Applying ‘On Care for Our Common Home’ in West Virginia
Note: This document was first developed for the August, 2015 West Virginia Sierra Club retreat. Considering that our nation has yet to seriously address climate change and other existential threats to the planet, the questions we discussed that cool summer morning in Tucker County are as relevant as ever four years later. This was prepared after an incredibly encouraging gathering at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia conference. The thoughtful insight of the people there – all working to protect public health and the environment – informed the preparation of this document. One does not need to be a Catholic to read and reflect upon this. It is a letter to every human on the planet; it will cause you to think. I’ve heard that’s a good thing. – MB
By Michael M. Barrick
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 this gathering, though, we shall not spend time considering the validity of the encyclical; rather, the nature of this gathering is such that we can concur that we are in general agreement with Pope Francis that the time for urgent dialogue and action is long past. So, today we shall consider some of the basics of the encyclical. We will also consider some questions it raises for those of us working in West Virginia and greater Appalachia within the environmental and social justice sectors.
Obviously, it is best that each person obtain a copy of the encyclical and make their own determinations regarding its contents and applicability to our work.
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 Discussion
- The title refers to St. Francis of Assisi and his “Canticle of the Creatures.” Also in the opening paragraphs, the pope references previous encyclicals by other popes dealing with threats to the impoverished and the ecology. Prior to the release of this encyclical, what was your level of knowledge about the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 West Virginia? If so, how do we overcome such attitudes?
- 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 West Virginia?
- 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 West Virginia?
- He says, “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded” (no. 25). Please respond to this as it applies to your experience in West Virginia.
- 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 West Virginians’ water supplies and what is the proper response?
- 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 West Virginia and what is the proper response?
- 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 West Virginia?
- The pope applauds efforts such as those going on here this weekend. He says also that we should apply “ … legitimate means of pressure (no. 38).” What are legitimate means?
- 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 West Virginia dealing with the environment and vulnerable populations?
- The pope seemingly alludes to the history of West Virginia 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 West Virginians about what business is doing for them?
- 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, such as WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman?
- 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 West Virginia?
- 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?
- 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). As we consider the FERC process, the WVDEP and other agencies, how does such inaction impact not only the environment, but people’s faith in government?
- He speaks of home. “Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families” (no. 152). How can this statement be used to employ the assistance of churches and faith traditions?
- The Church has traditionally demonstrated “ … a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (no. 158). Historically, West Virginia has had champions for the poor. That seems less so today. Do you agree? What do you see?
- 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 West Virginia so that they can accomplish these tasks?
- 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 West Virginia have we seen this? Can we help facilitate this?
- The pope proposes, “Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure. It should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety. …The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest” (no. 183). How can we convince West Virginians that they not only deserve a seat at the table, but must demand one?
- 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.
So, the questions before us are, “How do we accomplish such conversions”? and “What happens if we do not?”