I first heard the term “butterfly effect” some years ago when an economist was explaining how the price of bread in Fargo could be affected by the weather in China. Just as some scientists have speculated that weather patterns in Texas can be affected by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, a loaf of bread in North Dakota can cost more if a sparse wheat harvest in China drives the world price of flour to record highs. Economists learn early on that everything is related, and we can learn by studying those relationships. Furthermore, posits the Catholic Church, we can grow deeper in human fulfillment by studying relationships in reference to a universal central being whom we call God.
Pope Francis emphasizes that everything is related in his recent encyclical, “On Care for our Common Home.” Also called Laudato Si’, this teaching letter was published earlier this year. It’s a 65 page book that many people call a treatise on global warming but it would be a shame to miss the broader message about our relationship with God in this document because we focus too much on language about the importance of renewable energy.
In order to live in peace, we need to understand our relationship to God; and we need to understand that relationship in the context of His creation, the Pope says. If we put God at the center of creation, we can begin to have the right relationships which make peace possible; if we put ourselves at the center of creation, then we are prone to misuse the rest of creation.
In summary, the Pope tells us that all things are connected, and that there is a relationship between humans and nature that God expects us to honor. If we don’t know how to treat each other, then we won’t know how to treat nature. This is the state we find ourselves in and the Pope tries to lay out a corrective path. The fix isn’t so much the adoption of renewable fuels as it is about placing God at the center of our being. Sure, Pope Francis talks about energy conservation (for about 25 percent of the document) but he speaks much more earnestly about getting our relationship right with God (for about 75 percent of the document).
Francis lays it out as early as page two: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves.” Much more than asking us to use less energy, the Pope is asking us to consider how we should be living in the first place: “He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs.” My, oh my; that’s a much greater challenge than simply asking us to give up air conditioning.
Laying plain the foundational theology for the encyclical, the Pope says: “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain…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.” Pope Francis is inviting us to consider our relationships — and to consider them in the order presented in scripture: God first, our neighbor second and earth third.
The Pope instructs: “Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor…ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth.”…In that same paragraph (70) he says: “Everything is connected…genuine care for our own lives and our relationship with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”
The Pope cautions that “the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.”
When the Pope says “every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment,” he is talking about far more than carbon emissions. He is seeing the term “environment” in an all-encompassing matter.
“Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centered culture of instant gratification,” he says. I think the media dubbed this a document about climate change because it is much easier to contemplate a world running on renewable energy sources than it is to imagine a world in right relationship with God and neighbor.
Pope Francis raises scientific and political questions throughout this document, but he qualifies: “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.” The Church knows its place, but it demands that other social institutions exercise their rightful authority as well, as broadly as is possible but also within their true limits.
The political and economic manifestation of an unbalanced relationship can result in excessive consumerism, and the Pope makes that point. “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume…Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.” This is a far more challenging statement than anything the Pope says about how much fuel we should use. “Purchasing,” he says, “is always a moral and not simply economic act.”
With a selfish attitude, it is impossible to think of those around us, and the nature around us, as we should. “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” The Pope is calling us to unity.
The Pope holds out the Trinity as an example (No. 240): “The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfillment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.”