Jesus answered [the rich young man], “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” – Matthew 19:21-25
Like the rich young man who asked Jesus how he could achieve eternal life, some are walking away with heads downcast after reading Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical. For example, David Brooks, New York Times columnist, voiced disappointment in the Pope’s lack of appreciation for the good that systems motivated by vanity, greed and lust can have, admittedly, when properly regulated. Another Times columnist, Ross Douthat, insightfully frames the encyclical within an “argument between dynamists and catastrophists” - that is, a tension between a faith that current systems can work through the challenges of climate change, pollution, lack of clean water, loss of biodiversity, and unjust distribution of resources and a fear that these systems will lead to catastrophic consequences – at least for the world’s disadvantaged. The Wall Street Journal’s headline read “Pope Blames Markets for Environment’s Ills.” Within the article, Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute states that “Pope Francis has ‘significant blind spots’ with regards to market economies . . . and [the Pope blames] the free market and finance . . . for many environmental problems.”
As a member of the generation raised on Star Trek’s utopian vision of humanity’s future, the promise of magical technology, unfettered exploration, and unimaginable discovery has an alluring appeal. Smart phones and supercomputers, Martian rovers and space stations, the Hubble Space Telescope and CERN super collider seem to be beacons along the path to an incredible, inevitable future. These represent just a few of the many high points our industrial society have achieved. However, the Holy Father reminds us that humanity as a whole is on this journey, not just a chosen few. The Good Shepherd does not sacrifice the majority of the flock on the way to richer pastures. We must honestly examine the valleys through which our path is winding and the dangers along the way. The landfills brimming with non-biodegradable and hazardous waste, square miles of ocean covered in floating plastic, acceleration of the extinction rate, increasing reliance on fossil fuels, diminishing supplies of potable water and the greenhouse gasses building up in the atmosphere are warning signs that the path we follow may not be the best way to the future.
To some, these signs do not require a course-correction; indeed, they say, we must stay the course so that our technology can advance to fix these and other ills. This perspective is voiced by David Brooks who writes, “Though industrialization can lead to catastrophic pollution in the short term (China), over the long haul both people and nature are better off with technological progress, growth and regulated affluence.” This viewpoint, like the Star Trek universe, is hopeful and optimistic but it is not grounded in a long-term scientific analysis. Instead it is derived by reading recent history from the perspective of the developed world. It discounts the possibility that humanity’s ingenuity may not be enough to cure the consequences of overconsumption and waste. The “stay-the-course” mentality is built on an alluring and dangerous assumption about humanity’s destiny – that history is predestined to work out in our favor. Furthermore the collateral human casualties are not factored into this analysis. The impact of pollution, climate change, and loss of biodiversity harm the most vulnerable and those who benefit least from the culture. The world’s poor disproportionately carry the burden of lost opportunity for a full life without a just share of the earth’s bounty, while the most affluent have the means to adapt or the freedom to migrate.
Instead of sadness, our response to Laudato Si’ should be a radical change in how we as individuals and as members of institutions, corporations, nations, and the global community approach decisions regarding consumption and waste. Pope Francis warns that these decisions cannot rely solely on the invisible hand of the market or a random walk of trials, errors and corrections. The stakes are too high; the consequences to our common home and the vulnerable are too great. Likewise, blind self-interest has never been the Christian path. The choices we make must be intentional, guided by both the best scientific modeling possible taking into account all factors and the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. The revolutionary change needed is the people creating, explaining, analyzing and making decisions based these models must possess an enhanced ecological ethos. This is what we are called to develop. The choices we make matter, how we arrive at our future matters. The poor and the planet cannot be sacrificed or ignored for an illusionary future that appears in front of us like a mirage in the distance.
Saint Pope John Paul II began his encyclical Fides et Ratio stating “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Laudato Si’ can be seen as an extension of this metaphor. From a theological perspective, Pope Francis reiterates that waste and over-consumption without need is harmful and thus inherently sinful, introducing the concept of “ecological sin”. From the perspective of natural philosophy – including science, economics, and politics - ecological consequences of the application of technology and use of non-renewable resources have asymmetric, global, and long-term effects that must be accurately modeled and factored into decision-making processes. These two perspectives, like binocular vision, can provide the depth-perception necessary to guide us down a new path to a more just and verdant future for humanity and our planet. In this way we can find a path we can follow together, more confidently, and with joy.