Reading Laudato Si’ in the Wake of the Charleston Massacre

2869244971_9d1752dd25_oToday has obviously been filled with mourning over the Charleston church shooting, during which nine African American parishioners were killed. The likely perpetrator has since been identified as Dylann Storm Roof. News outlets displayed a chilling photograph of him staring menacing into the camera with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa on the breast pocket of his jacket. What arrests my eyes more than these obvious symbols of racism is the background. He is posing in some kind of wetland. The trees look more like vines full of dying vegetation. The water the trees stand in is a pale washed-out green. I have no idea where this picture is taken, or what the actual conditions of the flora behind him are, but it looks to me like everything is sickly and dying. He seems to be posing on the set of a dystopian nightmare.

Dylann-Storm-RoofThis is classic pathetic fallacy on my part: the mood of a murderous villain projected and echoed onto an environment that seems to speak of what churns in that person’s psyche. I’m going to stick with this fallacy for the moment because I put the whole day aside to read Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be”), the much anticipated encyclical authored by Pope Francis that promised to turn the climate debate on its head. In many ways, today should have been a day of triumph for anyone who cares about the planet, and our fate on it. I commit my fallacy, then, because I want to preserve the sense of elation I feel in reading the Laudato Si’ even as I share in the sense of grievous loss that racism has again perpetrated.

The Charleston massacre is a tragedy of great importance, which recalls the importance of the topic of anti-black racism that has already been so much on everyone’s mind since at least last summer when Ferguson became a rallying cry against police abuse and murder of black young men. The former is an important diagnosis of a global and planetary problem that just can’t seem to receive the sustained, purposeful attention it needs even though it affects everything about the way we live today and will live tomorrow. How might they be related? What does it mean to read the Pope’s encyclical on a day of such tragedy?

Let me first record my immediate impressions of the Laudato Si‘. Comprised of 246 numbered paragraphs divided into five chapters, each chapter containing several roman numerated sections, the Laudato Si’ offers a systemic overview of the many factors contributing to the crisis of climate change before turning attention to concrete and spiritual ways this crisis can be alleviated. At the very start, it says: “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”  It continues, “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack interest” (par.14). Right away, we are led to the central message of this document. Climate change is real, humans are responsible for it, and inaction is a sin, whether it take the form of active obstruction or passive indifference. Much of this inaction is abetted by a culture that values consumerism and individuality and distraction over care and community and thoughtfulness. Economic growth is not a measure of well being, and can even work against it.

This message flatly and directly rejects decades of carefully coordinated denial that has successfully bullied many public commentators from speaking frankly. Even now, as I write, Pope Francis’s document is being assailed by conservative politicians in the US. But such attacks don’t work as well as when they are directed against, for example, scientists. The Pope is the spiritual leader of one of the world’s most important religious institutions, and thus his writings carry an authority that cannot be easily dismissed, especially when these writing are as explicit as this: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (par. 217).

In other words, the Pope is saying that there is a moral responsibility to address environmental crises that is central to what it means to be a Catholic and a Christian. Those who oppose his message, therefore, must refute the Pope on the basis of what it means to be these things. In effect, they must say that one can still be a Catholic and a Christian while continuing to be indifferent to the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, and that therefore the Pope is wrong. While this kind of response might be easy enough for an Evangelical Christian to make, it’s much harder if one is a self-identified Catholic politicians, as is Jeb Bush. When asked about the encyclical, he answered, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.” As Peter Beinart of The Atlantic points out, this kind of statement “blatantly contradicts” what he has said in the past. These are Bush’s words: “As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you. In the United States, many people think you need to keep your faith, put it in a security box, if you’re an elected official—put it in a safety deposit box until you finish your service as a public servant and then you can go get it back. I never felt that was appropriate.”

More importantly, the Laudato Si’ pulls no punches when it speaks about what needs to be done. It says 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” (par. 165). While this statement does give more credence than is due to the argument that natural gas is a kind of bridge fuel from coal and oil to full renewable energy, it nevertheless is explicit that all must be phased out as soon as possible.

The Pope also takes a surprisingly robust stand on the use of carbon credits as a way to put a price on pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (par. 171)

Likewise, it’s clear who’s responsibility it is to fund much of the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s the global North’s responsibility: “there is a need for common and differentiated responsibilities. As the bishops of Bolivia have stated, ‘the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused'” (par. 170).

What I believe is just as significant as its candid diagnosis of the problem of climate change and what needs to be done about it is its emphasis on ecology. A simple word search reveals “ecology” and “ecological” are used seventy-nine times in the document. At one point, it even offers a clear definition of what it means by the word: “Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected” (par. 138). Near the end of the document, it turns to the Trinity and imagines it as figuring exactly this kind of relationship between living organisms and the environments of which they are inextricably a part: “Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (par. 240).

Everything is interconnected. If this is true, then how is the message of the Laudato Si’ connected to the shooting death of nine African American parishioners in Charleston, SC? This question only arises because this message happened to be delivered on this day. And yet, since the message is that we are called upon by faith and morality to seek out interconnections we ordinarily overlook, this also feels to me like a fair question. I have a good idea how Pope Francis would answer this question: “When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment” (par.229).

This feels to me like a pretty good response. Where my own thinking differs is in my belief that we are not confronted by the corrosion of a once-sound foundation. Rather, we face the challenge of creating new foundations that don’t yet exist.

The full text of Laudato Si’ can be found here.

© 2015 Min Hyoung Song