Last week Pope Francis issued a blockbuster papal encyclical on the environment called “Praised Be.” It is the Pope’s clarion call to address what he describes as an urgent global environmental crisis. Sweeping in scope, it addresses the many dimensions of environmental degradation and the devastating toll it is taking on people, communities, and nations.
He writes, “It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter…can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity, and urgency of the challenge we face.” The Pope pulls no punches and is clear and direct, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
Among the several important elements in the nearly two hundred page document is the grave disparity between advanced and developing countries, and the disproportionate effect changes in the environment have on the poor.
For example, of climate change the Pope writes, “It’s worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters….” Many of these people are forced to leave their homes, essentially becoming environmental refugees.
The Pope calls for greater balance among all peoples of the planet and between people and the planet itself. The environmental, human, and spiritual ecosystems, he says, are deeply interconnected and mutually dependent on one another.
He writes, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Achieving a Fair Balance
In the ninth chapter of his second letter to the Church in Corinth, we find the apostle Paul advocating for the poor and recounting the necessity of mutual love, understanding, and action. He urges the church community in Corinth to share their abundance with fellow believers in need, specifically with the struggling Christian community in Jerusalem. Echoing Pope Francis’ sentiments, Paul tells the Corinthians, “it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”
Now, the more cynical among us might dismiss this text as merely a first century stewardship campaign — indeed this text is still employed in stewardship programs in churches today — but Paul’s appeal, like Pope Francis’, has deep theological consequences. For anytime we employ our wealth, money, or human or natural resources, it has spiritual, theological, as well as environmental implications.
Harkening back to the practice of the very earliest expression church of sharing gifts freely and holding all things in common (Acts 2 and 4), Paul urges the Corinthians to generously care and consider the concern for their fellow believers in need. He shows the Corinthians and today’s readers that our love, concern, and responsibility for one another must transcend differences in wealth, culture, language, and geography. Today we must recognize and seek to alleviate the suffering of those in circumstances and climates different from our own — those plagued by drought, facing rising shorelines, or a scarcity of sustainable food supplies and lack of clean water—both for the good of all people and the good of all creation.
At the end of the passage, Paul harkens back even further in the Bible to when God provided manna from heaven each morning to the Israelites wandering in the desert (Exodus 16). Each took only what he or she needed, and everyone had enough. Paul writes, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” There was no stockpiling or hoarding. Traders were not speculating on manna futures, as they do with natural resources today. There was simply enough.
As Paul knew, it is unsustainable for any ecosystem, including the nascent church network he was developing across the Mediterranean world, to survive and thrive when we are driven primarily by self-interest or lack a sense of global concern. Like the Earth’s environment, the Body of Christ is a beautiful and diverse ecosystem, which must be continually nurtured and tended for the good of all.
In a passage that could have been easily written by Paul himself, Pope Francis writes, “The natural environment is a common patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence to others.”
May the church reclaim its heritage of mutual concern and seize this historical moment to address the urgent needs of our planet, alleviate the suffering of our neighbors around the globe, and to safeguard the Earth for generations to come.
As the Psalmist writes, “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:7-9).