Earth Stewardship and Laudato Si’: Care for Our Common Home Compels Undividedness of Science and Religion, by Calvin B. DeWitt
As I was finishing my paper, Earth Stewardship and Laudato Si’—for The Quarterly Review of Biology at the invitation of its editor-in-chief, Daniel Dykhuisen—I found myself being drawn to a compelling conclusion: Laudato Si’ is so integrative of science and religion, so integrative of human and natural ecology, and so vital towards caring for Earth as Our Common Home, that it clearly earns the status of required reading for all. Indeed, in its 246 numbered sections, its call for an ‘integral ecology’ warrants attention by absolutely everyone—even as it embraces everyone and everything.
For Science and Religion, it is particularly significant, as it compels undivided perseverance “On Care for Our Common Home.” “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration,” says its author, Pope Francis, “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (sec. 3). With this invitation, Papa Francesco, whose namesake from Assisi is his “guide and inspiration” (sec. 10), gives to everyone a scientifically and ethically grounded treatise that places climate change, loss of biodiversity, ocean degradation, atmospheric pollution, and social degradation in the context of the ‘excessive anthropocentrism’—often handed to us as “a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about” (sec. 110).
A precursor of this encyclical was a widespread discussion of two ecologies: ‘natural ecology’ on the science side and ‘human ecology’ more on the religion side. A prime example, some two weeks before its public release on June 18, 2015, is that Laudato Si’ was the focal point of a Human and Natural Ecology Conference at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. Among its sponsors was the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a council closely associated with the Pope’s production of this encyclical, and people attending were called from around the world to discuss and prepare for this “highly anticipated encyclical on ecology and climate change.” The opening public evening lecture for this event on June 3, given by John Allen, Jr. a Boston Globe editor who reports on the Vatican, again addressed these “two ecologies” with its title being particularly telling: “On Human and Natural Ecology: Anticipating Pope Francis’s New Encyclical on the Environment.”
In this and various other related meetings at the University of St. Thomas prior to the encyclical’s release, in which I participated as a speaker and discussant, participants came to expect that Laudato Si’ would focus on “human and natural ecology” as a major theme. But upon its publication, it became clear that Francis had been working toward uniting science and religion in such a way that these ‘two ecologies’ would become one ecology. The phrase ‘Human and Natural Ecology’ would become ‘Integral Ecology.’
“Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop,” wrote Francis. “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.” And this means connectedness. “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings.”
And from this he concludes that “the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality” (Sec. 138). Pope Francis emphasises that “[e]cological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is, in reality, interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system” (sec. 111). Moreover, “[a]ny technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well” (sec. 200).
“Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (Sec. 139). Responding to Laudato Si’ the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo and Academy member and Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, wrote, “Pope Francis’ effort to unite science, policy, and religion toward an integral ecology approach is just a start. We hope that other religions and moral and political leaders will join this new synergy and nudge society toward equitable solutions to ecological and social justice problems without losing sight of the values of the human person and the common good.”
In his invitation to enter dialogue on this needed reformation, Pope Francis is aiming not for mere dialogue, but dialogue that results in appropriate action that is at once swift and deliberative. Human civilization, and indeed, life on Earth, has come to global crisis—specifically in the sense of krisis—the Greek rendition of crisis, meaning: “The point in the progress of a disease when an important development or change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death.” Krisis is “the turning-point of a disease for better or worse . . . a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent” (Oxford English Dictionary Online 2016). It is with this meaning that Pope Francis writes, “today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis” in “an integral ecology” (sec. 137).
All of which makes Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ required reading as a remarkably comprehensive treatise on understanding and caring for the earth system as our common home. And its title invites every person on earth to “gratefully admire the beneficent arrangement which permits the Earth to be clothed with verdure and abundant life,” as U.S. astronomer Frank Washington Very presaged in 1900.
My “Earth Stewardship and Laudato Si’” develops these topics and themes in a more-detailed and more-comprehensive 14-page paper that is available as a free download at: https://doi.org/10.1086/688096 and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ — On Care for Our Common Home is available as a free download at: www.papalencyclicals.net/
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DeWitt C. B. 2011. Earthwise: A Guide to Hopeful Creation Care. Third Edition. Grand Rapids (Michigan): Faith Alive Christian Resources.
DeWitt, C. B. 2016. Earth Stewardship and Laudato Si’, Quart. Rev. Biol. 91(3):271-284.
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/688096 [Free Access]
Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2016. s.v. “crisis.” (Accessed 3 June 2016).
Pope Francis. 2015. Laudato Si’ — On Care for Our Common Home. Vatican: Libreria Editrice. [Free Access]
Very F. W. 1900. Atmospheric Radiation: A Research Conducted at the Allegheny Observatory and at Providence, R.I. Washington (DC): Government Printing Office.