“Make yourself at home” – we might say to a friend who is a guest at our house.
Planet Earth is, as the sub-title of the Pope’s new encyclical calls it, the ‘common home’ for humanity. And it’s a home that is increasingly falling into disrepair, due to lack of care by the tenants to whom it has been entrusted. There’s been much theological debate about the precise mandate given by God to humans at the beginning of the book of Genesis. But I’d take “make yourselves at home” as a rough paraphrase of what God says to Adam and Eve. However, what sort of home are we currently making for ourselves and generations to come, and for the other species with which we share this planet? After all, the story of Noah indicates that bio-diversity matters to God. And let’s remember that Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose ‘Francis’ as his papal name - after Saint Francis who celebrated nature in his teaching and his songs.
Echoing the ‘common home’ in its title, the ‘common good’ is a persistent theme through the encyclical. The common good builds on an extensive library of Catholic social teaching, going back through Aquinas and Augustine (whom I studied for my Masters degree in theology at Edinburgh) to the early days of the Christian church. The encyclical develops and applies this already well-established theology to the more recently emerged common challenge of climate change and the rapidly increasing loss of biodiversity and of the ecosystems that support life on earth.
Notably, the encyclical is addressed to all people of goodwill, not just Catholics; and the ‘common good’ is not restricted to the Catholic tradition. For example, the Protestant activist and theologian Jim Wallis has been championing the case for using the ‘common good’ to guide Christian engagement in politics and community life, captured in his book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided (2014).
For all the talk about ‘free markets’, we know that markets function best when there is effective regulation that ensures they serve our common good. This regulation is often to protect ‘public goods’: clean air, safe water, healthy food. Public health systems which tackle infectious diseases likewise contribute to public goods. In short, ‘public goods’ are needed not just for well-functioning markets, but also to enable human beings to flourish. And that means we need to look after the public goods that nature provides and that underpin all of our economic and social activities in order to work towards our common good.
Having a climate in which people and nature can thrive is also a ‘public good’. Without it, seas will rise, forests will wither, and the natural cycles of inter-dependent environmental systems such as those involving the birds, the bees and the crops, will fail. As the papal encyclical points out, we need to act on the overwhelming scientific evidence that the climate and nature’s health is at risk, and that this is mainly due to human activities.
‘Public goods’ – our natural resources – and the ‘common good’ – our well-being – are not identical, but they are related. I am not surprised that Pope Francis engages with issues which involve economics as well as theology. Justice is a strong theme in the teaching of Jesus, as well as in most world religions. The demands of justice require that we collaborate to protect those things which promote the common good for all, and especially for those living in poverty – including public goods such as a stable climate. As Pope Francis points out, this implies that we need more sustainable consumption and production patterns, and we need to look at different ways to run our economies.
The papal encyclical is a clear call to action – to everyone, everywhere – and chimes well with WWF’s belief that humans and nature are intrinsically linked, as are development and economic activities. The encyclical speaks to governments, and to individuals working in government; to businesses and to those who work for and lead them. Above all, it speaks to each of us as humans: economic and social beings, who live in and depend upon the extraordinary environment which this planet provides.
We can now all sing from the same hymn sheet that the loss of biodiversity, resource scarcity and the changing climate need to be addressed by everyone, including the international community. And we are happy to join the choir in praising new approaches to economics and lifestyles that will lead us to a low-carbon, sustainable world with a future in which people live in harmony with nature. Laudato Si!
David Nussbaum is Chief Executive of the Worldwide Fund for Nature UK
Check out the next blog in our Encyclical series: Bishop Graham Usher praises the Encyclical but argues it doesn't engage enough with the problem of population growth.
Want to keep up to date with the latest news from Theos? Click here to join our monthly e-newsletter. We'll let you know about our latest reports, blogs and events.
Image from wikimedia.org available in the public domain.