Rowan Williams looks at Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, noting how when one looks at climate change, one must look at all of human society.
So it is no surprise that the argument returns more than once to the question of how local cultures are to be heard, respected, and given real agency (144); how we escape from the assumption that the discourse of the “developed” world is the only unchallengeable orthodoxy around the globe today. Change involves valuing the local, and so valuing the apparently modest gesture, the symbolically weighty but practically limited action that simply declares what might be done differently. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is invoked to good effect here (230), and this is a very significant issue if we are to avoid giving the impression of a crisis so intense that no small gesture is worthwhile. And it is with this in mind that the encyclical in its final pages (233–7) sets out a strong theology of the sacramental life, underlining not only the way in which the Eucharist reveals the inner energy of all material creation by the grace of the Incarnate Word but also the “sabbatical” vision of time made spacious in the celebration of God’s gifts. “We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity” (237); and, strikingly, St. John of the Cross is cited (234) as establishing the continuity in absolute difference that is God’s presence in the created order. Ignoring or distorting our responsibility in the material world is ultimately a denial of that eternal relatedness that is God’s own trinitarian life: we need to discover a spirituality rooted in “that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (240).
In short, this is more than an encyclical on the environment: it has clear and provocative things to say about our environmental responsibility and our current cultural malaise in this regard, but, by grounding its environmental critique in a critique of the soul of the contemporary developed world, it presents a genuinely theological vision with implications in several distinct areas. It was, for example, good to read (149 ff.) a brief but penetrating reflection on the actual geography of our urban environments, on how we display what we think matters in the way we design our civic spaces. These paragraphs should be a powerful diagnostic tool for understanding better what has to be done to rescue urban society—not only what support services should be available but what absolutely practical considerations should enter into the design of shared space, even the materials used in building. And, again echoing things that have been said from the Vatican often enough in the past decade, the issues around environmental risk prompt some hard questions about how a world still passionately committed to a model of absolute state sovereignty (except where globalized finance is concerned, of course) devises effective instruments for international monitoring and sanctioning of ecological threats.
The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams is master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012.