Within a week or so we’re expecting the encyclical of Pope Francis on the Environment. An encyclical is a letter that the pope sends to the church throughout the world about a matter of Christian belief or morality or a major concern, like the environment, that’s important for living our lives in this world. As we know, the condition of our natural world is not only a concern of Catholics, it concerns everyone in our world today; it’s also a concern for the world of tomorrow. Many, in fact, are waiting to see what the pope says.
Some people say the environment is really a concern of scientists and politicians and the pope should keep away from the subject and stick to religious questions . But the popes have spoken out strongly on social issues throughout history and particularly in recent times.
At the end of the 19th century, for example, Pope Leo XIII spoke out against the awful conditions of workers in the western world because of the Industrial Revolution. Pope Leo wrote that workers had a right to a just wage and a right to unionize to promote their just interests. The bad conditions in which people were working affected families and their children. The pope was a voice speaking for social justice. (Rerum novarum)
Today, in speaking out on the environment and climate control, Pope Francis is following what recent popes like Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have already said about the issue. He’s looking are at the world prudently, which is not the same as looking at the world personally, or scientifically, or politically, or economically, or even spiritually.
Let me explain:
Looking at the world prudently is to have a larger vision of a question. Let me give you an example. Suppose today the weather people announced that another hurricane like Sandy was going to hit the Jersey shore in a few days and I lived on the Jersey shore. Suppose they announced that 97% of weather people said it was going to hit. Suppose I said that’s not 100% sure and I decided to say a little prayer and stay in my house.
I would be personally imprudent, don’t you think? We can’t think of an issue as large as the environment only as an individual, a scientist, a politician or an economist. We need scientific, political, economic wisdom, to be sure, but we need a larger vision, a prudential vision that incorporates all of these.
We need prudence today. Unfortunately, we can misunderstand this important virtue. We think prudence is being overly cautious, afraid to act or to change. Prudence is not that at all. Prudence is a virtue that’s not afraid to look at things as they are and react reasonably according to what we know. That’s what the pope will be urging us to do in his encyclical.
We’re living in an age of “expressive individualism,” the philosopher Charles Taylor says. We tend to see the world as a stage to express ourselves. We find it hard to think of and to act in a world bigger than ourselves.
Because of “expressive individualism” we can lose our connection to natural world that supports us with life. One of our most important spiritual tasks today to regain our respect for the earth that God has given us. Because of “expressive individualism” we can lose our connection with the rest of the human family, especially with the poor. I’m sure we will hear all those themes in Pope Francis’ encyclical.