Seven things to know about Francis's planned eco-encyclical

As mentioned in the top ten eco-stories of 2013, there have been rumors of an environmental encyclical. On Friday the Vatican confirmed the rumors. And so now there’s lots of talk about what will be in it.

For clues, we look to Francis’s first major statement on ecology: his June 5th General Audience. In a handful of paragraphs Francis outlined his concerns as well as how they relate to others. Given that, what might a Pope Francis eco-encyclical look like?

Here’s what we know so far:

1. From yesterday's announcement, the document will be rooted in the John Paul II and Benedict XVI concept of “human ecology.”

(Vatican Radio) The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., confirmed on Friday that Pope Francis has begun work on a draft text on the topic of ecology, which could become an encyclical. But, Father Lombardi said, the project is in an early stage, so it is too early to make any prediction about the timing of possible publication.
Father Lombardi said it is important to note that Pope Francis intends to put particular emphasis on the theme of “human ecology,” a phrase used by Pope Benedict to describe not only how people must defend and respect nature but how the nature of the person – masculine and feminine as created by God – must also be defended.

It’s no surprise that human ecology takes center stage in the Vatican news blurb. In his June 5th audience Francis rooted his words in his predecessors’:

Moreover on various occasions Benedict XVI has recalled that this task entrusted to us by God the Creator requires us to grasp the pace and the logic of creation. Instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating and exploiting; we do not “preserve” the earth, we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a freely-given gift to look after.
We are losing our attitude of wonder, of contemplation, of listening to creation and thus we no longer manage to interpret in it what Benedict XVI calls “the rhythm of the love-story between God and man”. Why does this happen? Why do we think and live horizontally, we have drifted away from God, we no longer read his signs.
However “cultivating and caring” do not only entail the relationship between us and the environment, between man and creation. They also concern human relations. The popes have spoken of a human ecology, closely connected with environmental ecology. We are living in a time of crisis; we see it in the environment, but above all we see it in men and women. The human person is in danger: this much is certain — the human person is in danger today, hence the urgent need for human ecology!

2. Also from that audience we find Francis connecting this conversation with economic matters—specific ones at that:

The peril is grave, because the cause of the problem is not superficial but deeply rooted. It is not merely a question of economics but of ethics and anthropology. The Church has frequently stressed this; and many are saying: yes, it is right, it is true... but the system continues unchanged since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money, money, cash commands. And God our Father gave us the task of protecting the earth — not for money, but for ourselves: for men and women.

So be prepared for the pontiff to expand this conversation, espeically given the importance he placed on (and the reaction to) his statements on economics in his first papal exhortation.

3. And as we know, Francis is not one to speak only in theory. He speaks to each of us—and includes himself in his exhortations. When it comes to the environment, he exhorts us all to make changes. In this case that means that you and I need to throw out our “throw-away culture” because how you and I consume is a matter related to both our personal holiness (that is, living virtuously) and the common good:

We have this task! Nevertheless men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the “culture of waste”. If a computer breaks it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people end up being considered normal. If on a winter's night, here on the Via Ottaviano — for example — someone dies, that is not news. If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, that is not news, it seems normal. It cannot be so! And yet these things enter into normality: that some homeless people should freeze to death on the street — this doesn’t make news. On the contrary, when the stock market drops 10 points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by 10 points is a tragedy!

4. All this will, of course, be linked to human life issues, specifically abortion and euthanasia. This will continue an important theme in B16 (who said that “[o]ur duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards creation”). Pope Francis will of course underscore this in his own way, as he has often to date and did on June 5th:

[P]eople are thrown aside as if they were trash. This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful — like the unborn child — or are no longer of any use — like the elderly person.

5. Francis is deeply concerned about how the previous two items are related—how human over consumption (and our throw-away mentality) is intrinsically related to the lives of people elsewhere, born and unborn. Again from the audience:

This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many people and families suffer hunger and malnutrition. There was a time when our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any left over food. Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food, whose value, which goes far beyond mere financial parameters, we are no longer able to judge correctly.
Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry! I ask everyone to reflect on the problem of the loss and waste of food, to identify ways and approaches which, by seriously dealing with this problem, convey solidarity and sharing with the underprivileged.

That said, look for an eco-encyclical that challenges us all—especially in the hyper-consuming Westin very specific and sacrificial ways.

6. Given that Francis does like to surprise people, we can be sure that we’ll all be surprised with how he expands these themes. It's likely that he will get very specific—mentioning particular resources, places, and peoples. While the placement of matters that can be easily associated with a particular time can sometimes date a magisterial document, I can see how papal attention given to tangible and temporal ecological realities will do much to connect our duties toward the environment with our duties toward the human person.

7. Lastly, Francis has a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. Like his predecessors, he routinely entrusts his papacy to her intercession. And so the theological hermeneutic of such encyclical will, it seems, be specifically Marian. After all, it was Mary, as creature, that allowed the grace of God to stir within her and bring into human history the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sin of the world.

That’s my take. What’s yours? Put your wish list of ideas in the comments below. If I get a good many I may very well send them to the Holy Father. After all, we know that Francis likes to engage the People of God for the good of all people and all creation.

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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.