Addressing the sacred and the secular world on environment

Father John A. Kiley

In the opening lines of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, he liberally quotes his predecessors in the Chair of Peter to illustrate that care for our common home — and the persons who live in it — has long been a Papal concern.

Following the lead of Pope St. John XXIII, who addressed Pacem in Terris “to all men and women of good will,” Pope Francis carefully writes that his thoughts too are meant for both the sacred and the secular world: “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” His Holiness goes on to cite Paul VI who taught, “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation.” St. John Paul II is recalled for his words in his first encyclical about human beings who “see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” And of course agreeing with these observations are the words of Benedict XVI who proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”

Wisely Pope Francis does not limit himself to Papal authority in justifying his concern about the world’s environment. The Old Testament especially teams with words of respect for the physical world in which mankind works out his eternal destiny. The opening chapter of Genesis in orderly but colorful fashion outlines God’s creation of the natural world. God successively creates the major environments of the world — light and dark, ski and sea, dry land — then he places creatures within those three settings — sun and moon, birds and fish, animals and mankind. Then God looked at this perfectly balanced universe and sees “that it was very good.” God’s words to Adam and Eve are certainly instructive. After giving our first parents “dominion” over the whole world in Genesis I, God elaborates on this charge in Genesis II by reminding Adam and Eve that their commission toward their environment was “to till it and to tend it.” God intended that mankind should cultivate, plough and work the earth (“to till it”) but he also intended that human beings should care, protect and preserve the world of nature (“to tend it”). It is man’s charge to insure that the earth provide not only subsistence for the farmer but also fruitfulness for the community. A balance respecting nature – tilling but also tending – was there from the start.

Original sin, of course, greatly upset the balance of nature. Adam would now have to till and tend “by the sweat of his brow” and Eve’s motherhood would entail the pangs of child birth. The severity of the imbalance introduced into creation by sin was graphically illustrated by the slaying of Abel by Cain. All relationships – natural as well as fraternal – were upset by sin. Mercifully and happily, through the Jewish nation, God offered an opportunity to mankind to restore original justice to the world. Pope Francis observes that Jewish tradition clearly shows that this renewal entails recovering and respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator. This balance can be seen in the law of the Sabbath. On the seventh day, God rested from all his work. He commanded Israel to set aside each seventh day as a day of rest. Further, every seven years, a sabbatical year was set aside for Israel, a complete rest for the land when sowing was forbidden and one reaped only what was necessary for survival. Then, after seven weeks of years, a Jubilee was celebrated as a time of fraternal forgiveness and community renewal. This cycle was an attempt to ensure balance and fairness in the Jews’ relationship with the land on which they lived and worked. Jewish law clearly acknowledged that the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone. Those who tilled and kept the land were obliged to share its fruits with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner”

His Holiness and scripture understand that man’s responsibilities are grounded in three fundamental, intertwined relationships: “with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” The true believer will heed these responsibilities as a divine mandate dating back even to Eden.