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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Seven things to know about Francis's planned eco-encyclical

As mentioned in the top ten eco-stories of 2013, there have been rumors of an environmental encyclical. On Friday the Vatican confirmed the rumors. And so now there’s lots of talk about what will be in it.

For clues, we look to Francis’s first major statement on ecology: his June 5th General Audience. In a handful of paragraphs Francis outlined his concerns as well as how they relate to others. Given that, what might a Pope Francis eco-encyclical look like?

Here’s what we know so far:

1. From yesterday's announcement, the document will be rooted in the John Paul II and Benedict XVI concept of “human ecology.”  
(Vatican Radio) The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., confirmed on Friday that Pope Francis has begun work on a draft text on the topic of ecology, which could become an encyclical. But, Father Lombardi said, the project is in an early stage, so it is too early to make any prediction about the timing of possible publication.
Father Lombardi said it is important to note that Pope Francis intends to put particular emphasis on the theme of “human ecology,” a phrase used by Pope Benedict to describe not only how people must defend and respect nature but how the nature of the person – masculine and feminine as created by God – must also be defended.
It’s no surprise that human ecology takes center stage in the Vatican news blurb. In his June 5th audience Francis rooted his words in his predecessors’: 
Moreover on various occasions Benedict XVI has recalled that this task entrusted to us by God the Creator requires us to grasp the pace and the logic of creation. Instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating and exploiting; we do not “preserve” the earth, we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a freely-given gift to look after.
We are losing our attitude of wonder, of contemplation, of listening to creation and thus we no longer manage to interpret in it what Benedict XVI calls “the rhythm of the love-story between God and man”. Why does this happen? Why do we think and live horizontally, we have drifted away from God, we no longer read his signs.
However “cultivating and caring” do not only entail the relationship between us and the environment, between man and creation. They also concern human relations. The popes have spoken of a human ecology, closely connected with environmental ecology. We are living in a time of crisis; we see it in the environment, but above all we see it in men and women. The human person is in danger: this much is certain — the human person is in danger today, hence the urgent need for human ecology!

2. Also from that audience we find Francis connecting this conversation with economic matters—specific ones at that:
The peril is grave, because the cause of the problem is not superficial but deeply rooted. It is not merely a question of economics but of ethics and anthropology. The Church has frequently stressed this; and many are saying: yes, it is right, it is true... but the system continues unchanged since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money, money, cash commands. And God our Father gave us the task of protecting the earth — not for money, but for ourselves: for men and women. 
So be prepared for the pontiff to expand this conversation, espeically given the importance he placed on (and the reaction to) his statements on economics in his first papal exhortation.

3. And as we know, Francis is not one to speak only in theory. He speaks to each of us—and includes himself in his exhortations. When it comes to the environment, he exhorts us all to make changes. In this case that means that you and I need to throw out our “throw-away culture” because how you and I consume is a matter related to both our personal holiness (that is, living virtuously) and the common good: 
We have this task! Nevertheless men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the “culture of waste”. If a computer breaks it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people end up being considered normal. If on a winter's night, here on the Via Ottaviano — for example — someone dies, that is not news. If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, that is not news, it seems normal. It cannot be so! And yet these things enter into normality: that some homeless people should freeze to death on the street — this doesn’t make news. On the contrary, when the stock market drops 10 points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by 10 points is a tragedy!

4. All this will, of course, be linked to human life issues, specifically abortion and euthanasia. This will continue an important theme in B16 (who said that “[o]ur duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards creation”). Pope Francis will of course underscore this in his own way, as he has often to date and did on June 5th: 
[P]eople are thrown aside as if they were trash. This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful — like the unborn child — or are no longer of any use — like the elderly person.

5. Francis is deeply concerned about how the previous two items are related—how human over consumption (and our throw-away mentality) is intrinsically related to the lives of people elsewhere, born and unborn. Again from the audience:
This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many people and families suffer hunger and malnutrition. There was a time when our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any left over food. Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food, whose value, which goes far beyond mere financial parameters, we are no longer able to judge correctly.
Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry! I ask everyone to reflect on the problem of the loss and waste of food, to identify ways and approaches which, by seriously dealing with this problem, convey solidarity and sharing with the underprivileged.
That said, look for an eco-encyclical that challenges us all—especially in the hyper-consuming Westin very specific and sacrificial ways.

