There was cheering two years ago this month when Pope Francis issued Laudato Si’, his long-awaited encyclical on the environment.
But it was two years before that, at a weekly audience one fine June day, when the newly installed pontiff gave his first major address on ecology. His words built on the many eco-teachings of his predecessors and they anticipated his own contributions. He did both with one deceptively simple phrase: “a culture of waste.”
On its surface, the term expresses some basic, well-known realities.
“This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs,” Francis taught in 2013, “which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many people and families suffer hunger and malnutrition.
“There was a time when our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any left over food. Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food, whose value … we are no longer able to judge correctly.”
But Francis didn’t stop there.
“This ‘culture of waste’ tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful — like the unborn child — or are no longer of any use — like the elderly person.”
This connection between our ecological sins and our sins against the dignity of vulnerable human beings goes to the heart of the Catholic understanding of ecology. Pope Francis emphasized this a thousand fold in his eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ with the term “integral ecology.”
In that document, he said this:
“Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble…”
Words like this are steeped in what the Church calls its prophetic voice. In this case, Pope Francis is linking the Church’s eco-efforts, its pro-life teachings, and its general concerns for social justice in ways that challenge both ends of the political spectrum.
Saint John Paul II did this, too, and so did Benedict XVI. In fact, it was Benedict who chastised Catholic ideologues, on the left and right, for selecting only certain issues to champion.
“Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person,” Benedict wrote in a 2009 encyclical that pre-figured Pope Francis’s more popular one. “It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society.”
While many eco-advocates celebrated the release of Laudato Si’ and still champion its environmental messages, we need to understand that those teachings come with hefty implications. They are intrinsically connected to a respect for life — human life in particular, from the moment of one’s conception to the moment of one’s natural death.
In other words, what Pope Francis stated definitively in Laudato Si’ is this inconvenient truth: if we’re going to fix the quite real messes we’re finding ourselves in because of climate change, plummeting biodiversity, and tons of plastics in our oceans, we must also take a long, hard look at our assumptions about what guides human choices in other areas, too.
We will build, Francis and his predecessors tell us, either a culture that relishes life — all life — and nurtures it. Or we will suffer from the acceptance that even innocent human life can be tossed away if doing so suits our needs.
The choice is ours to make.
William Patenaude, M.A., KHS, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and is a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. He is a parishioner of Saint Joseph Parish, West Warwick, and writes at CatholicEcology.net.