Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter, “On Care for Our Common Home,” rightfully considers ecology in the broadest sense of that relatively new word. “Eco” comes from the Greek word “oikos” which means house or home. So ecology is the study of the earth as humanity’s house or home. Now, a home is not simply the walls within which one lives, but a home more broadly includes the people within those walls as well. “Our planet is a homeland,” the Pontiff writes, “humanity is one people living in a common home.” While the Pope acknowledges “enormous technological progress,” he nonetheless calls mankind’s attention to “grave environmental and social problems.” And these few words are key to the encyclical.
His Holiness is certainly harsh on modern industrial excesses, as when he writes, “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” But Pope Francis writes with equal urgency when he urges, “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions.” So the Pope is writing not only to tell nations to clean up their act (literally) but also to admonish all humanity to help the Biblical least brothers and sisters: “the slow, the weak and the less talented.” The Pontiff understands ecology and community to be closely linked: “The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society.”
As one might expect, Pope Francis openly admonishes the wealthy nations that have benefited from industrial and technological advances that they have a serious obligation to correct past abuses. But his words have a broader focus: For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. They need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively. They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet. These last few words have provoked some to accuse the Pontiff of socialism, calling for a redistribution of wealth from the richer nations to the poorer nations. But His Holiness is not proposing socialism; he is demanding honesty: Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the 21st century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities. No nation, no society, no community, no individual, is exempt from the need to reverse, in the Pope’s own morbid words, “the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.”
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, the widow famously drops her two cents into the Temple treasury while her wealthy neighbors donate larger gifts from their comfortable resources. Jesus commends the widow because her gift was from the heart and certainly not from excess wealth. Feeling the pinch is the measure of authentic charity. Note carefully however that, in this Gospel vignette, both the rich neighbors and the poor widow were making a contribution. While the giving was lop-sided, it was not one-sided. Both the well-to-do and the down-and-out were active participants. In his encyclical letter, Pope Francis is calling for a similar, mutual assumption of responsibility on many levels: the richer nations and the poorer nations; elected official and corporate executives; municipalities and local individuals; even parents and children. Every level of society must develop and contribute their own skills “while also demanding a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power.” “Those to whom much is given much will be demanded,” Jesus insists during his public life. Pope Francis is demanding a like sense of responsibility both from modern nations and from modern individuals.