Catholics can help fight climate change simply by resting
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Pope Francis’ approach to climate change is surprising. He affirms practical and common-sense wisdom about how to care for the environment – for example, by turning down the heat, using less plastic, and reducing water use – but his encyclical also contains a much broader diagnosis of why we should be worried about climate change.
At its root, Francis says, climate change is the result of the “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin” (2). Our irresponsible use of the earth, Pope Francis tells us, is a reflection and a result of our damaged relationships with each other and our distance from God.
It’s tempting to think that Pope Francis’ encyclical is just for the politicians, lobbyists, and environmental groups, but he’s actually talking to the everyday person. “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation,” he writes, “each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvement, and talents” (14).
Here are his seven surprising suggestions:
1. Put the poor first. Prioritizing the needs of the poor is not a separate issue from climate change. Francis writes, “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49).
2. Practice the little ways of love. Borrowing a phrase from St. Therese of Lisieux, Pope Francis calls us to “not miss out on a kind word, a smile, or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship.” Francis notes that climate change is a symptom of a much larger problem – that we no longer live in the knowledge that we mutually belong to each other (229-230). Forgetting care of “my neighbor, for whose care and duty I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God, and with the earth” (70).
3. Be a careful consumer. Pope Francis reaffirms’ Pope Benedict’s claim that “‘purchasing is always a moral’ and not simply an economic ‘act’” (206). Pope Francis calls us to a “change in lifestyle” and to boycott socially irresponsible products to bring “healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic, and social power” (206). As we buy less, we will also experience deeper meaning, Francis tells us. “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own, and consume… Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle… can lead only to violence and mutual destruction” (204).
4. Know that we are loved by God. A culture which misuses and degrades the gifts of creation is one that has forgotten that we are made and loved by God, Pope Francis argues. The first step to recognizing that God created the animals, plants, landscapes, and oceans is to recognize that God created each of us. “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary,” says Pope Francis (65).
5. Appreciate beauty. Pope Francis warns that climate change is a result of, in part, a worldview in which value comes only from profit. But “by learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism” (215). Saint Francis of Assisi, namesake of Pope Francis, is an example of having a spirit of awe at the beauty of creation. Francis reminds us, “Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever Saint Francis of Assisi would gaze at the sun, the moon, or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise” (218).
6. Engage in dialogue. “We need to realize,” says Pope Francis, “that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality” (63). Pope Francis wants more conversations between “science and religion,” which, “with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into a dialogue fruitful for both” (62).
7. Rest. The common societal refrain is that we must take action on climate change. Francis urges action as well, but he balances it with an exhortation to rest, too. “We tend to demean contemplative rest,” he writes, “as something unproductive and unnecessary, but this is to do away with the very thing which is most important about work: its meaning. We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity, which is quite different from mere inactivity… Rest opens our eyes to the bigger picture and gives us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others” (237).
In these seven ways, Pope Francis suggests that we each take on climate change on a personal level. They may seem small, but, as Francis tells us, “we must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world.”
Jenny Heipp is a fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. This article first appeared in Millenial Journal and is reprinted here with kind permission.