The pope 'minds his own business'

September 3rd, 2015

The political commentator's argument was unequivocal. He said that the pope should restrict himself to spiritual and religious matters and stay out of politics. According to him, the pope should mind his own business. The pundit's ire (and I didn't catch his name on the radio) was provoked by Pope Francis's most recent encyclical, Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home. In it, the pope calls for all of humanity to unite to care for our planet and all that dwell upon it, especially the poor and most vulnerable.

There are many things in Francis's open letter to the world which commend its reading and study, and I will speak to just a few of them in this blog. But before I do that, I want to address the commentator's argument that the pope should mind his own business.

According to Christian theology and the deepest streams of the Judeo-Christian traditions, there is nothing that is more the pope's business (and, indeed, the business of all Christians) than the stewardship of God's creation and our theological and spiritual reflection and proclamation regarding God's creation. The pope, to use language the pundit might understand, is “minding his own business” when he speaks of the environment.

The Bible begins with God's creation of the heavens and the earth. The Psalms bear testimony to the wonder of God as Creator and the glory of God's creation. The opening of the Gospel of John reiterates this message. Jesus himself repeatedly calls upon us to be stewards of God's creation. Christian scripture climaxes with promises related to God's redemption of a creation that groans for God's restorative grace. Along the way, we, as God's agents (i.e., God's stewards) upon this earth, are charged to care for this world which God loves and for which Christ gave his life. (Remember, for example, the verse most of us learned as children, "For God so loved the world …", John 3:16).

The political commentator, and perhaps others, may resent Pope Francis's entry into the conversation about global climate change and other topics regarding the environment. But the pope's entry into the conversation reminds us that the current debate has been distorted and politicized in ways that are not only counter-productive, but also irresponsible. Francis is reclaiming the discussion of the environment for Christian theology in a manner that is both responsible and spiritually appropriate.

His letter begins by evoking the proclamation of that other Francis. The encyclical begins:

"'Laudato si', mi' Signore' - 'Praise be to you, my Lord.' In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. 'Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

"This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she 'groans in travail' (Romans 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Genesis 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters."
 [Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home(Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015), 7]

There are several striking things about Pope Francis's letter. First, it represents a powerful example of practical theology, allowing the resources of sacred scripture and the theological wisdom of the ages to engage a subject of real and immediate concern. Second, the letter presents profoundly biblical reflection, not only providing wisdom from biblical sources, but also recasting the contemporary discussion in biblical categories. Finally, it offers good news, both hope for our planet and hope for a humanity recalled to responsibility for "our common home."

Francis's letter arrived in my mail box this summer just a few days after I finished reading another book on our human "home" by another Francis - in that case a study of prehistoric Britain by the archaeologist, Francis Pryor. While Pryor, an atheist, might find it hard to agree with any number of things any pope has said, on one thing he would agree with Pope Francis. In the words of Glynis Jones, another prehistorian Pryor approvingly quotes: "Home is not the house, but where the garden is." (Francis Pryor, Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from British Prehistory (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 80.

Of course, the "garden" to which Pope Francis draws our attention is the one which is co-created and nurtured by God and humanity as symbolically represented in the creation stories of Genesis. As Francis writes:

"The creation accounts in the Book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. … It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture." (Francis, Laudato Si', 47-48).

I have mentioned before in this blog the value of what is commonly called The Daily Examen, a form of prayer popularized by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. The Examen provides a form of meditative prayer in which we daily recall to mind the fact that we live every moment in the presence of the God who created us in love and desires above all else to share this love in and through us. The Examen asks us to recall specific things for which we are grateful and to give God thanks for them. It also asks us, in this context of remembering the love, grace, goodness and generosity of God, to examine our lives, reviewing the large and small things we have done, those things through which we experienced the loving presence of God and those things which we regret. Laying our failings and regrets before God, we ask for God's forgiveness, and we pray for God's Spirit to empower us to live and to express God's love in our lives.

If anything, Pope Francis's most recent encyclical confirms that he is not only worthy to bear the name “Francis,” but that he is a student of Ignatius and a Jesuit. Laudato Si' is an "Examen" addressed to the whole world, inviting us to examine our lives and our consciences in the presence of the God who created us and all things in love and who calls us to lovingly and responsibly care for this world. The explicit call to repentance that is essential to this encyclical is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. In this matter, our repentance not only will allow us to participate in the redemption of the world, but in our own redemption as children of God.

At the close of the encyclical, Pope Francis invites us to pray two prayers. I will close with the opening lines of the first of these:

"All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty." (Francis, Laudato Si', 158.)

This article originally appeared at President Jinkins' blog Thinking Out Loud. Reprinted with permission.

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