Since I am not doing a whole lot today, though, I actually had time to read Laudato Si this afternoon. Wow. I’m not going to attempt anything like a complete analysis based on one reading, but I am deeply impressed by what Pope Francis is saying.
I would caution those who are absorbing the American political view of this document, either from the right or the left, to stop right now and go read the document for yourself. The Pope is neither a Marxist nor a materialist. He is writing from the same deeply Catholic position that previous popes have started from when addressing these kinds of issues; in fact, there is nothing here that will surprise anybody who has read the encyclicals on economic or environmental issues written by the last four or five popes.
I can’t help but share a few passages toward the end of the document that resonated deeply with me:
222. Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.
223. Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.
224. Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.
225. On the other hand, no one can cultivate a sober and satisfying life without being at peace with him or herself. An adequate understanding of spirituality consists in filling out what we mean by peace, which is much more than the absence of war. Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances? Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride rough-shod over everything around them. This too affects how they treat the environment. An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence “must not be contrived but found, uncovered”.
226. We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers.
227. One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals. I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.
We Americans are (collectively) among the wealthiest of people. While there are still desperately poor, homeless, and struggling people among us, more than we ever guess, most of us have access to modes of living that people in other parts of the world can only dream of. It has been a persistent myth--and I call it a myth--that every human being on the planet can achieve American-style consumerism if we only take steps to make that happen. That such steps often involve warfare (which does not bring prosperity but misery) is only one problem. As Pope Francis points out in this encyclical (though in more dignified speech) we are kidding ourselves if we think the whole planet could acquire our consumptive habit without cost or consequence. Looking only at this list of discarded electronic waste from our own country we can see that if everybody in the world lived as we do we would soon reap a terrible cost for such thoughtless and wasteful consumption.
The truth is, we ourselves are paying a hidden cost--a spiritual, emotional, and psychological one--for our thoughtless or disproportionate consumption. I myself have a lot of work to do in this area, as the last couple of weeks of “cleaning out” things we don’t need and don’t use have shown me. It is easy to acquire too much stuff. It would be better by far if I thought carefully about such purchases before making them in the first place.
Most of us have at least one such area in our lives. Do we buy too much food, or cook too much with too many leftovers to throw away? Are our bookshelves crammed to bursting, or the shelf with DVDs or video games? Do our (well, your, anyway--you know I’m hopeless at crafts) craft drawers or shelves spill over with fabric we will never use or paint we can’t remember why we bought? Are our closets packed with clothing, some of which still has tags on it because we’ve never even worn those items?
Do we own multiple sets of dishware to the point where we probably couldn’t use all of the dishes in a calendar year? Did a mild coffee mug collection become an overwhelming obsession? Do we have to buy every new “best” vacuum on the market? Do we have enough cooking dishes to equip a small restaurant, even if we actually use the same four pots over and over again?
At one point in the encyclical Pope Francis, who spends quite a bit of time talking about various political and economic objectives, reminds us that we’re not all going to be called to take part in big political or scientific or economic actions. He mentions a few small things like not buying and then tossing “extra” food or turning off lights in rooms we have left (something else I’m really bad at doing). Over and over he says that caring for the world around us, and the people in it, especially the poor, is an act of love.
These small acts of love, of examining our wasteful habits, are especially meaningful, I think, to those of us who are moms and who thus control a lot of the family’s consumerism. There really are things most of us can do to live more simply and mindfully. Many of you are probably already doing those things, and doing them well.
Before we take up knee-jerk positions that would give us the permission to ignore this social encyclical the same way many of us (to our shame) tend to ignore the social teachings of the Church in general, perhaps we ought to read it. I myself have found in it a call to do better with certain small acts of love for others and for the world. I think such calls may be embedded in it for many, if not most, of my fellow Catholics--and, since the encyclical is directed to the whole world, to many of my non-Catholic and non-Christian readers as well.