“Laudato si reaches out to scientists to participate in a shared global problem, the damage that humans have done to their planet and by doing so the harm they have wrought upon one another. Pope Francis directly invites for a new dialogue concerning how we are shaping the planet. Regardless of their religious persuasions, scientists should bring what they have learned from science to the discussion.” — H. H. Shugart
This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, we are kicking things off with an essay by H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job.
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The Encyclical Laudato Si’: A Significant Invitation for Discussion
By H. H. Shugart
Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home was released to the public on the May 24th of this year. It is a clearly stated, easily accessed and well-reasoned treatise on the moral position of the Church on the consequences of changes in the global environment. When the pontiff of the one and one-quarter billion member Catholic Church makes any statement, it by definition becomes news. Nevertheless, this encyclical represents something much more than a hamper of news items whirling on the media spin-cycle. The pope structures his encyclical around what the collective “we” are doing to our common home, the planet and its inhabitants. Pollution, climate change, water scarcity, the loss of biodiversity, the decline in well-being of people and of their society ― all are problems needing religious and scientific thinkers to pull in single harness toward solutions. Pope Francis deconstructs the Judaeo-Christian concept of humans as the stewards of the Earth to find a moral obligation to maintain planetary sustainability embedded in biblical scripture as well as in the encyclicals of earlier popes. While he segues around the issue of human population growth, Pope Francis identifies conspicuous (over)consumption, the throw-away economy and human greed as immoral transgressions, often perpetuated by the rich and powerful and whose consequences fall upon the poor and defenseless.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore (in the original Umbrian Italian “Altissimu, onnipotente bon Signore” and meaning “Praise to you, my Lord”) is the opening of the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon composed in late 1224 by St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition relates that the saint sang it from his death bed. It is a song praising creation, notably, “… our sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.” The pope took his papal name from this same St. Francis, and the Saint’s teachings are woven through the Laudato si narrative. The pope is writing on a topic of obvious personal importance framed in the regnal name that he chose at the beginning of his papacy.
Because it presents multiple facets for consideration, Laudato si’ has inspired many commentaries and it will undoubtedly inspire many more. He is the first Pope Francis, the first non-European pope since 741, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first from the Western Hemisphere. Laudato si’ identifies greed, particularly when it is at the expense of others, as a sin; it references the ninth-century Sufi mystic, Ali al-Khawas, on the spiritual connection between humans and the natural world; it quotes Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, that “… to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”; it provokes with, “ The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
Significantly, it opens a door to scientists to join religion in a shared quest ― “… science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both.” This is regardless whether or not some of these the same scientists are non-Catholics, non-Christians, agnostics or atheists. Personally, I am strongly drawn to this invitation for cooperation. It proposes that scientists enter the dialogue because they have strengths that they can uniquely bring to the discussion.
On my office door sticks a quotation, “… I’m a scientist. I don’t do good or bad. You’ve got to go to your preacher for that.” This quote sprung, sans mental editing, in my response to a reporter’s question about whether a particular prediction of effects from climate change was “good”. It went to a Richmond, Virginia newspaper and then to my door as a joke from my colleagues. Scientific objectivity is hard to maintain sometimes, but it is important to do so. “Do you believe in evolution? or “What is your belief on climate change?” are dangerous propositions for scientists to engage, if for no other reason than belief is the weakest of bases for a scientific argument. The pope doesn’t call on scientists to judge good or bad, which is his realm. It lets scientists be scientists.
Laudato si reaches out to scientists to participate in a shared global problem, the damage that humans have done to their planet and by doing so the harm they have wrought upon one another. Pope Francis directly invites for a new dialogue concerning how we are shaping the planet. Regardless of their religious persuasions, scientists should bring what they have learned from science to the discussion. The offer for dialogue is significant, particularly in the United States, where the issue of evolution as been a target for religious/political condemnation from many pulpits and where the emerging reality of global-scale environmental changes has gained ridicule from the same quarters. Given both power of religion to form social mores and the importance that humans can produce on the ecological fabric of the world at multiple scales, many scientists are eager to engage the pope’s call for dialog. Just yesterday (July 29, 2015), the immediate-past, present and future presidents of the Ecological Society of America responded to the encyclical by thanking the pope for entering the discussion of modern environmental dilemmas and for his advocacy of greater investment of research to understand ecosystem function and the effects of environmental modification. One expects leaders of other learned societies to do the same.
Laudato si is simultaneously a broadly ecumenical and a revolutionary document. It sounds the alarm and proposes a process leading toward solutions of the global environmental problems. Laudato si is an open-handed invitation to us all to engage one another to know more, appreciate more, and synthesize more about our shared planetary home and our relations with one another. One hopes Laudato si starts a shared endeavor for us all.