Bernardo M. Villegas
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Thoroughly Moral and Spiritual Document

           Contrary to erroneous interpretations of some ultra-conservative opinion makers, the Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si” of Pope Francis on “Care for our Common Home,” does not take a position on whether or not climate change is due mainly to human behavior.  It is still compatible with other theories explaining climate change as primarily due to physical forces independent of human behavior.  Far from interfering in scientific debates, Laudato Si is true to the nature of a social encyclical.  It provides “principles for reflection, the criteria for judgment and the directives for action which are the starting point for the promotion of an integral and solidary humanism.”  To all men and women of good will, it gives moral advice based on natural law.  To Christians, it points out how supernatural grace can help them practise charity to a heroic degree in caring for the poor and the environment.

          This epoch-making document (comparable to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum issued in 1891) takes off from an introductory paragraph of the present Pope’s first Apostolic Exhortation entitled “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel):  “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasure, and a blunted conscience.  Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.  God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.  This is a very real danger for believers too.  Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless.  That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”  It is obvious from these words that the Pope has moral advice for all people of good will and spiritual counsel for the baptized Christians who believe in the “risen Christ.”

          As a professional economist reading Laudato Si, I never got the impression that Pope Francis is espousing a debatable economic theory (e.g. Keynes vs. Milton Friedman).  I am thankful  to him for reminding us economists and the business people we influence about  at least the last two Popes, St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had already emphasized:  that whatever the merits of market forces in generating employment and uplifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty (as in the case of China), there are both economic and social problems that cannot be resolved by a system which assumes that the exclusive pursuit of maximum profit by producers and maximum satisfaction by consumers are sufficient to achieve a just and humane society.  Generations of students of economics in the last century were literally brainwashed with the theory of the “invisible hand” resulting in economic paradise as long as we give complete freedom to every economic agent, producer or consumer, to pursue his enlightened self-interest.  There was no room in these theories for generosity, unselfish concern for the poor and the underprivileged, what Benedict XVI called gratuitousness or the virtue of seeking the good of others without expecting anything in return. 

          Pope Francis goes for the jugular, to the very meat of his moral and spiritual message:  “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 labour 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 to 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, or 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.  We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, 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.”

          Anyone who does not close his eyes to reality will not quarrel with the “micro” observations made by the Pope of specific examples of the destruction of the environment by irresponsible human behavior:  polluted rivers, denuded forests, extinction of species of plants or animals, etc.  There are enough cases of these in the Philippines, such as the Pasig River, the Laguna de Bay, many denuded forests in Mindanao, the polluted air of Metro Manila, etc. that one does not have to support any “macro” or global explanation for climate change to protest against these examples of “collateral damage” of the pursuit of profit or maximum consumer satisfaction.  The Pope is also implicitly reminding us to take into account the demands of the moral principle of “double effect.”  When some evil indirectly results from a good effect which was the intention of an action, three conditions must be present for the action to be morally permissible:  the action must be good in itself, the intention must be good, and there is no realistic way to prevent the indirect bad effect.  It is not enough to point out that the freedom of markets resulted in the liberation of hundreds of millions of Chinese and other people in the emerging markets from dehumanizing poverty.  This is a case of a good thing, the eradication of poverty, indirectly causing something evil, e.g. pollution of the environment.    The question remains:  have all measures been applied to prevent the so-called collateral damage?  The answer that an economist like me can give is that given a real concern for both the poor and the environment, there could have been many ways of preventing or at least mitigating the bad effects. 

                        All these moral considerations can be grasped by the natural reason of any person of good will, whatever his or her religion (or lack of religion) may be. The Pope, however, adds a spiritual dimension addressed to Christians when he wrote:  “I would like from the outset to show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters.  If the simple fact of being human moves people to care for the environment of which they are a part, Christians in their turn ‘realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.’ It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions.”  As the only predominantly Christian country in Asia, the Philippines has a special responsibility to shine as an example in the very important task of caring for our common home.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.