6. Given that Francis does like to surprise people, we can be sure that we’ll all be surprised with how he expands these themes. It's likely that he will get very specific—mentioning particular resources, places, and peoples. While the placement of matters that can be easily associated with a particular time can sometimes date a magisterial document, I can see how papal attention given to tangible and temporal ecological realities will do much to connect our duties toward the environment with our duties toward the human person.

7. Lastly, Francis has a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. Like his predecessors, he routinely entrusts his papacy to her intercession. And so the theological hermeneutic of such encyclical will, it seems, be specifically Marian. After all, it was Mary, as creature, that allowed the grace of God to stir within her and bring into human history the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sin of the world. 

That’s my take. What’s yours? Put your wish list of ideas in the comments below. If I get a good many I may very well send them to the Holy Father. After all, we know that Francis likes to engage the People of God for the good of all people and all creation.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Pope Francis to diplomats: build peace by protecting life, nature

Photo: Flicker/Catholic Church (England and Wales)
At today’s gathering with the Vatican diplomatic corps for the annual “State of the World” address, Pope Francis continued to confound pundits who seek to box him in this or that worldly ideological box.

As with his predecessors, Francis sounded the alarm on a wide range of present-day ills—including a growing culture of disposability “which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society,” as Benedict XVI put it when speaking of the link between the human person and the environment.

Francis put it this way:  
Peace is also threatened by every denial of human dignity, firstly the lack of access to adequate nutrition. We cannot be indifferent to those suffering from hunger, especially children, when we think of how much food is wasted every day in many parts of the world immersed in what I have often termed “the throwaway culture”. Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as “unnecessary”. For example, it is frightful even to think there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day; children being used as soldiers, abused and killed in armed conflicts; and children being bought and sold in that terrible form of modern slavery which is human trafficking, which is a crime against humanity.
By now you may have noted in Francis a theme of connecting the environmental concept of disposability with abortion. This is a brilliant (and quite accurate) way of bridging issues and ideologies. In doing so he is really just making the same point that Benedict XVI was making in Caritas in Veritate, which is quoted at the masthead of this blog.

Also like Benedict XVI—who devoted an entire Message for World Day of Peace on the environment—Francis connects the need for sustainable environmental ethics with the quest for peace. 
Finally, I wish to mention another threat to peace, which arises from the greedy exploitation of environmental resources. Even if “nature is at our disposition”, all too often we do not “respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations”. Here too what is crucial is responsibility on the part of all in pursuing, in a spirit of fraternity, policies respectful of this earth which is our common home. I recall a popular saying: “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature – creation – is mistreated, she never forgives!”. We have also witnessed the devastating effects of several recent natural disasters. In particular, I would mention once more the numerous victims and the great devastation caused in the Philippines and other countries of Southeast Asia as a result of typhoon Haiyan.
I am sure some may be uncomfortable with a pope popularizing a pantheistic view of nature. But Benedict XVI had also anthropomorphized nature when he spoke of nature having a “language,” that is, an inner logic that we can know and that we should follow.

Benedict XVI the professor may have used exacting language to express this truth while Pope Francis uses the language of the common person. No matter what style of communication you prefer, there is no denying the message that the faithful and the world are being taught: Like it or not, the laws of nature are real, unyielding, and they are necessary to follow if we truly seek peace and plenty on planet earth.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

If the United States is frozen, is climate change a hoax?

Chicago waits out the "polar vortex."  Photo: Flicker/akasped

By now you’re aware of the deadly cold that has spread across much of North America. (As I type it’s 8 degrees Fahrenheit outside my window. It was seven below zero a few nights ago. Much of the heartland has seen double-digit negatives.) This peculiar weather is not only inconvenient and uncomfortable for those with the means to stay warm, it is devastating for the homeless and for those who cannot afford to heat their homes.

In any event, a few critics of anthropogenic climate change are whooping it up. If it’s this cold, there can be no global warming. Right?

