Pope Francis Gives Hope to Appalachia’s People

‘On Care for Our Common Home’ gets to the heart of the challenge facing the region, but environmental and social justice activists have many questions to consider in response

By Michael M. Barrick

ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – Much has already been written regarding the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis, “On Care for Our Common Home.” Many have questioned the validity of the claims made by the pope in this, his second encyclical. In short, it has sparked a debate, just as Pope Francis certainly expected.

For the people of Appalachia, though, there should be no debate. Clearly, this pope gives hope to the people of these ancient mountains.

Why is this so? First, Pope Francis understands that the time for urgent dialogue and action is long past. Second – and this is the heart of the matter for Appalachia – Pope Francis has made it clear that environmental and social justice concerns are inseparable. In short, for the people of Appalachia, ecological degradation and the cycle of poverty go hand-in-hand.

So, as the United States prepares for a visit from the pope next week, we may want to ask some questions that will help us apply the encyclical to environmental and social justice work in Appalachia, and why this pope’s message and example is resonating with millions of Americans, including countless non-Catholics.

An encyclical for the world
Usually, an encyclical is written to the bishops of the Church to exhort, challenge and encourage her leaders who serve as shepherds to the faithful; at other times, as is so in this case, an encyclical is a general letter to a larger population. As Pope Francis says plainly, “I wish to address every living person on this planet” (Laudato Si’, no. 3).

Let us pause a moment to consider what Laudato Si’ is not. It is not new. It is not about climate change only. It is not simply a framework for dialogue. And, as the Catholic Committee on Appalachia has pointed out in its letters to West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield and the other Catholic bishops of Appalachia, it is not merely an option for them to reflect upon. As with all encyclicals, it is an exhortation to the world’s Catholic bishops – in this case, to act to rescue the world from ecological catastrophe.

Now, we shall look at what it is. It is rooted in established Church teaching and other traditions which are ancient and time-tested. It recognizes that social justice and ecological issues are more than linked; they are one-in-the-same. It is a call to action. This is consistent with scripture, where we read, “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). It is a plea to all of humanity, regardless of religious beliefs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is based on the understanding that mankind agrees that ecological preservation is a moral imperative.

Questions for consideration
The pope, in appealing to the world, is appealing to us. So, with this understanding guiding us, let us consider questions prompted by a reading of the encyclical. The questions (in italics) are preceded with a brief introduction to specific points made by the pope. The point of posing these questions is not academic. As the pope says, it is time to act. So, the questions and the background leading to them are posed so that you will not only think about them, but apply them – in action – within your sphere of influence. This is the only way that the pope’s message will actually make a difference – by us taking action.

1. The pope clearly ties together the plight of the poor and the threats of climate change. “Whether believers or not … every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged” (no. 93). He states also, “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (no. 91). Also, he says, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (no. 139). Do you agree that social justice and ecological issues are inseparable? If not, why not? If so, what challenges and opportunities does that present for those working in these two sectors?

2. The pope speaks of the need to “ … repent of the ways we have harmed the planet” (no. 8). Do you believe you should repent, do you believe others should repent, and do you see any value in doing so?

3. Pope Francis alludes to the earth’s sacredness. “ … Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” (no. 12). Reflect upon this statement in comparison to the outlook of John Muir and other early conservationists. Can we agree the earth is sacred? If so, can we agree why it is sacred?

4. The pope warns, “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (no. 14). Is this a problem you have experienced in Appalachia? If so, how do we overcome such attitudes?

5. The pope criticizes “rapidification.” He says, “ … the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution” (no. 18). What challenges does this present in Appalachia?

6. Referencing pollution and climate change, he says, “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (no. 20). Where and how have you seen this manifested in Appalachia?

7. Speaking of water, he says, “Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term” (no. 28). He says also, “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor” (no. 29). What are the major threats to Appalachia’s water supplies and what is the proper response?

8. He continues, about water, “Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (no. 30). Where are we seeing examples of this in Appalachia and what is the proper response?

9. Also, notes Pope Francis, “Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life” (no. 37). Can this be said for Appalachia?

10. The pope says also that we should apply “ … legitimate means of pressure” (no. 38). What are legitimate means?

11. He returns to the theme of vulnerable populations and vulnerable ecologies being linked. “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet” (48). In fact, he says, “ … we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (no. 49). What are the implications of this for the many diverse organizations in Appalachia dealing with the environment and vulnerable populations?

12. The pope seemingly alludes to the history of central Appalachia when he notes, “Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, (businesses) leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable” (no. 51). This statement alludes to third world nations. Using this statement, what can we say to the people of Appalachia about what business is doing for them?

13. He states plainly, “We lack leadership” (no. 53). As we consider politics, policy and field-level workers in state agencies, what can we do to strengthen and/or challenge the leadership of elected and appointed officials?

14. The pope, not surprisingly, refers to Jesus. He states, “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus” (no. 82). Can this statement be used in outreach to other Christian denominations and other faith traditions in Appalachia?

15. The pope speaks to the value of work. “Seeing manual labour as spiritually meaningful proved revolutionary. Personal growth and sanctification came to be sought in the interplay of recollection and work. This way of experiencing work makes us more protective and respectful of the environment; it imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety” (no. 126). How can we apply this statement in the context of the energy extraction industry constantly talking about the employment they provide?

16. The pope points out, “We know, for example, that countries which have clear legislation about the protection of forests continue to keep silent as they watch laws repeatedly being broken” (no. 142). How does such inaction impact not only the environment, but people’s faith in government?

17. The Church has traditionally demonstrated “ … a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (no. 158). Historically, Appalachia has had champions for the poor. That seems less so today. Do you agree? What do you see?

18. In calling for solutions, he says, “Society, through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures and controls. Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (no. 179). How can we engage citizens in Appalachia so that they can accomplish these tasks?

19. He notes, “In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference” (no. 179). Where in Appalachia have we seen this? Can we help facilitate this?

20. The pope endorses the precautionary principle. “This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (no. 186). How do we convince our political leaders and policy makers to adopt the same attitude?

Essentially, and not surprising, Pope Francis calls for conversion. He calls for conversion of our attitudes, our lifestyles, our priorities, our educational systems, our economic systems and our political systems. This call leaves us to question how we might achieve such conversions of the heart, and significantly, what happens if we do not?

© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2015

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3 responses

  1. […] In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article. […]

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