Even before Pope Francis published an encyclical on environmental degradation negative reactions were already multiplying. Certain US commentators did not remain silent and attentive long enough to actually read and digest and reflect upon what the bishop of Rome had to say. Reception since the 18 June publication of Laudato si' has been more mixed, by a wider variety of voices, many of them positive, but the naysayers, often presuming to talk down to Francis, have been anything but repentant. What is it that so annoys and angers them? Is it because Pope Francis refuses to genuflect before US power and influence? Does the fact the he will stop in Havana on his way to the US (in September) infuriate those eager to demonize Cuba forever? Does his eloquence and persistence in criticizing so-called 'free' market capitalism enrage its spokespersons? Does his sophisticated analysis of climate change and related issues irk and disappoint those that would prefer a simple-minded cleric happy to stick to very narrowly defined 'churchy' matters?
A close reading of the encyclical reveals a sustained vision of the common good and of the earth as our common home. Though this may sound to some inoffensive enough, it is a challenge to those that exalt the tradition of American rugged individualism as the solution to every problem (rather the source of many problems). This individualist agenda views individual greed as good and healthy, and unlimited acquisition of wealth as a God-given right. In this view, the poor are poor because they are lazy and do not work hard enough; because their situation is their own fault, they should not be aided by governments in any way, but should be left in their poverty, without health care or means of survival. In this perspective, the rich deserve to dominate the earth, and to exploit its various resources as it pleases them, and regardless of the consequences of such exploitation.
Francis articulates in Laudato si' what the Catholic Church has long taught on the common good, and it is with a prophet's passion that he articulates a new urgency in protection of the common good that is the earth. The subtitle of the encyclical (in Italian, Sulla cura della casa comune) gives more than a clue of his rejection of anything like US-style individualism. The earth is everyone's home; the common home (casa comune), it belongs to everyone, not a small elite or any one nation or people. Care for the earth entails and requires cooperation and collaboration across international borders. Success in rescuing our common home from environmental degradation, climate change included, will require a new vision of the earth not as something for individuals to exploit and abuse as they please, but as a "garden" that belongs to all, a garden to be tended by all. An entire chapter of the encyclical is devoted to refuting the notion that the Bible authorizes individuals to use up the earth's resources as they please. Francis points to climate as a common good to be protected, and to the need to guarantee equal access to basic necessities such as water. Clean water, Francis insists, is a human right, not a privilege for some. The poor should not have to make do with unclean water, water made so by wasteful and careless consumption of resources.
American individualists often deplore the 'dependence' of the poor on public assistance and contrast it with what they depict as the laudatory 'independence' of the wealthy. But Pope Francis describes an interdependent world; private property, he insists, "must be subordinated to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use...." Here Francis is not saying anything new, for he cites Pope John Paul II and other papal predecessors.
In 1963 Pope John XXIII published an encyclical on peace (Pacem in Terris). The context was the Cold War, and only months earlier Pope John had played a role in diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis through dialogue with and among the parties then on the brink of nuclear war. In this encyclical Pope John denounced the nuclear arms race and rejected nuclear armament as a means to peace. In Laudato si' Francis explicitly cites Pacem in Terris and explains that just as nuclear war then endangered the future of humanity, environmental degradation now threatens the future of the planet and its inhabitants. This is a very significant historical analogy, and one that vividly conveys the urgency Pope Francis sees in stopping the mistreatment and destruction of the earth. Pope Francis appeals at length for dialogue on environmental protection at local, national, and international levels.
And Pope Francis cautions against the tendency to think that technological progress automatically means every kind of progress, for it may in fact mean, above all, more ways of killing people and destroying the earth. Especially concerned to warn against the destructive byproducts of the profit motive, again and again Pope Francis connects the dots, or draws the lines, between matters that may seem to many people separate: matters such as greed, technology, and ecological degradation.
A call to conversion of hearts and minds is at the core of Laudato si'. Declaring that the "ecological crisis" is a "summons to profound interior conversion," Francis asserts that protection of the earth is not an optional part of the Christian vocation. In order to be reconciled with God's creation we must first recognize how we have sinned in harming that creation. Thus the encyclical may serve as an examination of conscience leading to acknowledgement of wrong-doing and to a commitment to a thorough reformation of life. Associating "unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness" with individuals isolated from community, Francis appeals for "community networks" to help bring about the needed conversion to a "spirituality" of "global solidarity." May we all embrace such a conversion and may we recognize such a solidarity as a marker, a litmus test, of authentic Christianity, and indeed of authentic humanity.