Throw Away ‘Throwaway Culture’: Catholic Environmental Principles, 3 of 3

This is the third part of a three-part series. Part 1 is “Seeing Creation With God’s Eyes;” Part 2 is “Recognizing the Objective Order of Things.”

While Pope Francis sees the value and dignity in work and even of wealth creation which helps to lift people out of poverty in his encyclical on the environment, Ladato Si’ (see LS 124-6), he is calling us to rethink some of the assumptions of our present structure. He states in his characteristic diction:

“We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature” (LS 44).

He expresses concern for the apotheosis of the market, which caters to human wants—not necessarily needs. The Church has never thought of the market as inherently evil, but faithful Catholics have always steered the course between communism (which elevates the state as the supreme entity) and unbridled capitalism (which makes the individual absolutely supreme). For Catholics, the family is the fundamental unit of society. And the market has no inherent orientation always and everywhere to the good of the family. Francis’ concern is simply this: moral principle—not solely profit—must be the ultimate norm and guide, even when it comes to the economy (see LS 56, 190, 195).

For Francis, the economy is ultimately ordered to the human good, which will in turn include the ecological good (see LS 195). Man is not just a body and a ball of emotional desires; but very often touching man at this superficial level is the goal of mass marketing, which in turn often leads to overconsumption—and thence, to more and more waste. The Holy Father points out that those most adversely affected are often the poor, especially in terms of the erosion of their culture, natural resources, and quality of life (see LS 25, 27-30, 93, 144-6).

Part of the Catholic tradition of fasting is precisely this: that by going with less, we can give to those who have not. For Francis, the “throw away culture” is self-centered and individualistic — it is a culture which destroys both the social and natural environment; that is, it is corrosive not just to a particular forest or climate, but the fabric and ecosystem of the family as well, as the Holy Father states so forcefully here:

“The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same ‘use and throw away’ logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary” (LS 123; see also 162).

Detaching (from things) and Attaching (to people)

While it’s not hard to see the positive effects of the digital age (e.g., staying in touch with family and the like), we also see the deterioration of interpersonal relationships with those closest to us; many of us have lots of “friends,” but suffer from a loneliness stemming from a lack of sincere connection with those nearest to us (see LS 47). Francis points out how the Christian tradition has always seen that “less is more,” how a life of simplicity is liberating; conversely (and paradoxically), the more attached we are to material goods, the more we “succumb to the sadness for what we lack” (LS 222).

Francis calls us to a “healthy humility” and a “happy sobriety” (LS 224), by which he means a moderating of our consumer attitude for material goods; and humility — rather than being marked by thinking less of ourselves — is really thinking less about ourselves. That is, humility enables us to turn outward in love of the other, whereas a consumer-type attitude is preoccupied with one’s own self-interest. But if we orient ourselves outward to God and neighbor, we will find our lives enriched and more fulfilling; and this outward focus will likewise foster greater concern and care for all of God’s creation, including the environment.

Appealing to God’s own inner Trinitarian life — as an Eternal Communion of Persons — and since man is made in this Trinitarian image, Francis points to human fulfillment through the sincere gift of self, in love to the other:

“The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures” (LS 240).

As St. John Paul II so ardently taught, only love can conquer a culture of death marked by utilitarian logic. Francis proposes a “culture of care” (LS 231), predicated upon a self-forgetfulness and inter-personal communion. Pope Francis’ vision is a true Christian humanism—a humanism which embraces Christ as the center of all things (see LS 77, 100, 235) and which seeks to foster man’s cooperative embrace of his God-given calling, a calling which includes being a good steward over God’s wondrous gift of creation.  And this calling flows from man’s absolute uniqueness and inherent dignity.

This is the third part of a three-part series. Click for Part 1; and Part 2.

This appeared at Ascension.
Photo: Alexandre Lavrov, Flickr.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.