The Pope arrived today (September 23, 2015) in the United States from his visit to Cuba and was greeted with fanfare in Washington, D.C., by President Obama. The most recent entry in this blog discussed ethical and effective communication about scientific and technical risk. The Papal visit provides a good opportunity to look at the recently published encyclical letter concerning just these sorts of issues: global risks and their potential impact on the poor, often the most at risk from environmental and climate threats to the planet.

The full title of this publication is “The Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on the Care of Our Common Home.” The title of the letter refers to a famous canticle composed by St. Francis of Assisi (inspiration for the Pope taking the name, Francis) with the repeated phrase, “Praise be to You, My Lord,” or “Laudato Si’, Mi Signore.” St. Francis offers praise for “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” (providing a well-known second title for the canticle), and also for Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Mother Earth, the basis for the content of this encyclical—care for Mother Earth. The canticle is dated to 1225, but sources suggest the hymn was really written in three stages over time, the last two verses added on his deathbed. Pope Francis quotes the verse concerning Mother Earth in the opening of the letter: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”

The second paragraph of the encyclical summarizes much of the argument presented in the document: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” In his response to President Obama’s welcome on the White House lawn this morning, Pope Francis continued to stress his concern for environmental degradation through pollution, waste, and climate change.

The Papal letter goes well beyond concern for global warming or climate change, although it has largely been characterized in those terms in media outlets over the summer. Pope Francis includes a wide range of topics related, not just to environmental degradation, but covering deterioration of quality of human life especially for the poor of the world. The letter touches on the issues of what he terms our “throwaway culture,” the tendency toward the “rapidification” of everyday life, and the appearance of “agrotoxins” in industrial level agriculture. He also shows concern for human life in “unhealthy megacities,” often featuring waste of food and water in such crowded urban settings. The letter also emphasizes the extent of “global inequality,” which allows a few to escape or at least to mitigate these effects on themselves while exposing the many to an unhealthy environment. As he writes, “Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest.” Lack of access to clean drinking water, for example, denies to many a life of the “inalienable dignity” which all people deserve.

Pope Francis does recognize, in the encyclical, a point often mentioned by some. The Bible in the Book of Genesis allows that “man” is to have dominion over the earth and its creatures. Francis maintains that the idea of “dominion” in this context intends “responsible stewardship,” or care, rather than what might become heedless exploitation of resources. In this regard, he coins the phrase, “modern anthropocentrism.” Based on the example of St. Francis of Assisi, we should strive to live in harmony with the resources and creatures of this earth. Francis in this encyclical also hopes to emphasize that we are facing a major crisis unless there is swift action by those with power to deal with interlocking challenges he delineates in this document. In his statements on the White House lawn at his arrival he referred to a famous metaphor from the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King compared the promise of the founding documents of the United States as constituting a “promissory note” for freedom for all Americans. Carrying forward the image of Dr. King, Francis implied that he hoped later generations could not say that the “promissory note” to protect our common home, Earth, came back marked “insufficient funds.”

William W. Neher
Bill Neher

Bill Neher is professor emeritus of communication studies at Butler University, where he taught for 42 years. Over those years he has served as Dean of the University College, Director of the Honors Program, Head of the Department of Communication Studies, the Chair of the faculty governance, and most recently as the first Dean (Interim) for the new College of Communication begun in June 2010. He is the author of several books dealing with organizational and professional communication, ethics, and African studies, plus several public speaking and communication text books.


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