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"I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone."

-- Pope Francis

Once upon a time in my early days of environmental eye-opening, I eagerly invited a local merchant from our Alabama town to a program our civic club hosted about air and water pollution. She dismissed me promptly saying, " You people don't need to worry. God will take care of all of that." Picking my jaw up off the floor, I muttered something along the lines of, "Yes, He surely will. We're destroying his creations, including ourselves, which I doubt is making him very happy." I left before she threw me out.

Lately I have thought a lot about the religious aspects of environmental issues. Perhaps this is because it's Christmas, or because the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change just met for the 21st year in a row, or even because of that long ago "don't worry" incident (just one among many of a similar nature).

Or, maybe I can blame Pope Francis, who summed up his environmental viewpoints in a long and thorough encyclical (a letter to bishops and for wider circulation if desired) titled, "On Care for Our Common Home." Because he is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and has global influence (international estimate: 1.2 billion people are Catholics), we, the tired, tattered and torn of the environmental movement, have hope his opinions will help turn the tide of human values and behavior toward planet preservation.

Political debates notwithstanding (where environmental topics are rarely mentioned), hope is grabbed wherever one can find it. The Paris climate talks have had mixed reviews ranging from the "too little too late" pit-of-hell opinions to "at last all the countries signed the accord" hope-springs-eternal voices. It is generally believed that the pope put out his encyclical in an effort to add yet another layer of "do something" pressure to world leaders at the conference.

In his letter's introduction the church leader identified recurring themes such as: "the relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet; the conviction that everything is connected; a critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology; the call for new understanding of economy and progress; the value proper to each creature; the human meaning of ecology ... and the proposal of a new lifestyle."

This papal letter ( also quotes past popes, who issued warnings about environmental degradation. John Paul II, for example, wrote in his first encyclical that, human beings frequently seem "to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption."

In several chapters, Pope Francis discusses the effects of pollution, climate change, waste of resources, loss of biodiversity, chemical poisons, carbon from fossil fuels, methane from melting icecaps, deforestation, acidification of the oceans, ecosystem loss and wildlife extinction, water shortages and increasing droughts, the throwaway culture, and absence of the sanctity of human life in some circumstances.

Seeking a core for behavior change, he writes with hope, "If we approach nature and the environment without ... openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously."

I wish I could go back in time and tell the "let God handle it" shop owner that even the pope believes we should be responsible stewards and not spoilers of that on which we depend for life. A bountiful and beautiful world is not a human entitlement simply turned over to us for rape, pillage and plunder.

The pope's reasoning for religious input on the environment was clearly directed to each of us: "Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."

Commentary on 12/22/2015

Print Headline: The papal influence

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