“…my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day … And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! … Sister Moon and the stars … our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us …”
Upon his election, Cardinal Bergoglio surprised the world by taking the name of the joyful medieval ascetic St. Francis. This month will see the release of the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, which takes as its name the title of St. Francis’ beautiful poem, Laudato Si, known in English as the Canticle of the Sun. It is a brilliant move by the Pope who continues to surprise and provoke.
The coming encyclical is expected to bring moral clarity to the contentious subject of the environment. Many environmentalists are waiting with bated breath, hoping to find full-throated support for their policy agenda. I think they will find something infinitely more subtle and more interesting.
The canticle in the title of the encyclical is a song of praise. It is a paean of wholehearted thankfulness, not to Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and Sister Moon, but to the one who created them for man’s sustenance and enlightenment. Depending on the earth and all her creatures and plants, man in turn sublimely relies on his Creator, a dependence that inspires joyful gratitude and humility.
Referring to St. Francis, the Pope suggests that it is humble gratitude that should color all our ideas about the environment. All the splendors of nature are a great gift to man and must be treated as such. Man stands at the center of creation, in admiration and thankfulness, and is himself a fundamental part of nature, a marvel of sophistication.
This is very different from the nature-worship that infects much of the modern environmental movement, that often puts the “good” of the earth ahead of the good of men and women.
Acknowledging man’s true place in nature, as crowning achievement and grateful dependent, leads to what the pope has called “integral ecology.” This emphasizes not only the human relationship with the natural world (natural ecology), but also the relationships of humans with each other (human ecology). This is a vital connection that needs to be made. Caring for the natural world must be linked to caring for each other, or else it makes no sense. Who are we “saving” the world for, if not for the enjoyment of its future people?
And the pope, who named himself after one who was in love with Lady Poverty, will ask that the sustenance and delight of nature be available to the poor and marginalized. In his inaugural homily, he said that being a protector of nature means “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”
That brings me to a recurrent theme for the pontiff: our “throwaway” culture. He has urged us all to “make a serious commitment to respect and care for creation, to pay attention to every person, to combat the culture of waste and throwing out so as to foster a culture of solidarity and encounter.” Solidarity is a big word, but it means to include everyone in the human family when we make our calculations, even the ones that seem least useful, like the elderly and the unborn. It is a sad fact that too often environmentalist policies discount the needs of the poor, even their need to have children who bring them joy and support in their old age. The pope calls this “ideological colonization” through which rich countries impose an ethos that fails to respect human life and is destructive of family life.
The pope, finally, is expected to put a strong emphasis on the important role of the family. Human beings cannot flourish, even in a glorious Eden, without strong and stable families. He said, in a meeting with young people in Naples: “How can we go on in a culture that doesn’t care about the family, where marriage is not preferred?” It is clear that policies that clean the air and water, ensuring biodiversity and lush vegetation, but undermine the family, are worse than useless.
Soon we will know exactly what is in the pope’s contribution to the great question of the care of the environment. Certainly it will be interesting, and infused with the wisdom of St. Francis, who was not a lover of nature, but a lover of Creation. GK Chesterton called him “the Little Poor Man, who had stripped himself of everything and named himself as nothing … and called himself the Brother of the Sun and Moon.”
Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a radiologist in the Miami area and a policy advisor to The Catholic Association.