Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si from a Quaker Perspective

The Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si is an historic and prophetic document that is already having a significant influence on the conversation about the global climate crisis. The leader of the Catholic Church, with a world-wide membership of over a billion people, cannot easily be dismissed, even by hard-core climate change deniers in our Congress.  A chemist by training, the Pope has taken pains to bring together some of the best minds in the Church to make this Encyclical both powerful and well-grounded in science, scripture and theology. In this Encyclical Francis provides a theological framework for what he calls “integral ecology.”  He calls for a change of heart, an “ecological conversion,” and proposes concrete actions, a change of lifestyle on both a personal and societal level. He addresses his Encyclical not only to Catholics, but to all people of faith and conscience. Reading this Encyclical, my “heart leapt for joy” (to use a phrase of Quaker founder George Fox). For years, I have held views similar to those expressed by the Pope, but with the power and authority of his office he has articulated them in a way that is profound, comprehensive, and impossible to ignore.
Quakers are not much given to theologizing. Ours is an experiential and practical religion.  Because of our Peace testimony, we also tend to look at the world through the lens of social justice and nonviolence. So I would like to examine the Pope’s Encyclical from this perspective.

Letting Our Lives Speak

The Quaker phrase, “Let your life speak,” implies that what we do is often more important that what we say. What impresses me about Pope Francis (as well as Pope Benedict) is a practical commitment to living the church’s social teachings. Following the example of his namesake, Pope Francis has chosen to live as simply as possible. During his papacy Benedict XVI undertook green initiatives that made Vatican City the “greenest state in the world” and earned Benedict the title “the green pope” ( The Vatican’s solar panels provide enough energy to sustain all 40,000 of its households. Pope Francis is simply preaching what Benedict practiced.
This reminds me of our Quaker lobby, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). In 2003, FCNL (the oldest religious lobby in Washington, DC) began renovating its Civil War era office and became the first LEED certified Green Building on Capitol Hill, with a vegetative roof, geothermal heating and cooling, light scoops, and other energy-saving measures. By modeling the change it would like to see in the world, FCNL has more credibility when it lobbies for environmental legislation. Inspired by this example, my wife and I made our home in Pasadena a model of sustainability. We installed solar panels and purchased a plug in Chevy Volt, which reduced our electrical consumption by over 90% and our gasoline consumption by over 50%. We replaced our sprinklers with a highly efficient drip watering system. We replaced our water-guzzling grass with decomposed granite and mulch. And we installed a gray water system that recycles thousands of gallons of water from our washing machine and bath tub to water our 19 fruit trees.  During a time when California is experiencing a drought of biblical proportions—the worst in 1200 years—we cut our water consumption by over 50% and still have a highly productive organic garden. An environmental journalist in local newspaper wrote about us, and now groups and individuals come to our home on a regular basis to see what we have done, and are inspired to take similar steps.
I am pleased to see that the Vatican City, and the Pope, are taking practical steps on a much grander scale to demonstrate their commitment to what the theologian John Cobb calls “an ecological civilization.”  When the Pope preaches what the Vatican practices, his message is extremely compelling.

Social Justice and Sustainable Cities

Francis’ main concern is with the poor and marginalized—those who are suffering most from climate change and the pollution caused by industrial society. The Pope’s ecological vision includes not only wilderness areas, but also rural areas and cities—what he calls “human ecology.”  According to Francis, there is no separation between the human and the natural world. Cities affect the natural world, and vice versa. Francis’ vision of a sustainable city is one in which all people—rich and poor—feel interconnected. Francis makes it clear that the word “ecology” comes from the Greek word meaning “home,” and an ecological civilization is one in which every person is decently housed:
152. Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world, both in rural areas and in large cities, since state budgets usually cover only a small portion of the demand. Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home. Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families. This is a major issue for human ecology. In some places, where makeshift shanty towns have sprung up, this will mean developing those neighborhoods rather than razing or displacing them. When the poor live in unsanitary slums or in dangerous tenements, “in cases where it is necessary to relocate them, in order not to heap suffering upon suffering, adequate information needs to be given beforehand, with choices of decent housing offered, and the people directly involved must be part of the process”.[118] At the same time, creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighborhoods into a welcoming city: “How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favor the recognition of others!”[119]
My wife Jill Shook, an Evangelical Christian who has written a book about faith-based affordable housing models, was thrilled to read this insightful passage. It reminded her of what T.J. Gorridge calls the “theology of the built environment”: the values implicit in the ways our cities are planned and built. As people of faith, we need to make sure that not only our homes, but also our cities reflect our theological and moral values. This is the core teaching of the Pope’s ecological vision.
War and the Environment

Francis is following in the footsteps of Pope John XXII. In 1963, just before his death, Pope John issued an Encyclical called Pacem in Terris, calling on all men and women (not just Catholics) to work for human rights, social justice and nuclear nonproliferation.  In his 21st century Encyclical, Pope Francis calls on all people to care for God’s creation and recognizes that one of the greatest threats to the environment, and to human betterment, is war:
57. It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims. War always does grave harm to the environment and to the cultural riches of peoples, risks which are magnified when one considers nuclear arms and biological weapons.
The Pope is clearly aware that conflicts over resources, caused by climate change and political systems dependent on war, will escalate unless steps are taken to live sustainably. The military is one of the greatest polluters in the world, driving people from their homes and making their lands uninhabitable with land mines, cluster bombs, and a host of toxic chemicals.  As a Quaker peace activist and environmentalist, I would argue that we cannot solve our ecological crisis if we don’t dismantle the war system that pollutes and dominates the world.
Ending the war system may seem an even more daunting task than solving the environmental crisis, but we should not forget that religious activists (including Quakers and Evangelical Christians) played a major role in ending (or at least illegalizing) slavery, an institution as old and entrenched as war. A Quaker-inspired group called “War Beyond War,” founded by David Hartsough, one of the leading Quaker peace activists of our time, has brought together scholars, activists and experts in peace studies to explore practical steps to helping humanity transition from a war system to a peace system, from a culture of war to a culture of peace. As the Pope makes clear, we need drastic, fundamental changes if human beings are going to survive beyond the 21st century.
This inward and social transformation will not be easy. As the Pope wisely notes, we need to cultivate our inward life through prayer, meditation, and communion. Silent, unprogrammed worship is the heart of our Quaker faith, and the basis for our activism. We believe that through worship, we can more deeply connect with our “that of God” in ourselves and in others, including those in the natural world. This leads us to compassionate action. I found especially moving Francis’ prayer at the end of his Encyclical:

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
hat we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

Pope Francis has inspired and challenged us with a powerful and far-reaching vision, and his down-to-earth practicality. In September, he plans to speak to the US Congress, and in December he will address the UN. Drawing together faith leaders of diverse traditions, as well as reaching out to political leaders, the Pope has proven himself to be a lobbyist par excellence. He has shown his political effectiveness by persuading President Obama to recognize Cuba. I hope he will prove even more effective in mobilizing the world to take action on climate change, the gravest crisis of our era.


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