The Pope’s vision for a new ecology

How can spiritual beings best live in a material world?
Karl D. Stephan | Jun 30 2015
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When the spiritual leader of the largest division of the Christian faith says something about climate change and the problems of technological progress, engineers of all faiths and no faith should take notice. Last Thursday, Pope Francis released his latest encyclical, Laudato Si', known in English as "On the Care of Our Common Home."

Contrary to some reports, in the encyclical Pope Francis doesn't come out in favour of Marxism, though he does say that international efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions have failed and that something stronger is needed. And he doesn't say you can't be a good Catholic if you use air conditioning, though he does use air conditioning as an example of a "harmful habit of consumption."

What he does is to lay out a vision for how humanity can turn around from a lot of wrong paths and get back on the right path, which is all a good sermon does anyway.

What are the wrong paths? While most environmental activists concentrate on actions, statistics, and policies, Pope Francis goes to the heart of the problem: sin. God's world as originally created was good. But when man decided he knew better than God, things started to go wrong.

There's nothing new about sin, but what is new in the last couple of hundred years is mankind's ability to transform the environment through technology. A few hundred thousand cave men armed with spears couldn't make much difference to the global environment no matter what they did. But seven billion people using massive amounts of organized technological power and treating the earth simply as a raw-material resource can cause tremendous harm, both to the environment and many of the poorest people who try to live in it.

Pope Francis's roots are in the Global South, and his concern for the billions of the poorest people around the world is evident on every page of Laudato Si'. What if you are the father of a family on the coast of Africa, trying to feed yourself by fishing, and some pollution kills the fish and the ocean rises so much that your land is flooded out? What if you then move to the city and try to commute to a low-paying job three hours a day on filthy, crowded buses while breathing soot-filled air that gives you a lung disease that makes you so sick that you lose your job?

While the physical environment and the marvellous biodiversity of plant and animal life on our planet come in for mention, Pope Francis's fundamental concern is for people, each one of whom is a child of God and deserving of respect, attention, and love. But when giant economic and technological systems conspire to deprive millions of their culture, their land, and their livelihood, these folks can no longer receive what they have a fundamental right to as human beings.

What are the answers? Pope Francis wisely refrains from making explicit scientific pronouncements or calling for specific laws or policies. Instead, he spends much of his time asking for dialogue between governments and citizens, between the privileged and the impoverished, and between scientists and religious believers.

He hopes—and there are many places where he expresses hope—that men and women of good will, emboldened by a vision of humanity as one family sharing one planetary household, can change their ways for the better. These changes include everything from family efforts to save energy and recycle products up to stronger international agreements that could make a real difference in the rate at which fossil fuels are being used.

At the beginning and again at the end of the encyclical, he mentions the saint whose name he bears, St Francis of Assisi. St Francis was a revolutionary figure in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus himself. He lived in utter poverty, but with such love for all creatures, both animal and human, that he collected followers who sought to carry out his vision of Christian love in a unique way that was both humble and vastly effective.

Much of what Pope Francis criticizes is the by-product of pride, which theologians know is the root sin, the sin that enables all the others. If we think we have all the answers and that the material world is simply waiting for us to bend it to our whims, we are in fact enslaved to the sin of pride, and all the problems mentioned in the encyclical can be traced in one way or another back to that attitude.

On the other hand, if we look on the world as a wonderful gift, packed with hidden prizes and meanings to be treasured, not just exploited, we will tread more gently. We will think before we act, or buy, or sell, or design. We will bear in mind not only our own family, and our friends and social groups, but also others who might be affected by what we do, or purchase, or waste. And we will change our ways accordingly. Among other things, that is what engineering ethics is all about.

With Laudato Si', Pope Francis has not gone off the deep end politically or theologically. The encyclical emerges from a deep consideration of the entire Christian tradition and its meaning for how spiritual beings can best live in a material world, being themselves material as well.

While not many previous popes have made ecological concerns a focus of their ministries, I think Pope Francis has chosen the right time to do so. And anyone who has any dealings with modern technology, whether as an engineer or an ordinary citizen who simply lives in the modern world, needs to give serious consideration to what he is saying.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.

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