The Pope, the Climate, and Enlightened Society

Here in Nelson British Columbia, the Kootenay Shambhala Centre is taking part in an extraordinary event. For the first time, 50 to 60 people from various churches in town are meeting to talk. Among them are Catholics, Lutherans, United Church, Anglicans, Buddhists and a local Ashram. All are represented by church leaders and members of their congregations. The occasion is the Pope’s Climate Change Encyclical, Laudato Si.

The event is remarkable on two fronts: firstly the churches, including the Shambhala Centre, are meeting and finding heartfelt common ground. Secondly, Pope Francis’ encyclical, if you haven’t read it, is not just about climate change, it’s all about what Shambhalians would call “enlightened society”. In fact, I think it would be a great document for contemplation and discussion by Shambhalians, since a lot of this document is a contemplation of the “how to” aspect of getting there.

On the first front, the meetings themselves, there was a lot of warmth, and it was apparent that theology wasn’t getting in the way of basic goodness. In terms of organization, here’s how it worked: each church, including the Shambhala Centre, hosted a study session on one of the six chapters of the encyclical, which is seventy pages in length. Contemplation questions for the next chapter were prepared the previous week by the hosting church. At the study session, a pastor, priest or spokesperson gave a brief overview of his organization’s point of view. Then, the group of about 50 to 60 people broke into smaller groups for discussion. After that, the results were harvested back in the main group.

The original idea came from the Nelson Eco Society, but the churches jumped on board enthusiastically. Each time I attend a session, someone expresses to me how wonderful it is that all the churches are finally together and talking to each other. The gatherings are completely enjoyable, and it’s great to hear people talking about things that matter to them. Somehow the “faith groups”, as they are called, seem to be able to stay grounded and caring, and able to listen genuinely without getting politically or theologically entangled.

In the Encyclical itself, Pope’s writing is clear, to the point, and in many ways, revolutionary. His analysis is wide ranging—he brings together the roots of the climate crisis in religion, business, government, economics, education, technology and science. He does what only a pope could do in the context of Western culture. Into the clinical language of science and technology, the dollars-and cents-language of business economics, and the popularity contest of politics, he inserts a profound spiritual and ethical perspective. In other words, the Pope’s presence has shifted the dialogue.

Being the pope, theistic language appears. This could be a problem for some, but Pope Francis himself warns that in order for his message to be effective, it has to be spoken in the language and metaphors of each of the world’s cultures. For myself, I hear him trying to express the inexpressible in the language he lives in. Reading his words in the encyclical, and listening in the local group as we discuss it, I find myself focusing intently to understand what people actually mean, experientially, when they refer to “God”.

In Shambhala we also use words (“basic goodness”, “drala” and so on) that make little sense to outsiders. We unpack them gradually over many years of teaching and meditation. If we understand “God” as metaphor for inexpressible direct experience, then the Pope’s writing becomes inspired even to a non-theistic ear. In fact, one of my “take-aways” from the interfaith meetings is that people do somehow know what matters on a level that transcends theology.

In his writing about the spiritual dimension of the ecological crisis, we can see clearly why the Pope chose “Francis” as his papal name. His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was a 12th century saint who referred to the elements with terms like “Brother Sun” and “Sister Water”. He was said to be able to communicate directly with animals and birds. In 1979, Pope John Paul II designated St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology. The present Pope echoes that relationship when he says “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God”. And “….Nature as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus of his presence…Discovering his presence leads us to cultivate the ‘ecological virtues’.”

I think that the main importance of the interfaith gatherings was in the gatherings themselves, but I will extract a few limited quotes from the encyclical to give some idea of what Pope Francis says.

Did God give humans untrammeled domination over nature?. “Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be seen as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together in universal communion” And, “a misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle…..When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative.”

The deified market: “The alliance between economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.” And “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market which becomes the only rule.” And “when nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This version 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.”

On technology, Pope Francis says that “There is a tendency to believe that every [technological] increase in power means an increase of progress itself… assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”…. “Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race, that in the most radical sense of the term, power is its motive—a lordship over all.”

The intrinsic value of work: “the orientation of the economy has favored a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines” and “Underlying every form of work is a concept of the relationship which we can and must have with what is other than ourselves….The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.”

Small Farms: “Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. …because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.”

Science: Here, the Pope points out that science is essentially amoral—it purposely suppresses the influence of values in its process. “It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things.” And “without somehow recognizing the spiritual worth of nature, science becomes a tool for exploitation.”

Knowledge as ignorance: Here Pope Francis decries the problem of people becoming specialists and not taking responsibility for the whole: “The fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.” We could also apply this statement to the misuse of the vast amount of knowledge that is available on the internet. In isolated fragments, pieces of this knowledge can be used to support any preconceived view.

Ecological activism: Pope Francis says “At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change” and “unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the Earth have of us?

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