Our Common Home

People often compartmentalize the various parts of their lives for understandable reasons. Family, job, friends, church are often compartments that people use to make complicated lives and complex issues more manageable.

But there are some things which cannot be compartmentalized. Ethics is one of them. A person's fundamental ethical values ought to run through all aspects of a person's life. So character and ethical beliefs are lived out rather than roped off whether we are with family, at work, among friends and strangers, or in our community. Ethical values simply cannot be contained.

Recently, a number of political leaders and commentators have tried to compartmentalize Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment. Notably, Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he thinks religion "ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm ... I hope I'm not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or from my pope."

Bush makes two erroneous assumptions with an attempt to compartmentalize ethics as being discreetly secular or religious, and to assert that the environmental stewardship that has been entrusted to us as humans should be segmented from public policy.

In making such statements, Bush tries to put ethics in a box. But ethics cannot be put in a compartment of one's life no matter what ethical views a person might hold. This is particularly true for Christians, and especially for Roman Catholics, as ethics refuses to be compartmentalized. It permeates every part of a person's life, and as such, influences the actions we take and the policies we develop. As a Catholic, Bush ought to look at the 1986 letter from the American Bishops, "Economic Justice for All," which examines ethical questions that ought to be foundational for American Catholics on economic policy.

There are at least two themes in the Pope's encyclical that are crucial to environmental ethics and policy. First, the Pope reminds us that creation is a gift, and, as a gift, we are called to stewardship of the gift. Stewardship is an integral part of the ethical world. We ought not think of the environment as "my possession" that I can do with what I want. Rather, we are stewards of creation that will be passed on to future generations. A second key to the encyclical is that Francis sees how we are all interconnected as the human race. My choices, my actions reach beyond my own world and impact the people with whom I have immediate contact. Human beings are not isolated atoms. We are interconnected human beings. Our choices affect, directly and indirectly, the lives of others. A theme of the Pope's letter is that we must recognize that our choices are always made in connection with others, and, as a result, our decisions have effects and consequences on others. This is particularly true of the decisions we make in public policy.

In the encyclical, Pope Francis reminds us that our decisions, embodied in policy, have a far-reaching impact on all of the people of the world, particularly the poor who are disenfranchised and have no voice in creating policy. And he challenges us to look at our policy decisions in terms of the impact they will have on the environment and the millions of people who are affected by them. He challenges us, as individuals and as nations, to be good stewards of the gift we have been given in the earth we inhabit.

The title of the encyclical, "Laudato Si" ("Praise Be to You"), reminds us to live in thanksgiving for the gift of our world. And the subtitle "Care for Our Common Home" reminds us that this gift has not just been given to me, or to any one nation, but to all of humanity - present and future.

Part of our ethical responsibility is to pass on this gift to future generations. And while the Pope reminds all of us of our responsibilities, he also reminds those in public office that Christianity ought not to be confined to Sundays or what we do in churches and that environmental stewardship is an ethical mandate for all mankind.