Michael Stafford, 6/22/2015 [Archive]

Pope Francis Challenges Our Apathy

By Michael Stafford

Few papal encyclicals have been as anticipated as Laudato Si', and Pope Francis has not disappointed. The encyclical articulates a compelling moral vision intended to address the ecological crisis gripping our world.

Of course, there are few issues as contentious in American politics as environmental policy and, in particular, climate change. It is unclear how much weight Pope Francis's faith-based arguments will carry, even among American Catholics. In practice, we tend to prioritize our political allegiance and patriotism over our religious faith, refusing to see any conflicts or contradictions between them. Indeed, religion is often nothing more than a stage prop in our public discourse. Both conservatives and liberals will attempt to appropriate aspects of the encyclical and spin it to fit their own agendas.

But it is a mistake to view Laudato Si' through a purely political prism, or to permit the commentariat to mediate Francis's message. One of its most remarkable aspects is its openness and accessibility to a lay audience. Although lengthy, this is not a work laden with academic or technical jargon. It is written in a far more inclusive style.

Such an approach is appropriate. While Laudato Si' certainly addresses world leaders, the titans of global finance, and industrial magnates, and seeks to influence their behavior, it also has another intended audience- you. It is a letter written out of loving concern for us, and for our world, that heroically attempts to break through our shells of indifference and apathy and inspire us to action.

Theologically, Pope Francis builds on the solid foundation laid by his predecessors bringing together disparate strands of Catholic thought and weaving them into a persuasive and compelling argument in support of his vision of an "integral ecology" premised on the realization that our current environmental, economic, social and spiritual crises are related and derive from our broken relationship with God.

The encyclical includes a comprehensive survey of the various environmental threats humanity is facing, including climate change, which Pope Francis correctly attributes to human activity, and identifies our abuse of the environment as a grave moral issue that must be addressed. At the same time, Laudato Si' also condemns our "throw-away" consumer culture and the operation of unjust and exploitative economic structures and systems. And it consistently emphasizes "the priority of being over that of being useful," which Francis brilliantly uses to illustrate the intrinsic value and dignity of both creation and of human beings. In his vision, there are neither disposable persons nor species.

The themes of mutual responsibility and social solidarity run like veins of gold throughout the document. According to Francis, we must recover "the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and for the world...." Indeed, in Francis's view, we are akin to stewards, charged with tending the garden of creation for the common good of all.

It is always easier to spot the splinter in another's eye, and miss the beam in our own. In the present context, although consumerism and our rapacious financial system come in for heavy criticism, simply condemning bankers, speculators, and other profiteers misses a key insight: we are all complicit in the ecological, human, and spiritual damage caused by our culture. Almost all of us consume more than we need, and waste more than we should. Like Dives, we enjoy luxurious lifestyles that, as Pope Francis recognizes, "can never be universalized" and made available to most of the world's population.

Thus, Laudato Si' is also a call for personal conversion, repentance, and a revolution of the heart of the most radical kind.

The encyclical repeats Jesus' invitation to "come, follow me" (Matthew 4:19), and we are frozen with terror. Conversion isn't easy, particularly in a culture where we are unaccustomed to faith placing real demands, or constraints, on our behavior. Frankly, most Americans have become cafeteria Christians, mere consumers of religion, picking and choosing what doctrines to follow as it suits us. And we prefer a God who demands little of us, and never criticizes.

But we have no other choice. As Pope Francis warns us, we live at a time when "[d]oomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth." The world is our common home, and its fate is inseparable from our destiny. And to avert catastrophe, we each must change.

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©Copyright 2015 Michael Stafford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Michael Stafford is a recovering Republican turned political independent and the author of "An Upward Calling." Michael can be reached at anupwardcalling@yahoo.com.

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