Laudato Si’ through the lens of a naturalist

Notes from Ursula Goodnough, a naturalist

In Laudato Si’, Francis focuses on two topics:

First, the particular ways that the planet is now in distress (rapid warming, pollution,
oceans, drinking water, etc.) and recommendations for their remediation.

Second, a call to heed these recommendations in the Christian context that God,
as Creator of All, directs us to “tend and keep the garden” (Genesis 2:15).

I am also called to tend and keep the garden, but the call comes from my naturalist
and existential understandings. Importantly, Francis makes clear that his encyclical
is addressed to “all people of good will” and not just “believers,” and asserts
that “whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially
a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.”

Pope Francis specifically lifts up the naturalist worldview on six occasions in the document:

1. We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7);
our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive
life and refreshment from her waters.

2. Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed
with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow
pace of biological evolution.

3. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms
or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation….

4. A good part of our genetic code is shared by all living beings.

5. Many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality that has
previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities.

6. The good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects,
and an innumerable variety of microorganisms.

These passages, while minimalist, capture key features of naturalist understandings:
that our universe is constituted of matter, time, and space, and that
biological evolution occurs slowly over time and employs a common genetic code.

Hence I come away from the Laudato Si’ with the sense that Francis,
who was trained as a chemist, has taken these naturalist understandings
deeply into his mind and heart. They undergird and pulse throughout his writings.
He gets it.

Francis repeatedly lifts up two core understandings of the natural world: we are interrelated and we are interdependent.  Here are some examples:

In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation.

Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a
mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus
in constant interaction with it.

• Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological –
are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network that we will never
fully explore and understand.

Ecological conversion entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected
from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.

I am reminded here of the writings of the Catholic cultural historian Thomas Berry,
whose haunting phrases include these:

The universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.
Existence itself is derived from and sustained by this intimacy of each being
with every other being in the universe.

Francis richly expands the interrelatedness theme to emphasize that we humans
are also interrelated and that our responsibilities also extend to one another
in what he calls an “integral ecology.” He writes:

• We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a
social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the
environment so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts
lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings….
Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our
fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems
of society.

There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.
This emphasis echoes the theme of his earlier 2013 encyclical, with its impassioned call for economic and political justice and attention to the poor, wherein he offers the scathing question: “How is it not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of
exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

The connection is brought home here:

• This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most  abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).

Accompanying the pope’s extensive documentation of the ways that our common home has been compromised and degraded by human activity is a call that we put an end to such activity, that we adopt what some of us are calling an ecomorality.

Francis pulls no punches in calling out humans for our immoral treatment of the planet. Here are two examples:

• Sister Earth now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her
by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.

• All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural
revolution…. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress that has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

He extolls the bishops of Brazil for asking that we cultivate the “ecological virtues.”. Some examples:
If we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up
• We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one that approaches life with
serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without
thinking of what comes next.

As you become mindful of something, your feelings and your behavior
towards it are transformed.

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.

• Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience…We cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and a spirituality genuinely.

• If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.

• Religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons… Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in the context of religious belief? … The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language.

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