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mansionAndCalfDepending on who you listen to, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si is about everything from tree hugging to the evils of capitalism to expressions of concern for all the poor throughout the world. A harsh view of the encyclical would lead one to presume that he is a socialist and a luddite, calling for a return to full employment at the expense of technological innovation while suggesting that those without employable skills be given equal say in how our economies and societies should be run.

In my opinion, his letter is about something that goes much deeper – this is a writing that calls us to clearly examine what we value, indeed, what and who we worship, and why.

In a nutshell, Pope Francis criticizes hyper individualism, unrestricted capitalism, and the elevation of consumerism as the engine that drives our economy and society.

To Americans whose constitution focuses on individual rights, whose economic engine is the envy of the world, and whose commercial strength relies on people buying stuff, those are fighting words.

But to Catholic Christians driven by the gospel, these are ideas worth fighting for.

Before my conservative friends (I think I have a couple) click ‘close’ on their browser button, please consider that there are no ‘anti-American’ themes in this letter.

The encyclical includes no proclamations of a superior economic system that exists elsewhere in the world, nor are there suggestions that we return to a life of caves and spears to bring back a sense of environmental balance. Laudato Si breaks no new ground. The letter only cautions against the impact that unrestrained trends, be they social, technological, or economic, have on the natural environment and on our global social fabric.

So what does this call for a new environmental sensitivity mean to average American whose livelihood and comfortable lifestyle are rooted in the success of our free enterprise system?

Does recycling my plastic bottles really help that guy standing in the Philippines watching the sea levels rise? Does buying a bag of coffee with a green leaf on it have any impact on the economic security to a Nicaraguan farmer? Does my green recycling bucket show my respect for the gospel?

Too big to handle.

It is difficult for a reader of Laudato Si to assemble an action plan that can be of value to solving the world’s environmental and economic woes – these global issues are too far removed from our daily lives for believer/citizens to connect the dots between behavior and discernable results on a global scale.

As one who wants to do the right thing, I had to break down my response to the encyclical by considering actions in my community and in my home that, in some small way, respond positively to the call to ‘praise creation’. The writer’s response is framed by focusing on where we live, what we buy, and how to change.


Where we live.

If there is one thing that all middle class Americans cherish, it is our real estate. To many of us, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is marked with a lawn free of crabgrass and driveway full of entertainment systems disguised as automobiles.

My parents’ generation may have grown up in families of 3-7 siblings living in apartment ‘flats’ in urban settings, but the median living space for new built homes stands at nearly 2,500 square feet in a country where the average household size is 2.54 persons (giving each of us 1,000 square feet to live in).

As our post-WWII nation developed, technologies and economy gave us the affordable automobile, air conditioning and improved transportation infrastructure, we found ourselves replacing our crowded residences with suburban properties, connected to our workplaces with roadways and substituting local markets with strip-malls. We no longer needed well designed parks and parkways that inspired us with tree-lined vistas, as our homes became our own combo-farmland-parkland that provided a sense of security and respite.

By most accounts, this transition is part of our definition of progress.

But at what point did our innate need for quiet and green-space turn into such a demand for McMansions? How far away from people do we need to be? How much space do we really need? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a sidewalk? Wouldn’t it be better if there were somewhere we could walk to?

In fairness, almost all families make their residential decisions based on the perceived value to one’s family — when looking for a residence, we look for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and a perceived stability, if not appreciation, of monetary value in our properties. But where is the ‘break-even’ point? Doesn’t someone have a spreadsheet that properly reflects the balance between need for open spaces, woodland, farmland, and the sprawl of faux palaces where no dwellers are to be seen? Are we building communities to connect, or estates to isolate?


What we buy.

Our American economic system is largely based on consumerism, an ideology that encourages the acquisition and consumption of goods in ever increasing amounts. This has led to remarkable advancements in manufacturing technology, shipping and transportation, and has fostered improved communication among global markets.

Yet the runaway nature of consumerism (always more, always cheaper), along with improvements in technology, can have a devastating effect on the sources of raw materials used to feed its engine.

One case in point – we may be tempted to think that the impact on the global rainforest ecosystem is primarily due to demand for wood products. But rainforests are just as likely to be destroyed by farmers converting forests into grazing areas to supply inexpensive beef, mining companies to extract  minerals, or energy companies to extract and build transportation infrastructure for oil and natural gas. This global demand for inexpensive wood, beef, minerals, and energy result in the loss of 80,000 acres of rainforest each day.

In the US, we have more cars on the road than licensed drivers. Each ounce of processed beef requires the use of 6,000 gallons of water. Worldwide expenditures on cosmetics is $18 billion while $19 billion is spent to alleviate malnutrition.

And we don’t even know what to do with this stuff once when we’re done with it.

Most of what we don’t use is still burned, put in the ground, or just dumped into the ocean – we are even to the point where the Pacific Ocean is home to several huge ‘garbage patches’ where small bits of plastic resist decomposition, turning the water column into a long-lasting peppery soup.


Are we sure this matters to God?

There is nothing obvious in the Beatitudes or the Ten Commandments that mention zoning, recycling, or shopping patterns. But as Catholic Christians, we do have the benefit of a tradition of teachers who have given witness to a deep-seated respect for our world.

Those who think that Francis is some kind of trend-setter with his call for environmental responsibility will be disappointed to realize that as far as that topic is concerned, he stands at the end of the line.

