Michael Stafford, 2/11/2015 [Archive]

Pope Francis's Cry for Creation

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, reflected on those words from the Bhagavad Gita as he witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb during the Trinity test deep in the New Mexican desert in 1945.

In retrospect, Oppenheimer was too hard on himself. Our automobiles, coal-fired power plants and, more broadly, what Pope Francis terms our "throwaway culture," have proven to be more destructive than our arsenals of nuclear weapons. As a result, today we live under the shadow of a man-made existential threat of global proportions - climate change. But climate change is only one piece of a larger set of grave ecological, economic and social challenges that are simultaneously facing humanity.

Later this year, Pope Francis will release an encyclical on ecology addressing climate change, other abuses of the environment and their disproportionate impact on two groups of innocents - the poor and future generations. The encyclical's release is intended to influence international negotiations on emissions reductions being held at the end of the year in Paris, and will occur before he delivers an address to world leaders at the United Nations in September that will emphasize the urgent need for agreement - and action.

To appreciate the significance of the encyclical it must be placed within the broader context of Francis's papacy and his understanding of the decisive role that religion must play in safely navigating the precipice of the present. In this regard, the Church's key insight is that the seemingly separate social, economic and environmental crises of modernity are related expressions of a deeper spiritual problem. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated, "[t]he relationship between individuals or communities and the environment ultimately stems from their relationship with God." Today, that relationship is broken. This rupture "provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order."

This is particularly evident with respect to the environment. Human activity is having a devastating impact on the natural world. What Pope Francis describes as an "economy that kills" also displays ecocidal tendencies. As he has observed, the "greedy exploitation of environmental resources" is destroying ecosystems and damaging the planet without concern for the long-term consequences or the needs of future generations.

The Paris negotiations Pope Francis is seeking to influence by means of his forthcoming encyclical represent perhaps the last chance for the international community to agree on meaningful emissions reductions before significant temperature increases occur. And the price of failure is enormous. Absent emissions restrictions, a warming world means significant sea-level rises, disruptions to existing weather patterns, more frequent droughts, more powerful storms, the collapse of coral reefs and other ecosystems, the extinction of many species, and even disease pandemics - a veritable plague of fires, famines and floods that will destabilize societies and impose severe economic and social costs. In a worst-case scenario, climate change might even be catastrophic, bringing an end to civilization itself.

If, however, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI taught in a previous encyclical, "[t]he deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human existence," then only pursuing technical solutions, such as emissions restrictions, is an inadequate approach because they leave the ambient culture unchanged. Real reform requires digging down to the roots of the problem, and those roots lay buried in our hearts. This, I suspect, is exactly what Pope Francis will do. He recognizes that the illness is spiritual in nature, and so must be its cure.

In order to avoid the looming catastrophe facing our planet, insists Benedict, we must reform "the very foundations of our culture" and change the "overall moral tenor of [our] society." Helpfully, the Church has already identified these foundations for us: greed, selfishness, indifference, utilitarianism and what Pope Francis has described as an exploitative "economic system centered on the god of money" that "needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it."

Such sweeping reform is inconceivable without a revolution of the heart that protects creation by transforming society. And faith is the only fuel that can power it. Without faith, activists and reformers, no matter how pure their intentions, labor in vain.

Pope Francis's encyclical cry for creation will be yet another reminder to humanity that we will either emerge from the ordeal of modernity with our faith renewed, or we will not emerge at all.

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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.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.





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