Review: Laudato Si’

Laudato siLaudato Si’, Pope Francis. Vatican City: Link is to online version of the encyclical (.pdf version available at site), 2015 .

Summary: Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, advocating an “integral ecology” that links care for the creation with care for the poor, the quality of life in our cities, and a way of life emphasizing spiritual rather than material priorities.

Encyclicals are circular letters from the Pope to the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church addressing important matters of church teaching. The title of the encyclical is taken from the first two words of the encyclical in Latin. This encyclical, “on care for our common home” begins with the words Laudato si’ or “Praise to you” and are the first words of a song of Saint Francis. The remarkable thing about this particular encyclical is that it has been addressed not only to the Catholic faithful, but “to the whole human family.”

The encyclical begins with a review of prior church teaching on the environment and particularly that of Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom the Pope draws his inspiration for what he terms “integral ecology.” For Saint Francis, the love of God and his creation transcended the separate categories in which we often place science and faith, care for the environment and care for the poor, the pursuit of stewardship of the earth and social justice. One commentator has noted that the most significant word in the encyclical may be the word and because Pope Francis associates things we often separate.

Six chapters follow this introduction. Chapter 1 explores “what is happening to our common home?” and considers pollution and climate change, water supplies, biodiversity, and the decline of the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, and global inequalities. Chapter 2 is titled “the gospel of creation” and explores a Catholic theology of creation. emphasizing that our dominion of creation was not domination but tilling and caring for it. It movingly states:

“Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (paragraph 92)

Chapter 3 turns from God’s intent to the “human roots of our ecological crisis”. The encyclical sources this in an inordinate reliance on technology–technocracy, in the globalization of the technocratic paradigm, and an excessive anthropocentrism that paradoxically compromises human dignity as we exploit not only the environment but other human beings as well. This chapter ranges widely considering everything from genetically modified food (and the usurping of smaller landholders by big agribusiness) to the dignity of human work and the need for gainful employment. Chapter 4 then turns to the remedy of these woes in “integral ecology” that concerns environmental, economic, social, cultural and everyday ecology, the common good and justice between generations.

Chapter 5 considers “lines of approach” and has to do with various public spheres in which environmental advocacy and action must occur. I was struck how often the word “should” was used here in ideas for international, national, and local policy. Perhaps the most trenchant remarks in this section are in the Pope’s call for transparency in dialogue and decision-making and in his call for a rapprochement between religion and science around environmental concerns.

The final chapter concerns “ecological education and spirituality” and turns to the impact a Catholic eco-theology might have at the parish level. In a section on “Joy and Peace” the Francis writes:

“To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.” (paragraph 222).

He also calls for a kind of ecological conversion and considers the relation of the Trinity, and of Mary to the creation. He concludes the encyclical with two prayers, the first “a prayer for our earth” and the second a “Christian prayer in union with creation.”

I found much to commend here. Here is an ecology that is pro-human life from the uterus to the grave, and at the same time fully recognizes the dignity of all creatures. Francis recognizes that it is often those who have contributed least to our ecological problems who suffer the most and sees the issue of justice and not simply ecological concerns in this suffering. He also recognizes that most profoundly, we need a conversion from the materialism and consumerism that is neither ecologically sustainable nor spiritually satisfying. With his namesake, he eloquently argues for how our lives are inextricably bound up with the life of the whole creation.

He speaks prophetically to those in political and economic power. And I found myself wondering here whether in fact it will be the weak of this world, the powerless, who will, under the grace of God, confound the mighty and whether change, if it comes, will not come from the politicians or big business interests but from a grassroots movement. My own hope is that such a movement might be nurtured by Christian communities whose faithful presence and witness in these matters captures the imagination of others, as did the church in eastern Europe during the fall of Communism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” I’m troubled that we have not lived in such a way to leave a healthy, verdant world to our children. The kind of world their children find may well hinge on whether both the church and the wider human community heed this passionate plea for our common home.

[Note: after publishing this post, a friend asked for the source of this Bonhoeffer quote. It appears on a number of sites but there is no source information on any of these and a search of Google Books and questions to some who know Bonhoeffer’s work well have failed to turn up the actual source of this quote. So it may be more accurate to say that this statement is attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, actual source unknown.]

Review: Slow Church

slow churchSlow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Slow church. That’s not what I wanted when I was growing up. I wanted to get my weekly dose of church and get on to more interesting things. If the authors are to believed, the church growth specialists gave my generation what we wanted–fast church. Messages that cut to the chase, efficient, homogeneous organization that led to big box churches that provided a great show. For a time, I was part of such a church in another city, typically driving 10 miles to attend. But it seemed totally unconnected to the place where we lived and so when we moved to our current home town, we found a church in the neighborhood, which in recent years has come to embody many of the things the authors of this book describe as part of the “slow church” movement.

The authors describe an approach to thinking of the church that gives words to much of what we were looking for. They believe that God’s redemptive work is slow and values the unique qualities of people and place and gifting that our particular places of worship reflect. They organize their approach around three categories.

First they think in terms of ethics. What is the good to be pursued in the life of a local congregation? It begins with a sense of place that takes time to become a community that shares life together and learns how to serve the mix of people in a real neighborhood rather than efficiently reaching a “market segment.” It encourages stability that takes time to understand a place rather than our restless mobility. It values patience that is willing to suffer alongside others and walk alongside the people of one’s community through the seasons and changes of life as Christ is formed in us.

A second emphasis is on ecology. It focuses on the connectedness of all things and all of life as opposed to fragmenting life, and groups of people into segments, often with the result of dividing them against each other–young and old, liberal and conservative, poor and affluent, and even humans versus the rest of creation. It cares about the dehumanization of work and fosters good work based in our neighborhoods. It celebrates sabbath where God provides enough in six days for us to live seven.

A third focus is on economy. Will we join the culture’s economics of scarcity or the kingdom economy of abundance? This means noticing all the abundance God has placed in the people and physical resources of a church and a community and responding with gratitude and hospitality. And in a wonderful connection with the slow food movement, it means reveling in the fellowship of the table, having rich conversation over good food.

This book is particularly important for churches that take seriously the work of “re-neighboring” and community development in transitional or struggling communities. It is also important for churches in more suburban “communities” that often don’t have a real sense of community and place, and are at great peril over the long haul.

The authors challenged me to consider how, even though I am in a church that is seeking to become these things, I am embedded in a “fast church” life and way of thinking that is formed more by my culture than the church community with which I identify. I work in a ministry that is not located in the community where I live, where I travel extensively, and work with colleagues in a tri-state area, and more widely with individuals throughout the country as well as an extensive virtual community. As I write today, I don’t have good answers to resolve this tension. But this book serves as impetus for a conversation, maybe a slow conversation, but one that I recognize needs to begin in my life.

How about you?