Tag Archives: encyclical

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: the Environment


Within a week or so we’re expecting the encyclical of Pope Francis on the Environment. An encyclical is a letter that the pope sends to the church throughout the world about a matter of Christian belief or morality or a major concern, like the environment, that’s important for living our lives in this world. As we know, the condition of our natural world is not only a concern of Catholics, it concerns everyone in our world today; it’s also a concern for the world of tomorrow. Many, in fact, are waiting to see what the pope says.

Some people say the environment is really a concern of scientists and politicians and the pope should keep away from the subject and stick to religious questions . But the popes have spoken out strongly on social issues throughout history and particularly in recent times.

At the end of the 19th century, for example, Pope Leo XIII spoke out against the awful conditions of workers in the western world because of the Industrial Revolution. Pope Leo wrote that workers had a right to a just wage and a right to unionize to promote their just interests. The bad conditions in which people were working affected families and their children. The pope was a voice speaking for social justice. (Rerum novarum)

Today, in speaking out on the environment and climate control, Pope Francis is following what recent popes like Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have already said about the issue. He’s looking are at the world prudently, which is not the same as looking at the world personally, or scientifically, or politically, or economically, or even spiritually.

Let me explain:

Looking at the world prudently is to have a larger vision of a question. Let me give you an example. Suppose today the weather people announced that another hurricane like Sandy was going to hit the Jersey shore in a few days and I lived on the Jersey shore. Suppose they announced that 97% of weather people said it was going to hit. Suppose I said that’s not 100% sure and I decided to say a little prayer and stay in my house.

I would be personally imprudent, don’t you think? We can’t think of an issue as large as the environment only as an individual, a scientist, a politician or an economist. We need scientific, political, economic wisdom, to be sure, but we need a larger vision, a prudential vision that incorporates all of these.

We need prudence today. Unfortunately, we can misunderstand this important virtue. We think prudence is being overly cautious, afraid to act or to change. Prudence is not that at all. Prudence is a virtue that’s not afraid to look at things as they are and react reasonably according to what we know. That’s what the pope will be urging us to do in his encyclical.

We’re living in an age of “expressive individualism,” the philosopher Charles Taylor says. We tend to see the world as a stage to express ourselves. We find it hard to think of and to act in a world bigger than ourselves.

Because of “expressive individualism” we can lose our connection to natural world that supports us with life. One of our most important spiritual tasks today to regain our respect for the earth that God has given us. Because of “expressive individualism” we can lose our connection with the rest of the human family, especially with the poor. I’m sure we will hear all those themes in Pope Francis’ encyclical.

The Petrine Ministry

DSC00242One of the best known statues of Peter the Apostle is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The apostle, seated on a chair, has his hand raised, not just in blessing but to make a point. He’s teaching the church.

The popes continue the teaching ministry of Peter and one way they do it is through encyclicals, letters sent to bishops and people throughout the world. On June 29, 2009, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Pope Benedict XVI issued Caritas in Veritate, an encyclical on socials issues affecting our world today.

It took me a week to read through it and I can’t say I’ve grasped it all, but I’ll be back to it.

If you read this extensive, densely packaged work, remember that the word “encyclical” is close to the word “encyclopedia.” Our world isn’t simple, it’s big and complex, and the pope–certainly helped by advisors– tries to analyze it and provide a vision for living in it.

It’s a lot to digest. The letter is a long banquet table, not a quick snack for one gulp.

But that’s the challenge I like about it. Love, the gift we have from God, calls us to look at big things and be engaged in them. We tend to consider love mostly in interpersonal dimensions, but the letter speaks of a love that reaches into the mystery of God and enrolls us in work at building our earthly city.

It’s not a letter of pat answers but of many questions which arise from the reality of the world we live in now. A love based in truth calls us to think about the world as it is and creatively work for its good.

It’s about the development of the human being, the whole human being and all human beings. As Christians we’re charged to work for this development, which has now taken on new global dimensions through the advance of technology.

Politically, it calls for international structures more responsive to the situation of a global society and technological advances. The stumbling G 8 meeting just concluded in Italy is evidence of the need. Hard to believe for some, but nation states alone are not the answer.

It urges the human family to respect the rights of the natural world, which must be part of the development of an earthly city. It warns against untrammeled technological advances that don’t take into account human rights, the rights of creation, as well as the divine law. It recognizes greed and lack of oversight behind the present world financial crisis.

The pope’s encyclical is not a view from a small cloistered world.

There’s a consciousness in the encyclical that weariness and loss of hope can stop our efforts to engage our world as it is, but love refuses to be conquered. It endures. Importantly, our efforts are not simple human efforts:

“Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. For this reason, even in the most difficult and complex times, besides recognizing what is happening, we must above all else turn to God’s love. Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God’s providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace.” (79)

Caritas in Veritate

I’m reading Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” –Charity in Truth. Not easy going, because he’s trying to address something that’s not easy going–the situation of our world today.

The pope begins with love, not intimate, confined love, but love engaged with truth. A love found in Jesus, God’s gift made flesh, who engaged his world and gave his life to raise it up.

Jesus calls us to love our world and work for its development.

“Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.

It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth…To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity.” (1)

So love calls us to more than an intimate relationship with friends, family or small groups, the pope says; it must be part  of our personal relationship with God, and the “macro-relationships” of society, the economy and politics.

By its nature, love desires someone’s good and takes effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of individuals, “there is the good that is linked to living in society: the common good.

We must desire the good of “the earthly city,” not just through respect for rights and duties, but also by offering it gifts of “gratuitousness, mercy and communion.” We must love the world we live in.

Tight reasoning, long sentences, much content. The subject is large, like the world itself. Yet, as the pope says,  love’s “exacting” task is to take it on.