This week is LAUDATO SI’ week. The encyclical is celebrating its 5th anniversary and has become an important part of my reflections around the theme OUR WORLD, A FAMILY OF FAMILIES. Of course Laudato Si, its content and focus on the care of our common home are also extremely relevant in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Climate change and environmental degradation form the basis of LS and although a virus is not specifically mentioned it certainly fits. Already early in March with the virus still new in South Africa, in this newsletter, I had asked, “Is Nature getting back at us?” I didn’t ask if the virus can be seen as a punishment from God, which some people think it is, but these are not exactly the same. My interpretation taken from LS is that God, the creator, does not necessarily act directly in disasters that occur in his creation, but nevertheless can and does play a role in how things play themselves out. Pope Francis writes, “the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us, he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us.” LS13.
As it is also the centenary of the birth of St John Paul II this meaningful quotation from Laudato Si’ about St John Paul II also illustrates the point I wish to make. Pope Francis writes:
“St John Paul II became increasingly concerned about the environment. In his first Encyclical he warned that human beings frequently seem to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Subsequently he would call for a global ecological conversion. At the same time he noted that little effort had been made to safeguard the moral condition for an authentic human ecology. The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption and the established structures of power which today govern societies. Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system. Accordingly our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.”LS5. Laudato Si’ is filled with many examples and references of God’s creation.
What is disturbing for me personally is the way the whole Covid-19 pandemic is dealt with by the WHO, by countries and organisations, completely ignoring the presence and role of God. It is as if God does not exist and nature or the virus created itself. Its origin and progression is acknowledged as being unknown. Dealing with what is happening is up to us secular humans, be it the WHO, the SA Command Council, Donald Trump or other world leaders.
Churches and Faith-based organisations are seen alongside other stakeholders, advisers, and suppliers of food parcels and other items. It is true that many wonderful initiatives have been developed by churches around the regulations of social distancing and lockdowns. The SA Council of Churches does represent a number of churches in the advisory body. Personal and also family spirituality are being nurtured, Masses and homilies are posted on Youtube and whatsapp prayers are circulated. Symbolic and meaningful prayer services are held, like Pope Francis on 27 March, alone in empty St Peter’s Square. However, somehow I find the essential presence of the sacred, – let me say “at the coalface”- is missing.
My questions are, “Is humanitarianism the new religion?” Good as it can be, is the secular now capturing the place traditionally held by the sacred? I haven’t seen or heard anyone saying their actions are in honour of God or for the glory of God.
While governments tend to coordinate and control the management there has been amazing support from almost every quarter, business, NGOs and FBOs play a role, contribute money and resources.
It is acknowledged widely that the world must change, poverty and inequality must end. That was the message of Jesus centuries ago. Those involved in climate change have also preached that for years, but there has been disagreement, indifference and obstructionism. (LS 14. ) Now in the face of this health crisis everyone is saying it again. Are people being forced by circumstances or suddenly becoming willing to make changes? What will be the motivation? Justice? Fairness? Other-centredness? Health care almost everywhere in the world is inadequate. Will the haves be willing to give up their benefits and privileges, in the long run to sacrifice? Can the secular today sustain what the sacred has traditionally done? Can humanitarian secularism sustain the goodwill when it comes to accepting the cross?