Fortissimo

For those of us who aren’t fluent in music or Italian, fortissimo meansvery loud —used especially as a direction in music.” My own kind of scientific fortissimo came unexpectedly, but quite pleasantly, in the last few weeks.

It started for me in April while at a survivors-liberators meeting in Nashville, Tennessee (described in the April 28 blog).  I was “assigned” to start the concluding meal with the Jewish blessing for the food. During the blessing, it occurred to me that if,  according to Jewish tradition, the blessing is a request for permission from God to use parts of the physical world to satisfy our nutritional needs, wouldn’t it logically follow that we should also ask permission to extract things such as coal, gas, oil and all other natural resources that we use constantly? And then I thought, what would happen if these blessings to use natural resources were required? Wouldn’t “God’s servants on Earth” have to not only grant the request, but also be required to familiarize themselves with – and think carefully about – the consequences to God’s creation once the resources were extracted?

I also fully realized that I am not really qualified to answer this question and on returning to my school, I asked Denis Ladyzhensky, a physics student in my class, with much more extensive education in the Jewish religion, to write a guest blog on the topic. He gladly agreed and the result was posted on April 28th. Then I thought, why limit the discussion to the Jewish religion? I asked Sofia Ahsanuddin to present a Muslim perspective on the issue. She thought that the best timing for such a blog would be just before the month of Ramadan, with the resulting fascinating piece posted in last week’s blog. Almost immediately, Denis posted a great comment citing additional Muslim sources.

So now, among the three large monotheistic religions, Christianity’s take was missing. Well, it is not missing anymore and it has nothing to do with me. It came in the grandest and most influential way possible; a grand fortissimo.

It came officially on June 18th, and, unofficially, a few days earlier through leaks to the press. It came in the form of a 184-page Encyclical Letter by Pope Francis. Here is how Wikipedia defines the word encyclical:

An encyclical was originally a circular letter sent to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Roman Church. At that time, the word could be used for a letter sent out by any bishop. The word comes from Latin encyclicus (from the Greek ἐν κύκλῳ en kykloi) meaning “general” or “encircling”, which is also the origin of the word “encyclopedia”.

For the modern Catholic Church, a Papal encyclical is a kind of letter concerning Catholic doctrine sent by the Pope addressed to bishops, patriarchs, primates, and archbishops who are in communion with the Holy See. The form of the address can vary widely, and may concern bishops in a particular area, or designate a wider audience. Papal encyclicals usually take the form of a papal brief due to their more personal nature as opposed to the formal papal bull.

The unofficial release was leaked to an Italian newspaper in Italian. Newspapers in the US that caught the events went quickly to Google Translate to get some quick translations of “key” paragraphs. Those of us who waited for the official release got it in nine different languages; here it is in its entirety.

Below, I quote directly from the encyclical’s 1st two paragraphs, the heading of the chapters, and a prayer from the end:

ENCYCLICAL LETTER
LAUDATO SI’
OF THE HOLY FATHER
FRANCIS
ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME

  1. “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”.  In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces vari­ous fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”. 1
  1. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irre­sponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made upof her elements, we breathe her air and we re­ceive life and refreshment from her waters.

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us

1 Canticle of the Creatures, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, New York-London-Manila, 1999, 113-114

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CHAPTER ONE

WHAT IS HAPPENING TO OUR COMMON HOME

CHAPTER TWO

THE GOSPEL OF CREATION

CHAPTER THREE

THE HUMAN ROOTS OF THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS

CHAPTER FOUR

INTEGRAL ECOLOGY

CHAPTER FIVE

LINES OF APPROACH AND ACTION

CHAPTER SIX

ECOLOGICAL EDUCATION AND SPIRITUALITY

###

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

###

My book on the topic of climate change, Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now, (Momentum Press (2011)) starts with the following two quotations:

If thou does well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou does not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.  –   Genesis 4:7

Any system in chemical equilibrium, as a result in the variation in one of the factors determining the equilibrium, undergoes a change such that, if this change had occurred by itself, it would have introduced variation of the factor considered in the opposing variation.  –  Henry Le Chatelier

I was delighted to scan through the encyclical, although I have not yet been able to go through the document with the full attention that it deserves.

The Papal Encyclical fascinates me to such a degree that I am now inclined to use it as a “textbook” in my fall climate change course, supplemented, of course, by the science of climate change. Once it’s done, all of us will get involved in addressing the issues that the encyclical raises, but in a much more relaxed way. I am fully aware of the pitfalls of using a religious document as one of the main guiding texts in a science course. I have two months to ponder and reconsider. The prospect of a Jewish physicist teaching a course on climate change through the eyes of a Catholic Pope, while in the middle of an American election year, should serve the students well!

The political hoopla over the encyclical has already started. Many of the Republican Presidential candidates are Catholic. Two of the leading ones, Ex-Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio are from Florida. The New York Times documented some of these reactions, including one from Mr. Bush and another one from a Republican activist:

“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Mr. Bush said. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

But Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and political consultant who described himself as a conservative Catholic, pointed out that there was already a backlash by conservative Catholics against the pope’s efforts on climate change and other progressive policies. “For practicing conservative Catholics, the folks who sit in the pews on Sunday, this is not going to be an indictment of guys like Rubio and Jeb,” Mr. McKenna said. “Those guys have already made up their minds on climate change. For the real churchgoers, this is going to be an indictment of the pope. This pope is selling a line of Latin American-style socialism,” he continued. “This guy is not in sync with the American Catholic Church. Guys like Jeb and Rubio are more in line with the American Catholic Church than the pope.”

The New York Times article came before the official release of the Papal Encyclical. Aside from the name calling, special attention should be focused on Mr. Bush’s last sentence in the quoted paragraph: “But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” My interpretation is that Mr. Bush is claiming that the political realm is not functioning to make us better people.

###

Note:  This will be my last blog before taking a month-long vacation in China. Following my agreement with my editors, I am “allowed” to take a one week break from blogging, but must write blog posts in advance for the rest of the time that I’ll be gone. I am doing that, but my “vacation blogs” will be lowering the volume on the Papal Encyclical in order to deal with the other big event that is taking place: the large drop in the price of oil over the last year, and its consequences.

Stay tuned.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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