Pope Francis: "Culture of waste" requires a Catholic response

"I would like us all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation, to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste and disposable, to promote a culture of solidarity and of encounter. Thank you." Pope Francis. General Audience June 5th, 2013.

The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 1960 the United States produced some 88 million tons of municipal waste. In 2010 that number climbed to just under 250 million tons—and it may have been higher had a recession not slowed consumption. This jump reflects an almost 184 percent increase in what Americans throw out even though our population increased by only 60 percent.

This disparate increase has much to do with what we buy, the quantities thereof, its expected use-life, how it is packaged, and how the packaging itself is packaged, wrapped, surrounded with polystyrene, cardboard, and shrink-wrap. Even simple items like lettuce and chewing gum now come in plastic containers that we use ever so briefly and then throw away. While recycling has trimmed the tonnage being trucked to landfills, America is still a nation that consumes and wastes much more than it ever has. The question is: Why?

Pope Francis provided some answers in his first major statement on ecology—natural and human. His sweeping eco-comments at Wednesday’s General Audience (June 5, 2013) offer us much to consider. But one theme in particular dominated his words—a theme that follows quite naturally from his predecessor, who he quoted throughout his audience.

Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules. God our Father did not give the task of caring for the earth to money, but to us, to men and women: we have this task! Instead, men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the “culture of waste.”

Western cultures—and those tempted to follow the ways of the West—have come to expect that one can and deserves to attain and consume whatever (and whomever) one wants. Advertisements not only insist that you can have it your way and have as much as you want, but that you deserve to have whatever it is that’s being sold—even if you have lived all these years quite well without it. The makers of such ads understand the fractures in the human soul. They intuitively know that the effects of original sin can be used as a foothold for profit. They create characters and settings that excite our passions. They use language that tugs at our insecurities and at the faint awareness of our incompleteness—a lack of love that all humans crave to fill. In all, the vocation of advertising has become a means to convince us that fulfillment comes only from the attainment of earthly goods.

This was also the belief of our iconic parents. As Adam and Eve learned about the consequences of their grasping, we are learning that every man-made environmental issue demonstrates that having it our way comes with quite serious and often permanent problems. As discussions of toxic chemicals and species extinction show us, there is a connection between our consumption and the quality and quantity of life on earth—most especially human life, born and unborn. This consumption also has spiritual ramifications, and thus requires a pastoral response as well as an intellectual one. This is why understanding what ecology is showing us and the work of environmental protection, authentically understood and practiced, is a Catholic duty.

Quite simply, environmental protection will benefit from a Catholic awareness of virtue, which defines authentic, ecologically sound human existence: prudence to make right choices; justice to ensure that the rights of strangers are not compromised in our search for pleasure or raw materials; fortitude to guide our urges toward a common good, and especially the virtue of temperance, which we need desperately to consume less.

When graced with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, these virtues will reorient our inner attitudes to seek fulfillment not in what we consume, but in how well we "love in the present," as a young Joseph Ratzinger put it.

Reorienting the way we fulfill—or turn from—our many appetites has far-reaching ends that go far beyond issues of natural ecology. They affect human ecology, too. This is the very point that Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis have been expressing, and it is a fundamental message within revelation. Benedict XVI stated it succinctly in noting that each society must engage in a “serious review of its lifestyle, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles.” (Caritas in Veritate, 51)

And now his successor continues the lesson:

This "culture of waste" tends to become the common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person is no longer perceived as a primary value to be respected and protected, especially if poor or disabled, if not yet useful - such as the unborn child - or no longer needed - such as the elderly. This culture of waste has made us insensitive even to the waste and disposal of food, which is even more despicable when all over the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Once our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any leftover food. Consumerism has led us to become used to an excess and daily waste of food, to which, at times, we are no longer able to give a just value, which goes well beyond mere economic parameters. We should all remember, however, that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the the poor, the hungry! I encourage everyone to reflect on the problem of thrown away and wasted food to identify ways and means that, by seriously addressing this issue, are a vehicle of solidarity and sharing with the needy.

To think of the other as we consume "our" food (or any resource, or anyone), we must focus on what drives us to consume and waste all that we do. And we must introduce ourselves to what—indeed, Whom—we truly seek. As Saint Augustinehas noted, our hearts are restless until they rest with the Triune God—the God who is relation and love. This is precisely the meaning of Pope Francis's hope of a "culture of solidarity and of encounter."

The task of the Catholic ecologist, then, must primarily be to proclaim the good news of Christ’s offer of life—which comes through the sacrifice of the Cross. For in the end, it will not be science or educational programs that will still our gluttonous consumption. It will be the Gospel of Life and the Grace of God that will reorient and elevate our nature—and in so doing protect nature itself.

Photo of Pope Francis: Flicker/Catholic Church (England and Wales)

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.