Cardinal Peter Turkson on Caring For Our Common Home

OSU President Michael Drake, Cardinal Peter Turkson, and Dean Bruce McPheron

OSU President Michael Drake, Cardinal Peter Turkson, and Dean Bruce McPheron

On Monday, I posted a review of “Laudato Si’ “, Pope Francis’s encyclical on caring for our common home. This wasn’t by accident. I read the encyclical in preparation for a lecture at The Ohio State University by Cardinal Peter Turkson. He is the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and led the drafting of the encyclical. He is the first Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church from Ghana.

His lecture was an exposition of the encyclical, the distinctive of which is a call for an integral ecology that brings together both natural ecology and human ecology. He contended our relationship with God, each other, and the earth is intimately connected. Therefore, he stated that this is not an encyclical on climate change per se’, but rather a social encyclical that links our treatment of the earth and our treatment of the poor, who often suffer the most from environmental degradation even though they have done the least to cause this.

There were several things he brought out that illumined and enriched my own reading of the encyclical:

  • He mentioned that the characteristic word the encyclical uses for our relationship to the creation is care rather than stewardship, a term that is used only twice in the encyclical. While stewardship focuses on responsibility and answerability, care has to do with love, and resonated with my sense of how important it is that we recover a sense of and a love of place, particularly the place where we make our home.
  • He emphasized the encyclical’s call for an ecological conversion, and spoke of the need for the change of direction in our lives that comes with repentance from sin–strong words for a university audience. It struck me that this call penetrates to the heart of our challenge, which is ultimately not one of more scientific evidence, or just new technologies, as importance as these may be, but a fundamental change in our direction in how we think about both creation and our fellow human beings across the globe.
  • A third concept he discussed was that of justice, which he defined as “respecting the demands of the relationship in which we exist.” I can see the implications this has both for how we relate to the creation and to our fellow human beings. In terms of this encyclical, an injustice to one is really an injustice to both.

He concluded with his hopes that this encyclical and similar statements from other religious bodies will give the world’s leaders that backbone they need to reach a binding agreement on climate change at this December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. I have to confess that he seemed more hopeful than I am of progress on this front.

The question I found myself wondering about is why there isn’t more talk of mobilizing Catholic and other religious bodies toward the kind of ecological conversion of which the encyclical speaks. There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, or 16 percent of the world’s population. The encyclical reaches out to the wider human community as well, and has been responded to with interest from other religious communities. How many people does it take before an idea of caring for our common home reaches the “tipping point”? It doesn’t seem to me that political leaders respond to documents, even if they bear the papal imprimatur. What they do respond to is movements of the people. Gandhi, King, Mandela, and Walesa all led people movements shaped deeply by religious principles. Might we not hope and pray and work for such a movement around what arguably is the most important challenge to face humanity yet–protecting our common home for our children?

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.]