On March 3, Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry and its newly formed “EcoSTM” environmental awareness organization, hosted well known eco-theologian Father Sean McDonagh who gave a talk entitled “Laudato Si”: A Prophetic Challenge for the 21st Century.” Fr. Sean is a native Irishman and Columban priest who has been working to raise awareness about the connections between social justice and environmental issues since his time as a newly ordained priest in the Philippines over 30 years ago when he took action to stop the destruction of local forests. He has written many books on topics such as the effects of climate change on the poor, genetically modified food, and nuclear power. An “environmental missionary” according to Vatican radio, Father Sean contributed to the writing of “Laudato Si” as a consultant. He called the encyclical “one of the most important documents to come from Rome in the past 120 years,” as it addresses “everyone on the planet.”
He emphasize the strong language found in “Laudato Si,” often absent from legal or scientific documents, citing “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” as a stark statement that does not downplay the extremity of our ecological crisis. Father Sean placed “Laudato Si” in the context of Catholic Social teaching, which he said “Laudato Si” has greatly added to by illuminating the connection between caring for the poor and the environment. In his encyclical, Francis states “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings…Everything is connected.” Francis shows this point by criticizing our society’s overall use of people as a means to an end, shown by the prevalence of human trafficking, abortion, and the treatment of labor as a commodity to be bought and sold at will. All of these things culminate in a world in which resources –natural and human- are being exploited.
Rather than simply looking to new technologies to save us from our environmental crises, Father Sean emphasized the need of what is called an “ecological conversion” in “Laudato Si,” meaning that what primarily needs to change is the hearts and minds of people: People will not be inclined to consume less if they are not made to see the moral obligation to do so, or to look for meaning and happiness beyond material wealth if they perceive nothing worth their devotion beyond those things. Father Sean addressed what Pope Francis calls the “throw away culture,” explaining that our economy depends on a certain model of production and consumption that seeks to maximize both at the expense of the environment and the poor. We do not expect the products we buy to last us a long time, and when they show signs of wear and tear we are apt to dispose of them, producing more waste than the earth can even begin to decompose. We are increasingly applying the same philosophy to people, such as the elderly and disabled whom the law is increasingly leaving exposed to practices like euthanasia.
Father Sean gave examples of prior encyclicals that touched upon environmental degradation, but argued that “Laudato Si” is what has truly brought the environment to the forefront of thought in Church Social teaching, and used it to unlock the key to explaining a myriad of other social issues like poverty and wealth inequality between nations.
In examining the roots of our ecological crisis, Fr. Sean contrasted the modern view of nature with that of St. Francis of Assisi who was committed both to nature and the poor, addressing both as members of his family. He claimed that his focus on creation was later lost as Western thought began to sharply distinguish matter from spirit, the natural world from the supernatural world. In doing so, nature was then seen as simply material to be used for human gain, and not as having any intrinsic worth.
Francis goes back to the very beginning when God created the earth and called it “good,” and gave humans dominion over it. Father Sean distinguished between some Christian interpretations of this which argue that nature exists to be used by man in any way he sees fit, and Pope Francis’ claims that this is incorrect and that while humans do have some power over nature, they are to treat it according to God’s law and not their own wishes.