Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Some thoughts prompted by St. Francis

The liturgical memorial of St. Francis seems a great time to briefly reflect on ecology, which deals with the relationship of human beings to our natural environment. There is a lot of ink spilled over the vexing issue of global warming. On one side we have what we can certainly call alarmists and on the opposite end we have those who adamantly deny that human activity is having a deleterious effect on the world. Both these positions strike me as ideological and not grounded in reality.

The truth is our activities undoubtedly effect our environment. We know that carbon emissions create pollution, which contaminates air, ground, and water. We also know the environment can absorb a fair amount of what is generated, but we have an interest in reducing output. Our extensive use of chemicals is very problematic, too. It seems that even when it comes to our yards and gardens, instead of cultivating the earth, we launch a chemical attack against nature.

Just what the long term effects of pollution are is difficult to know, the data we collect must be analyzed stringently and objectively. In any case, we are better off reducing pollution, reducing our dependency on non-renewable fossil fuels, and fostering less-polluting and renewable sources of energy. Of course, this must be done in a sensible manner and not in the well-intentioned but ineffective way it was attempted in Spain, which unfortunately became something of a model for the Obama Administration and resulted in serious missteps like Solyndra. In other words, with John McCain, the perhaps overblown spectre of global warming aside, I can't help but think that we all benefit in both the long and short run from less pollution, cleaner air, soil, and water.

I am very happy that the Vatican is carbon neutral. I think this is a wonderful achievement, something for the Church to be proud of. We work hard at our house to use less and less energy, to recycle what we can, and to consume less across-the-board. It’s difficult, but that’s no reason to stop trying. St. Francis understood ecology, that is, his proper relationship to creation, which is one of stewardship, not domination.

Food plays perhaps the biggest role in ecology, what we eat, how it is produced, how much we eat. There is a reason that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. What is often forgotten is that the seven deadly sins have contrary virtues. I like the idea of virtue being contrary because in a fallen world to seek to acquire virtue is to go against the grain. The virtue contrary to gluttony is temperance. If gluttony means to overindulge, then temperance, which for Christians has always included certain forms of temporary, but recurring, abstinence, is about self-control and moderation.

In this political season when people are being deceptively turned against their own interests and the common good by the forces of greed, by those who insist that limitless acquisition is a virtue, we can all bear being reminded that the virtue that contradicts the deadly sin of greed is liberality, or generosity. Greed is the immoderate desire for earthly goods, whereas liberality, or generosity, focuses not on moderating one’s desires for earthly goods (See "temperance" above), but is concerned with a willingness to give what one has freely and without request for compensation or commendation. Writing on this subject always brings to my mind the powerful beginning of number twenty-one of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Populorum Progesso:
"He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?" Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich." These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.

No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life
Those who ignore these teachings of the magisterium and who selectively prefer other teachings are like those who strain at gnats while swallowing camels. After the Gospel passages we have been reading these past Sundays, can there be any doubt about this?

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