Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
Matthew 6: 19-21
These days are an extraordinary moment in the history of the Church. For many years the Church seems to have experienced itself as an embattled institution. Its conversation with the wider world, so unlike the opening to the world that Pope St. John XXIII had envisaged, has been largely defensive and judgmental. It has appeared, correctly or not, to be largely concerned with its own inner life and status, rather than as the seed in the soil and the yeast in the dough of the wider world.
Yesterday, however, the Laudato Si, the Encyclical of Pope Francis on the environment, was made public. With it, the Church has entered a global conversation on, perhaps, the most pressing moral problem of our day, the degradation of our global environment at every level as caused by humankind’s disordered relationship to it. The treasure of revelation and of the wisdom of the Church’s and humankind’s vast spiritual traditions has been brought into the public conversation in such a way as to deepen and confound it. Already we see reactions of deep approval but also of angry criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, and often from the very same sources. This is truly what happens when, in the most profound sense, faith enters the conversation in the public square.
Not for the first time but with the power that his office affords, Pope Francis has brought into an intense matter of global concern the spiritual and transcendent perspective. The words he speaks are from one whose treasure, and so his heart, is in heaven and not on earth. Thus, the invitation his words affords us is to ask ourselves where our treasure is, as seen in how we relate to the earth, especially the poor of the earth. He calls us individually, nationally, and as a human community to be converted from a behavior that is governed by desire for earthy treasure to a way of being and acting that recognizes that our treasure is a common and shared one. We are to practice with all our hearts, and souls, and minds, and strength living each moment in the love of God, which will lead to behaviors of respect and reverence for “the earth and all that is in it.”
Secondly, however, this moment of courageous speaking reminds us to bring the treasure we have been given and realized into the heart of the world. To speak from the true perspective of faith and the wisdom traditions is potentially to change the level and so the nature of the global conversation. In truth, we human beings are able to do something about the greatest problems that confront us because ultimately all of these problems are spiritual ones. What is required is that we change our hearts and be converted from those bonds of earthly treasures that imprison us in selfishness to the possibilities for the “common” life of love that come to us when our hearts are set on heavenly treasures. There is something we can do, but first we have to do what we try to avoid doing at all cost: we ourselves have to change.
VI. THE COMMON DESTINATION OF GOODS
93. Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”. Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
94. The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wis 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Mt 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets”.
95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si
Thanks, John, for your good reflection and introduction to this critically important encyclical of Pope Francis. Thanks too for taking the time to reflect, and to share your spiritual reflections.