Laudato Si make reference to St. Francis, the 12th century saint whose love for nature testified to his “refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

In his 1991 letter celebrating the 100th anniversary of the original encyclical on capital and labor (Rerum Novarum), John Paul II wrote,

“….worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way…..At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error*, which unfortunately is widespread in our day.”

And back in 1961, John XXIII wrote in his letter ‘Mother and Teacher’:

“Genesis relates how God gave two commandments to our first parents: to transmit human life — and to bring nature into their service — ’Fill the earth, and subdue it.’ These two commandments are complementary…..Nothing is said in the second of these commandments about destroying nature.”

We even have St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint, who stands as patron for the environment

And then, there is the issue of the golden calf.

While Moses was busy chatting with God about what was really important for people, the folks at the bottom of the mountain decided that it was more convenient to praise something they built. They made something pretty and something that had perceived value. This admiration turned into worship. Sure, Moses was still on the mountain talking to God, but folks thought it more important to focus on what could be seen, touched, and admired rather than a faith in something significantly less earthly.

We all know how that turned out.

In an earlier apostolic exhortation (letter to ‘us guys’) – Francis asks aloud if we have repeated the same mistake today:

“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

He repeats the theme in Laudato Si where he points out that we need to pay close attention to who and in what we place our faith:

“A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation”.


Bless me Father, for I have sinned.

It would be very easy for this writer to cast stones at those who live in pleasant neighborhoods and who like nice things, arguing that no matter what they own, it is too nice, too much, and impacts our world too much.

But I am one of those persons — I love living where I do in a suburban neighborhood. It does have walkable streets, some open spaces, and houses close enough that I can see my neighbors without need of the Hubble telescope. I am also close enough to my workplace that I can commute by bicycle for much of the year. I like to think that the community of choice is almost green enough to win the grudging approval of any ‘greenie’.

Like many others, I have been blessed to be a ‘consumer’, a person who has the ability to provide for my family things that go beyond the necessities of my life. And like most others, I have to wonder aloud where my lifestyle makes the ugly transition from value to pleasure.


The Response of a Believer/Citizen

I think the proper response of a Catholic Christian combines reflection on one’s values with action which, even in a small way, reflects our humble steps to a more balanced future.

As I wrote earlier, it is difficult to determine if the choices we make are part of a well-intentioned decision to provide for our family, to make investments in a quality lifestyle, or if they are part of a never ending habit of purchases. In some way, I think our choices of lifestyle should enhance our connections with family members, neighbors, others in our community, or strengthens our appreciation of the natural gifts we have been given – either in terms of personal skills and abilities, or in the universal gifts of the garden in which we find ourselves

On a deeper level, we need to reflect on the motiviation of our purchasing choices and restore what Francis calls a sense of ‘sobriety and humility’.

In this context, Francis’ reference to sobriety reflects to the ability to make practical, level-headed choices without the artificial influence caused when our senses hide the appreciation of the joys given to us in the here and now with the need to pursue an endless search for the things we don’t  have. This clearer perspective is coupled with humility, an understanding that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us.”

As Francis write so simply: “Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.”

After reflecting on the motivation behind our lifestyle choices, each one of us finds ourselves in a position to act and take steps to build a more verdant future suitable for our next generation’s inheritance.

For those of us with economic influence…

Some of us have had the fortune and blessing to rise to positions of responsibility and leadership in our business settings. Those of us who lead can look to precedents and examples shown by other companies that take an inter-generational view of their roles in the marketplace (let’s not go into the motivations of ‘green’ policies). All is not lost when some producers work more closely with local populations to map out more environmentally aware production processes, or work to improve the use of recycled products. Business and political leaders who call themselves Catholic are called to remember not only today’s balance sheet, but to consider the effect of their decisions on future generations of us planet dwellers.

For those of us in the consumer marketplace…

No matter where we live or what we buy, I think it is fair to say we can use use a little less. It is not going to do any great harm if we cut back on the water levels we pour on our lawns, reduce ever so slightly the amount of chemicals we pour on the ground, or read the labels that accurately describe the point of origin for those fancy wood floors we may want to install.

Recycling does matter. Today, we recycle nearly one-third of the solid  trash we generate. Use of recycled products significantly reduces the amount energy required to produce a good that includes recycled materials. Recycling also places less stress on disposal sites and reduces the rate of pollutant flow from landfills.

There are also opportunities for each of use to follow our individual vocation or interest in service to God’s gift of creation.

After our commitments to family, faith, and employer, most of us have some other special interest that fills our calendar. It would take little effort on our part to push such interests towards some initiative that answers Laudato Si’s call.

Are there not possibilities for the gardeners among us to add a little more color to our asphalt and cement spaces, or to lend a hand in urban farm-plots? Can no one with an interest in community design become a more vocal part of local zoning processes? Why can’t those of us who enjoy the outdoors take a more active role in the design and maintenance of our outdoor spaces?  No matter what our interest, our faith calls us to build on that vocation in service to the next generation.


Grateful for Great Gifts

Laudato Si was not about criticizing capitalism or democracy or free markets. It did call into question the belief that a global system designed to meet consumer desires is all that we need to provide individuals with a sense of true happiness, and society with a cure for the ills of poverty and environmental destruction.

The encyclical calls for a balance that includes the weights of responsibility to future generations, and humility in accepting that we sometimes confuse stewardship with exploitation.

Sometimes, as Americans, we believe that the economic system we helped build is God’s gift to the world.

We have it backwards.

Our world is God’s gift to us. We’d best not squander it.


*Anthropological error refers to the tendency for Man to consider himself the center of creation, rather than God’s partner as caretaker of natural resources.