By Jim McCarville
Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s letter on our abuse of the environment and on the abuse of our fellow men and women, is five years old this month. While it is based on the traditions of Catholic Social Teaching, the age of coronavirus gives it new meaning for our lives.
It taught that the root causes of our abuse of the environment and the abuses of our fellow men and women are the same – greed, domination and the idolatry of the individual.
It shows us that the difficulty in correcting these social conditions (environmental sins) is, in part, due to the fact that we don’t make a personal connection to the conditions that caused them and an individual’s obligation to correct them.We are like the son or daughter born into a criminal or slave-holding family, who, blinded by the wealth it creates, refuses to consider the consequences, and rationalizes that they “just inherited the condition.” We also are collectively too blinded by our financial system to consider that system’s devastation of the planet and destruction of so many people’s lives.
Laudato Si lays bare our complicity. It makes the unconscious conscious.
Yet we persist in denial. Why?
We think it too hard. We will have to change everything. Our habits are too deeply ingrained. Our personal greed too great. And anyway, we didn’t create these inequalities, “We just inherited them.”
Yes, we inherited a system of inequality and planetary destruction, but the new habits of confinement and social distancing provide us an opportunity. We see it all around us; the skies are clearer, the air cleaner, the birds are singing louder.
But we also see the inequalities in access to healthcare, computer learning and economic safety nets more clearly.
There is a cost to sustaining improvements in the environment, just as there is a cost to correcting the inequalities our current situation reveals.
How will we choose to go forward?
The Pope wouldn’t be Catholic if he didn’t tell us that our first problem is blind, individualistic reliance on financial, economic and technological tools instead of on God. But he also tells us that previously accepted religious principles, like the poor biblical translation “domination of the earth” instead of “care for the earth,” are equally to blame. We need a new awareness that makes sense in our time of our role in the world and our relationship to all creation and the Creator responsible for it.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis takes the traditional Catholic social teaching of “Solidarity,” previously applied as an antidote to man’s abuse of his brothers and sisters, and applies it as an antidote to abuse of the planet. Solidarity is not well understood when the word stands alone; the best definition that I have seen was given by David Brooks, a non-Christian, in the March 19, 2020 NY Times. He wrote:
“Through plague eyes I realize there’s an important distinction between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection means feeling empathetic toward others and being kind to them. That’s fine in normal times. Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good — the kind of thing needed in times like now.
“This concept of solidarity grows out of Catholic social teaching. It starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation — to one another and to all creation. It celebrates the individual and the whole together, and to the nth degree.
“Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. … It’s solidarity that causes a Marine to risk his life dragging the body of his dead comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that healthcare workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not for yourself or another but for the common whole.
“It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. … Those also serve who endure and wait.
“I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.”
When this is over, I wonder, will we remember the value of the medical and sanitation workers, of truck drivers and grocery workers, of the people we called essential workers? Will we remember the debt the young paid for the old by taking positions in the front lines? Will we remember the inequalities exposed in race, education, health, housing and economic safety nets? Will we remember the clean skies and the birds singing?
Or will we only remember “normalcy?”
Jim McCarville is the Vice-President (Lay Member) of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests and lectures on Pope Francis and Catholic Social Teaching.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.