Shared Inheritance

One of the things I have been doing is continuing to read and consult the fairly recently encyclical issued by Pope Francis.  Laudato Sí (Praise be to you) was put forth by the Pope in May, 2015.  It is his argument why the human race needs to do a much better job taking care of the earth…Mother Earth.  In part it is a response to the global warming phenomenon we have been hearing about for some time.  Some may deny this, but the Pope, a scientist in his own right, has no doubts.  And he wants the worlds’ one billion Roman Catholics and all the rest of us to shape up.          

I agree with the Pope.  And what is refreshing is to see the theological reasons why this shaping up is a good idea.  Reading his encyclical is a joy for both the devout believer and the educated theologian.  Occasionally, I would like to focus on this encyclical in order to sharpen my own sense of what the problem is and how Christian theology offers reasons to solve the problem.           

Today I focused on Section VI, which Francis entitles, “The Common Destination of Goods.”  The initial sentence of that Section puts the matter succinctly.  “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance…”  I really like that idea of a shared inheritance.  That suggests some interesting things.  In the first place the earth is something we inherited.  We did not create it; we did not earn it.  It comes to us as a gift.  It is like receiving a lump of money from our parents’ estate.  It was theirs and now it is ours.           

Of course, like our inherited money, we can deal wisely with it or we can blow it---waste it in any number of ways.  When I write this, I recall the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which comes to us in Luke’s Gospel.  In that parable the Prodigal wanted his money ahead of time---before his father even died.  He couldn’t wait!  And when he got it, immediately he took off.  He went to a foreign land and blew through the money with nothing of worth or lasting to show for it.             

In a way the Pope could say we have done the same thing.  Of course as the Prodigal surely did, we rationalize and justify why what we are doing is ok.  After all, it is ours!  But not so fast, the Pope might say.  This inheritance---our earth---is a “shared” inheritance.  It is not just mine or just my family’s earth.  It is not America’s possession.  We must share it with all the people around the globe.  My air is their air.  My water is a shared inheritance.  I am sure most of us do not consciously think about it this way.           

Another thing I like about the way the Pope put it.  Whether you are a believer or not, this pertains to you.  You can’t get off the hook of our shared inheritance if you claim not to believe in God.  Regardless of faith or theology, the earth is ours together.  Don’t mess up my back yard!  And the same goes for me!  In fact, those of us from wealthy countries probably have done more messing up than poorer people.  It is time to shape up.           

The Pope continues when he says “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”  Effectively, Francis is now addressing me as a believer.  I share the Pope’s faith in God as Creator.  And this belief has its implication; I have to be faithful.  I need to own up to the fidelity (faithfulness) of my relationship to the Creator of this shared inheritance.             

God put me and you here to do a job.  Our job is to take care of, not mess up, the global home we call our earth.  And it has widespread implications.  The Pope is clear about these implications.  “…every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.”  Clearly, Francis is moving beyond ecology itself to declare we have a responsibility to each other.  In my language he is saying we have a communal responsibility to the earth and to each other.  Rich people do not simply take care of rich people.             

It seems obvious to me the Pope is pushing the envelope here---but he needs to push it.  He becomes explicit.  “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…”  I am sure this is where rich people will tune out.  If we have much private property, we don’t want anyone---even the Pope---telling us to subordinate it to the possibility that we have to share it.           

Now possessions can lead to possessiveness.  I can feel this in my own case.  I can feel my own rationalizations kick in.  Old tapes begin to play in my head to justify why the poor are poor, etc.  This is where faith is tested.  This is where fidelity to God and to the gospel is at stake.           

Is my faith simply ideas, doctrine and little more?  Or does faith lead to action?  In the abstract I will always answer that faith does lead to action.  I will put a dollar in the collection plate.  I have shared!  I am sure the Pope is talking about more than a dollar.  He is talking about a shared inheritance.

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