Encyclical, What?! or My Impressions of the First Two Chapters


The Pope’s revolutionary Encyclical a constructs a language for cultural and structural changes to forge paths toward sustainability. He condemns short-sighted economic and political forces that have made our planet “look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” (par 21). And, among his most urgent calls to action, he insists, “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference,” (par 53). His work calls on each one of us to identify and reject systems that tacitly or explicitly accept abject poverty and environmental degradation as necessary and unavoidable byproducts of progress and growth. He has captured the attention of activists and concerned citizens around the world who may have lost faith in Catholicism’s capacity to offer significant value to critical global issues.

Social decline is intimately intertwined and related to ecological collapse. “…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,” (par 49). While he may advocate for land preservation (par 37) that is based on the contested concept of ‘virgin’ forests (do such things exist and are they of greater value than managed forests?) and would restrict human access to globally important ecosystems, it otherwise appears that the Pope’s observations and suggestions for change are broadly applicable and could resonate with members of developed countries. He recognizes that developed countries must prioritize the needs of the poor and that solely consumerist values produce much of the world’s maladies – from inequality to pollution to climate change. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat (global warming) or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” (par 23).

Pope Francis elegantly makes the case for including all forms of wisdom and knowledge in the pursuit of solutions to global problems. “If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.” (par 63). We cannot deny the power of cultural predispositions and the role our worldviews play in our approaches to urgent global dilemmas. Our world is one, complete whole. And Pope Francis, in this historic Encyclical, beseeches all members of the human family to start acting like it.

The Magnolia Tree

I was raised in a suburb of Rochester, New York and there was a magnolia tree that I could see through a window behind our family’s desktop computer. In the spring, when jagged branches produced the white-pink buds that open up into seductive blossoms, I would spend considerably less time looking at blinking instant messaging alerts and significantly more looking out of that window. Sometimes, when I walked out by the blossoms during their week or weeks-long display, I would stop and place one delicious petal in between my thumb and forefinger, gently caressing its softness and then slowly pressing the residue left on my fingertip onto my forehead and into my cheeks. When the petals would fall to the earth, they would leave wet marks on the pavement below and shrivel up in the grass. Green leaves would remain until autumn winds tugged at them, leaving her branches naked and somber again. Her movements were not as perceptible in those months of winter, except when the weight of infinite snow crystals pulled her branches low. I would go to her again in that quiet season, our meditations sometimes accented by the song of a lone bird.

As I approach middle age, I feel now like that magnolia tree, in all her phases at once somehow. I am the taut bud and I am the wilting flower. I am the barren branch and I am the supple blossom. I am the water that populates her petals and the residue left by her decay. I am seductive to those who crave nectar and home to those who seek rest. I smell of the sweetnesses in bloom and of decomposition. I am vibrant in springtime glory and I am sober through long and dark nights.

I am the magnolia tree and I am the one who watches. I am the magnolia tree and I am the one who loves her.