Calling for a more personal human culture based on care for others and walking lightly on the earth is not a green-left agenda — it is Christianity 101.
The extraordinary thing about many of the critical reactions to Pope Francis’s environment encyclical is they assert there is an economic and cultural reality we must accept — not one we can improve on.
In contrast, the Pope says market economics is not the only reality — we can do better.
The Pope supports free enterprise, but not at any cost. A market that is solely profit-driven is one that leaves no room for moral consideration on how we can achieve the common good. There is a sense in which many regard the economy as an ethics-free zone, where self-interest rules and market power wins.
He calls out the shallowness of an economy based on consumerism and waste. He does not see the value in economic growth based on buying things we don’t need, then throwing them away.
He champions the values of thrift, sharing, generosity and other examples of love for our fellow human beings. The headline message of the encyclical is that climate change is real, significantly man-made and we need to take action. The Pope wants coal, oil and gas phased out as a power source over time, in favour of renewables. Many will be tempted to dismiss the document on the basis of those climate-change statements alone. Others will embrace his message on climate change and dismiss other difficult issues raised.
The paper deserves a fair hearing. It is not Marxist, it is not green-left, it is not libertarian — it is Catholic. It is a thoughtful reflection on how we as human beings interact with each other and the broader environment. It recommends ways to improve how we live our lives. It will not be easy for anyone to live by this document but it will be worthwhile.
The planet we live on is a gift from God. It has been given to us freely and we have an obligation to hand it on in good condition to those who follow. The natural world is not only important for its own sake but also because where nature suffers, the poor and marginalised suffer, too. He warns, “our common home is falling into serious disrepair”.
Francis prods us with the reminder that so many of us live very comfortable lives that have little contact with people who are poor, we have little understanding of their lives. He points to a simple example that “every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases”.
Unless we reform human ecology — how people relate to one other — we will not be able to truly address the broader ecological problems. This includes helping people on the margins, which may be as simple as ensuring they have access to clean water.
Individualism, consumerism and technology without appropriate boundaries are some of the forces destructive of a healthy human ecology. A self-centred individualism can dismiss the interests of others and take advantage of people. We can see that in market transactions where sometimes profit is given more importance than a fair outcome.
Consumerism can be very destructive where people take more than they need. Many people are buying things to fill a void in their lives. This “prioritises short-term gain and private interest” instead of the common good. We need to turn again to developing rich relationships in the community to fill that void, rather than spending, which is indifferent to the needs of others. Science and technology need boundaries such as protecting human embryos from destruction in scientific experiments and making decisions about the impact of technology on our lives.
Francis offers a range of practical suggestions for our relationships with others and with nature. He suggests “little daily actions” adding up to powerful change: putting on extra clothes rather than turning on heating, reducing the use of airconditioning, taking every opportunity to offer signs of care and friendship.
He recommends saying grace at mealtimes to remind us of our gratitude to God for the food we have, our appreciation to those who made it and our concern for those less fortunate.
Pope Francis’s encyclical is not for the faint-hearted. He is not a fan of using impersonal mechanisms such as markets to get the job done. He wants all of us to engage, from governments to civil society, business and individuals, to protect creation. We should tread lightly on our world, share our good fortune with others and leave the world in a better place.
You can’t get more Christian than that.
Denis Hart is Archbishop of Melbourne and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.