The first point at which I thought the Pope might be laughing at me was paragraph 55.
55. Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.
I can almost see him writing “smh” in the margin, shaking his zuchettoed head. Those Americans and their air-conditioning.
There was no air conditioner going in our house on the morning the encyclical dropped, but I was basking in the breeze of our overhead fans as I scrutinized the document Thursday morning. I hunched over my laptop until moments before I had to leave for an appointment, ignoring my husband (except when he brought me an english muffin, God bless him) and ignoring my visiting brother (except to show him where the eggs and frying pan were – breakfast is an important thing in our house). I was so excited to read Laudato Si.
I should admit, I was expecting my lifelong environmentalism to be vindicated, and it was. And if I’m being honest, I should admit what I was not expecting: to also be admonished. I suppose I knew dispassionately that such criticism was likely, but it still stung when it came.
111. Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.
203. Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. Romano Guardini had already foreseen this: “The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just”. This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.
The encyclical contains a lot of hope, and some practical solutions which I hope to share in a later post. But what has stuck with me more than the suggestions and the exhortations is the realization that I’m not perfect, either. After running out the door to get to the first of that day’s appointments, I made this admission on Twitter:
Lest I feigned too much virtue tweeting #LaudatoSi earlier I should admit that I have been running urban errands in an SUV since.
— Margaret Felice (@margaretfelice) June 18, 2015
I recycle and don’t use air-conditioning in the house and hang my clothes outside and grow food and eat locally and teach my students that care for the environment is care for people.
One can do good things and still have more good things to do.
I believe we are supposed to bloom where we are planted. I am a first-world Christian, and there is nothing I can do to change that. Blessed are the poor, but I am not among them. Narrow is the gate, and I think that’s part of what Francis is trying to remind us. Even those of us with the best intentions and excellent habits still participate in a system that victimizes the vulnerable who we do not see.
The best spiritual writing speaks to many people in many places in many stages of life. Though we imagined that the Pope’s encyclical would be directed toward people who deny climate change or who are ignorant of the catastrophic effects of our failure to care for the environment. But the truth is it has something for all of us, and that it offers both criticism and encouragement.
Yes, I was excited for the papal encyclical. I wasn’t excited for or expecting to feel a little guilty after reading it, or to be challenged to do even more than my current efforts which seemed so valiant until a week ago. I don’t think anyone gets excited for that.
But that’s what I turn to my faith for, not only for consolation but for critique of my selfishness. Though I wasn’t expecting it, the Pope gave me such a critique. Now to figure out what to do about it.
Were you challenged by Laudato Si? What are you going to do about it? What can I do?