Blog: Beyond the Surface – Putting Care for Creation to the Test

By Sarah Kenny, NETWORK Intern
July 14, 2015

Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s revolutionary encyclical, has engendered a sustained media feeding frenzy since its release this June by successfully engaging individuals across borders, ethnicities and creeds. Over the course of 180 pages, the acclaimed leader of the Catholic Church analyzes the state of our land, water, sky and fellow creatures; confirms a destructive relationship between the actions of humans and the deteriorating condition of our planet; and proposes initiatives to address damage of the past and preserve resources for the future.

The complex connections and propositions within this document yield tremendous power to connect individuals across the world in a collective effort to protect our mutual home, yet politicians and religious leader’s commentaries have limited the news cycle from circulating many of the underlying petitions that Pope Francis calls his people to consider.

Buzzwords such as “climate change” and “papal authority” have dominated the narrative surrounding Laudato Si’, words that encapsulate present holdups over both the legitimacy of climate change in relation to human activity as well as the pope’s role as a social activist. While op-eds and editorials debate the reality facing our physical environment, there have been few mainstream pieces that have delved into the encyclical’s emphasis on humans, although the word “human” alone makes well over 100 appearances throughout the document.

My dismay that the media has not yet illuminated the consequences of a changing environment on its people was piqued earlier this week when I learned that the U.S. State Department has alleged plans to shift Malaysia’s Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act rating up from a Tier 3 to a Tier 2.

Although the connection between human trafficking and the state of our environment is frequently overlooked, Picolotti and Talliant assert in Linking Human Rights and the Environment that “victims of environmental degradation tend to belong to more vulnerable sectors of society – racial and ethnic minorities and the poor – who regularly carry a disproportionate burden of [human rights] abuse.” Pope Francis has artfully woven this very link between environmental changes and the world’s vulnerable people throughout his encyclical, a thread that stems from the basic Christian tenet of caring for those who are less fortunate.

Point 91 under Part V: Universal Communion proclaims, “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment…needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” Such compassion for those who are vulnerable is not a fundamentally radical principle; however, the pope’s exhibited application of this Gospel truth yields the potential to create a significant impact on current global issues, such as the U.S. State Department’s projected course of action concerning Malaysia.

In conjunction with other leaders of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has uncontestably demonstrated his staunch stance against human trafficking throughout his papacy. At the 2014 annual Lenten Fraternity Campaign in Brazil, Francis not only attested that “it is not possible to remain indifferent before the knowledge that human beings are bought and sold like goods,” but he went even further to condemn any and all who by any means facilitate this form of modern slavery: “whoever uses human persons in this way and exploits them, even if indirectly, becomes an accomplice of injustice.”

In March 2014, the pope spoke at the Church and Law Enforcement in Partnership Conference in England and Wales, where he met with former sex slaves, helped facilitate a declaration of commitment to ending human trafficking between the Catholic Church and chief police officers from over 20 nations, and assisted the Catholic Church of London with the Bakhita Initiative, a four-pronged approach that aims to address consequences of human trafficking. December of that same year, Pope Francis joined spiritual luminaries from all creeds and cultures and signed the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery, a historic commitment that has pledged to “eradicate modern slavery across the world by 2020 and for all time”.

Pope Francis extends his commitment to eradicating modern slavery by explicitly addressing human trafficking in Laudato Si’. In Part V: Universal Communion, he asserts that “it is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted.” This succinct claim represents an unequivocal bridge between a respect for the environment and a respect for all the people who inhabit it. While the pope has petitioned certain groups to make a commitment to combat this global epidemic, as he did with law enforcement authorities during the 2014 Church and Law Enforcement in Partnership Conference by deeming them “primarily responsible for combating this tragic reality,” he unequivocally casts blame upon all of God’s people for the sin of indifference towards our environment in the pages of his encyclical. Laws and enforcement of those laws lay a framework for combatting this humanitarian crisis; yet the pope cautions that “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.” Although Malaysia is among our nation’s top 25 largest trading partners and their participation in the TPP may very well be economically expedient to U.S. businesses, can our culture be as corrupt as to diminish Malaysia’s ongoing human rights violations for a gamble at capital gain?

I am exhausted by news headlines saying presidential candidates plan to declare a position on climate change in response to Pope Francis. I am indifferent to further analysis on whether the pope has overstepped his boundaries by championing the issue of climate change, an issue that many call the gravest problem facing future generations. I am, however, hopeful that as time quells the sensational upset over the advent of the encyclical’s publication, leaders of all backgrounds and beliefs will open themselves up to the rich layers of wisdom, truth and good that lay not far beneath the document’s surface. I am optimistic that the words ofLaudato Si’ can serve as a profound reminder for peoples and institutions for generations to come to prioritize care for the vulnerable above personal and economic gains.

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