CNEWA Connections: Integral Spirituality and Earth Day

This year on 22 April the world will observe yet another Earth Day. It is hard to believe that 51 years have passed since the first Earth Day in 1970. It is ominous, however, to see how little has been done in this time to deter planetary environmental degradation and the magnitude of the damage. It is hard even to imagine the amount of damage we are dealing with.

The Associated Press reported that in one single day — on 31 July 2019 — 11 billion U.S. tons of ice melted in Greenland. The total loss for July 2019 was 217 billion U.S. tons. To provide some context, one billion U.S. tons of ice is equal to the volume of 400,000 Olympic-size swimming pools! As a colleague remarked: If you are looking to invest in beachfront property, try Pittsburgh!

This Earth Day, we can expect a good deal of commentary on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato si’, On Care for Our Common Home.” This blog piece will be no exception. However, I hope to offer a fresh approach not only to the encyclical, but to what I see as a creative and important part of Francis’ worldview and theology.

What has impressed me in both “Laudato si’” and “Fratelli tutti” is Francis’ profound grasp of systems. As a young Jesuit, Francis studied chemistry and I wonder at times if this did not open his mind to the importance and dynamics of systems. 

A theme that arises in both encyclicals is interconnectedness. Francis tends not to see things as discrete and separate as much as interrelated. As a result, Francis — rightly, I believe — sees some of the challenges facing the modern world as symptoms of something deeper and interconnected.

In “Laudato si’,” Francis speaks of an integral ecology and an integral spirituality. In “Fratelli tutti,” he speaks of what some would call systemic racism and systemic economic inequality. Traditionally, Catholic moral theology understandably and rightly places a great deal of stress on the morality of individual acts and on the acts of individuals. Francis has the profound insight that, for example, systemic economic inequality is more than just the sum total of the greed of individuals. Systemic racism is more than just the sum total of the bigotry of individuals. In a mysterious way, sometimes, the whole is greater — and more frightening — than the sum of its parts. I think Francis sees and understands this.

Francis’ call for an integral spirituality is far more radical than merely suggesting a few new resolutions. Because of the deep systemic interconnectedness of, for example, environmental degradation, economic inequality and systemic racism, merely changing discrete, isolated phenomena will not solve the problem. This is because the problem is not simply a conglomeration of discrete, isolated phenomena, but rather an interconnected and dynamic system.

Francis’ deep sense of interconnectedness and systems was also evident in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He understands that the pandemic is interconnected with environmental degradation, racism and unjust economic inequality. Of course, COVID-19 is a challenge to medical science. However, it is far more than that. Anyone who thinks COVID-19 is the last pandemic of our lifetime is fooling themselves. There will be other, and perhaps deadlier, pandemics.

Francis knows the current pandemic can be conquered only if all humanity is made immune to the virus. If immunity is only for the wealthy, the powerful and the well-placed, it is “that broken reed of a staff which pricks and pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it” (Is 36:6). He understands that the pandemic and its ultimate solution are part of a deeper, interconnected system.

Pope Francis is often perceived as down-to-earth, spontaneous, progressive and controversial. Whether he is any or all of these things is not for me to decide. However, Francis is rarely recognized as a profound and creative theologian. I believe his insights into systemic sin in all its forms will engage moral theologians for a long time into the future. His notion of the interconnectedness of all creation provides new and challenging insights into Catholic social teaching, which is part of the Magisterium, and provides new insights into Catholic anthropology, which simply put is the theology of what it means to be human.

While it may seem that writing about Catholic anthropology has taken us a long way from the observance of Earth Day, nothing could be further from the truth. What it means to be a human being — what it means to be a responsible, believing Christian — is to be part of God’s creation, to be part of an interconnected, dynamic system in which the welfare of the whole, in its broadest sense, is dependent on the welfare of all the parts.

Earth Day focuses on one very important — and very threatened — component of the system. In one sense, there is nothing altruistic about caring for the planet or caring for other people. Because of the interconnectedness Francis sees so clearly, these things are eminently in our own self-interest. If the planet becomes uninhabitable, we all go extinct — extinction is happening to some species already. If economic inequality and refusal to share resources become our modus operandi, it will not be long before the law of the jungle takes over.

Earth Day and the encyclicals of Pope Francis, especially “Laudato si’” and “Fratelli tutti,” lend themselves easily to popularization, which in turn runs the risk of a concomitant trivialization. However, if we take the insights of Pope Francis seriously, the concerns of Earth Day are also systemically connected with racial, economic and social justice on a global systemic scale. Francis realizes this is not something where we can simply pick and choose and come away unscathed.

A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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