really directed to action at collectivist levels, out of the hands of individuals.  Rather, there seems to be a hint that individual actions are more suspect or less trustworthy or effective; comments on “individualism” are uniformly negative:

“… romantic individualism …” (#119);

“… rampant individualism …” (#162);

“If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society.” (#208)

“… ‘myths’ of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market).” (#210)

At the fork in the road, where one direction leads to collectivist controls, rules and penalties at the highest level, all administered by selected powerful sinners, or the other road where we are all sinners working out our salvation with fear and trembling in the light of God’s gift to us of free will, I know I’d choose the latter.  King David himself chose a penalty of falling into the hands of a punishing God, rather than into the hands of men.

1 Chronicles 21:13:  “Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercy is very great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.'”

It made sense to David; it makes sense to me.

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3 Responses to “Laudato Si — What DID Pope Francis Call us to DO? — Part XIII”

  1. avatar ROBERT says:

    Diane, Alway right on!

  2. avatar annonymouse says:

    I read this weekend that 5000 or so busses are expected to descend upon Philadelphia for the papal mass. Am I the only one wondering why, in the name of reducing carbon emissions (an urgent global crisis!), folks don’t stay home and watch on TV?

    Something here smacks of hypocrisy – nobody, including the Holy Father, seems intent on changing their carbon-burning lifestyles in response to this encyclical.

  3. avatar Eliza10 says:

    I think I heard Pope Francis said, “You will always have the carbon emissions among you, but you will not always have me.”

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