Pope Francis on Humans, Nature, and Power

Pope Francis’s much anticipated encyclical entitled “Praised Be: On the Care of Our Common Home” was released on June 18. In it, he calls for an “integral ecology” attentive to both social and ecological dimensions of our responsibility as humans.

The pope begins by describing, with scientific acuity, what is happening to our common home on earth, including pollution and climate change, loss of common water rights, and biodiversity loss, as well as many declines in the quality of human life and breakdowns in society. He demonstrates that Scripture shows humans living in relationship not only to God and our neighbors but also the earth itself. Boldly he explores the social roots of our present crisis: anthropocentrism, domination of people and the earth’s resources, consumerism, devaluation of human labor, and misuse of technology and economics to gain wealth for a few.

“Integral ecology,” as Pope Francis puts it, means that “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves” (139). The crisis we face is both environmental and social. They are not two separate crises, but one. He commends God’s preferential option for the poor, expressed in social goods such as improving the quality of urban life — public space, housing, and transportation.

He challenges world powers to conduct meaningful dialogue to solve our serious human and environmental problems. He calls for honest and transparent decision-making processes in contrast to “the forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project in exchange for favors” (182). He challenges those holding political office to avoid “a mentality of ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy,’ ” saying, “if they are courageous, they will … leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility” (181).

The pope concludes by inviting everyone to ecological conversion through education “at schools, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere” (213), to promote a lifestyle that brings pressure from consumer choices to bear on businesses, forcing them to operate cognizant of their environmental responsibility. Daily acts reducing personal consumption, he says, “break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness” (230).

While the encyclical is addressed to Catholics, it is expected to resonate deeply with those of other faiths and even of no faith, in hope that we will transcend political divisions, move beyond indifference, and unite in acting to curb carbon pollution. Just as when Americans of all faiths came together during the Civil Rights era, this is a time for faith communities and their leaders to take a stand because it is our moral imperative.

As the pope has said before, “Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude” (General Audience 5/21/14, No. 3).

Lectionary Opportunities

The four segments of 2 Samuel during July (2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 [July 5], 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 [July 12], 2 Samuel 7:1-14a [July 19], and 2 Samuel 11:1-15 [July 26] continue the theme of royal power and corruption that was seen in 1 Samuel last month. They trace David’s rapid rise in favor, followed quickly by his fall, as he callously exploits both female and male subjects, impregnating a woman, and having her husband killed. This event does not come out of the blue: earlier exploitation and bloodletting surround the episodes included in the lectionary. This story’s paucity of references to the world beyond the human underscores just how far David has moved from his pastoral, sheep-tending, origins.

Passages from Psalms, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Mark, and 2 Corinthians likewise offer various commentaries on the limitations of power granted even to the most fearsome of human rulers:

July 5

Psalm 48 describes God’s protection of the holy city, which kings in all their power cannot defeat.

Ezekiel 2:1-5 (alt.) depicts God’s calling Ezekiel to speak truth to people who are unlikely to hear him.

Psalm 123 (alt.) depicts worshipers responding in humility toward God, the source of mercy when the powerful scorn them.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10, contrasting sharply with power grasping among Israel’s kings, muses on true sources of power: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness….”

Mark 6:1-13 describes the missionary journey on which Jesus sends his disciples, traveling light and depending on hospitality to pave their way.

July 12

Psalm 24 declares the exalted words, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it,” and prescribes clean hands and pure hearts for those standing in God’s sanctuary.

Amos 7:7-15 (alt.) critiques royal corruption: a country prophet condemning social inequalities is ironically banished from speaking truth in God’s temple, which is claimed as the king’s own.

Psalm 85:8-13 (alt.) describes God’s glory dwelling where “faithfulness will spring up from the ground … and our land will yield its increase.”

Ephesians 1:3-14 depicts a cosmic Christ through whom all things, both heavenly and earthly, are gathered.

Mark 6:14-29, like other passages from this month, offers commentary on corrupt power. Here John the Baptist dies for speaking against an unlawful royal marriage.

July 19

Psalm 89:20-37, the final exultant words before lament over the king’s defeat, compares the king’s longevity to that of the sun and moon, ironically reminding us that human life and power are actually fleeting, while the universe endures.

Jeremiah 23:1-6 (alt.) condemns leaders (“shepherds”) who destroy the “sheep.” In contrast, God will raise up a king bringing justice and safety to the land.

Psalm 23 (alt.) describes God as a shepherd who cares tenderly for each animal, and a host who feeds and protects his flock.

Ephesians 2:11-22 emphasizes Christ’s unifying of humanity in peace, so that they “are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.”

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 describes Jesus’ compassion for people lacking leaders, offering healing and teaching to all.

July 26

Psalm 14 underscores the condemnation of those who scorn God and “eat up my people as they eat bread.” God will restore the fortunes of the exploited.

2 Kings 4:42-44 (alt.) demonstrates God’s provision for the hungry.

Psalm 145:10-18 (alt.) describes divine care for humans and animals alike, whose needs are satisfied by God’s open hand.

Ephesians 3:14-21 depicts the apostle praying that the people be “rooted and grounded in love.”

John 6:1-21 inaugurates five weeks of readings from John 6, all concerned with food and its provider. The multiplication of loaves and fish echoes the daily miracle of God’s provision of food from the earth. Jesus’ walk on stormy water underscores the power of both nature and God.