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Our common home

I am writing this early Thursday morning, having read about a leaked copy of the long-awaited papal encyclical “Laudato Si—On the Care of Our Common Home.” The encyclical focuses on the environment, particularly climate change. The leaked copy was published Monday in the Italian magazine L’Espresso and has been picked up by newspapers throughout the world.

The Vatican is understandably incensed; one official claimed it was a “sabotage against the Pope.” There have been plans for a grand global rollout: The official copy was due to be released midday Thursday in Rome, which would be our evening. I don’t know if news about the encyclical will make it to the Inquirer deadline.

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Even without the official copy, I thought it was important to write about the encyclical, one that deals with what we usually think of as a nonreligious issue. For Pope Francis to issue a whole encyclical about the environment—such an important cause for so many people—draws media attention. This is what the Vatican wants, with the title echoing a declaration by the Pope in the encyclical: “I intend especially to engage in a dialogue with everyone about our common home.”

Even before the leaked copy, there have been many commentaries about what the encyclical might contain. Mainly, environmentalists have been hopeful that the Pope would come out supporting the view that global warming is happening mainly because of human activities. It seems the encyclical will indeed have this declaration, together with a critique of our intensive reliance on fossil fuels as compounding the problem of global warming.

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That seems almost commonsensical, but that view has been disputed by political conservatives, mainly in the United States, who deny that there is human-induced climate change. They also argue that whatever problems there may be, there will be technological solutions. The conservative ideological stand also argues that government should not intervene with regulations—in other words, leave it all to a free-market solution.

The papal encyclical opposes what are called two extreme views. One is the “myth of progress,” believing that there will always be technological solutions to ecological problems. The other extreme looks at the human species as a constant threat and that only a reduction of human presence can solve environmental problems. Not surprisingly, the encyclical argues against population control as a solution to the planet’s limited resources.

Ethical lifestyles

So, what does the encyclical propose as solutions?

The encyclical emphasizes ethical lifestyles, moving away from overconsumption. It is critical of capitalism, calling the maximization of profit as a “conceptual distortion of the environment.”

The Pope has been outspoken for many years about the excesses of consumerism, and is well-known for having shunned the opulence of the Vatican for a simple lifestyle.

The encyclical also opposes carbon credits (or carbon trading), a complicated system where governments can get a certification that it has activities reducing carbon emissions—for example, requiring certain factories to make such reductions. A certification that they have reduced emissions by a ton then entitles them to emit one ton more. The scheme is based on the idea that people and governments can regulate themselves with greenhouse gases.

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Rightly so, the encyclical is cynical about carbon credits, saying that this will “support the super-consumption of certain countries and sectors.”

The encyclical sees governments as playing important roles to solve environmental problems, and even calls for the establishment of a global agency to handle these problems.

Religion and science

Will the encyclical make a difference for environmental causes?

It’s hard to say. The encyclical remains a religious document, but that itself is important because it at least now challenges the traditional interpretations of biblical passages to support the view that humans were created to dominate the earth.

The encyclical should also highlight the stronger interest the Vatican has in issues related to science, something I wish would get more media coverage to counter the stereotyped coverage of science and religion as adversaries.

There is a Pontifical Academy of Sciences established in 1936 and which has included Nobel Laureates such as Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck and Niels Bohr. The Academy has spoken out in support of Darwinian evolution. The current president is Werner Arber, a Nobel Laureate in medicine… and a Protestant.

More recent is the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, established in 1994 and currently headed by Margaret Archer, a sociologist. The two science academies cosponsored a workshop last May, “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Planet, Our Responsibility,” focused on preserving what has been called our “natural capital,” meaning our environmental resources.

One of the most quoted statements from the workshop came on the first day from Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a close adviser to Pope Francis: “Nowadays a man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”

As with the latest encyclical, speakers at the workshop spoke against consumerism and overconsumption.

Let’s see how Catholic leaders in different countries, especially in the Philippines, educate their followers on the encyclical. It’s a thick document running 160 pages in the Italian version, and covering many issues.

Best-kept secrets

Papal encyclicals as a whole are sometimes called the Catholic Church’s best-kept secrets, espousing relatively progressive causes such as the rights of laborers, respect for human rights and now, environmental protection. The problem is that they are long documents, written in often obscure language.

Even in Catholic schools, exposure to the encyclicals might be limited to memorizing their titles and a bit about what they say, but without a deeper reading and analysis.

Let’s hope this encyclical will find its way into our schools in forms and languages that can be understood, and applied. The encyclical has an appropriate opening: St. Francis of Assisi’s famous “Canticle of the Creatures.”

The encyclical title draws from the canticle’s use of “laudato si” or “praised be” several times, praising Brother Sun, Sister Wind, and nature as a whole.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: encyclical, environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis
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