Well, not exactly.

First, let’s look at what is happening with this “polar vortex.” The Weather Channel website has a nice overview on the matter, including this passage:
One of several semi-permanent weather systems over the Earth, the polar vortex is an area of low pressure in the upper atmosphere, primarily in the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere above which most of our sensible weather occurs (known as the troposphere).
To emphasize, this vortex is semi-permanent. It is often in place near the poles. It is nothing new. 
The Northern Hemisphere polar vortex frequently, but not always, has centers in two main areas: near Canada's Baffin Island, and over northeast Siberia. There is a Southern Hemispheric version of the polar vortex, as well, within which depletion of the upper-atmospheric ozone layer occurs.
The vortex is strongest in winter, thanks to an increased temperature contrast between the polar regions and the mid-latitudes, including the United States.
Occasionally, pieces of the larger spin can break off and sweep toward southern Canada, helping to rive Arctic cold plunges into the U.S.
In the case of this outbreak, the main circulation of the polar vortex in the stratosphere and upper reaches of the troposphere remained in place over northern Greenland and near Baffin Island. If you think of the vortex as a spinning wheel, one of its "spokes" did extend southward into the U.S. as January began.
Meanwhile, lower in the atmosphere at jet stream level, a pair of upper-level disturbances, one from the northeast Pacific Ocean and another rotating southward out of Canada's Northwest Territories, merged to help dig a sharp southward plunge in the jet stream, unleashing the Arctic blast into the nation's Midwest, South and East. 
There's more at the web site, including graphics. But all that said, let’s remember a few other facts.

First, there have been these past few weeks record heat waves in the Southern Hemisphere. The Philippines is still recovering from one of the largest and strongest tropical storms ever seen on this planet. Then there's the United Kingdom. It and its neighbors have been bedeviled of late by strong storms and floods.

But since weather is not climate, we must keep everything in perspective. It’s the trends that count, not the weather of a single day or even a single year. Thus the intense heat in Australia and the intense cold in North America in themselves say little about the climate.

And so we must look at the first principles of climate change.

These include the off-the-chart rise in carbon concentrations in our atmosphere, as animated by this very helpful video from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory. The video nicely shows how recent rises (and falls) of carbon concentrations compare to historic ones—going back hundreds of thousands of years.

Next, there is evidence that the atmosphere is responding as one would expect when you mix in this much carbon and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures rise and snow fall levels drop. (NOAA has another helpful website to show us this.) Sea levels rise, too. (Again, thank you NOAA for yet another helpful tool: This sea-level rise viewer for the United States. If you know of seal-level projection resources for other parts of the world, please add them in the comments.)

And storm systems carry (and dump) more water because even slightly warmer air holds lots more water. Here’s a look at my own region of the globe.

Source: NOAA NWS/Taunton

The information plotted here shows what I could have told you without a graph, based on my experiences dealing with water pollution control infrastructure: storms in Rhode Island are dropping more rain than they had in the past. Even innocent New England passing summer showers have become the occasional tropical torrent.

Well, in any event, temperatures will begin to moderate tomorrow as the polar vortex snaps back into shape. Winter will continue and spring will come. The cycles of nature will go on but they will go on differently over time.

The science is clear on this—even if some deny it.

But if we can't agree on the science, could we not agree, if on nothing else, on the need to pray for those in harms way of foul weather. This prayer (which I've modified slightly) seems appropriate given tomorrow's gospel reading.

Jesus Christ a King of Glory has come in Peace. † God became man, † and the Word was made flesh. † Christ was born of a Virgin. † Christ suffered. † Christ was crucified. † Christ died. † Christ rose from the dead. † Christ ascended into Heaven. † Christ conquers. † Christ reigns. † Christ orders. † May Christ protect us from all storms, lightning, floods, cold, and heat. † Christ went through their midst in Peace, † and the Word was made Flesh. † Christ is with us with Mary. † Flee you enemy spirits because the Lion of the Generation of Judah, the Root David, has won. † Holy God! † Holy Powerful God! † Holy Immortal God! † Have mercy on us. Amen!