Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

Pope Francis released a lengthy encyclical letter on June 18 titled “Praised Be You: On Care for Our Common Home,” or “Laudato Si'” (drawn from the beginning of the famous canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, “laudato si’, mi’ Signore”).

This encyclical is addressed, said the pope, “to every person living on this planet. … I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” He addresses forthrightly issues of the ecological crisis — chief among them environmental deterioration, climate change and shortages of potable water.

Not surprisingly, critics say Pope Francis should stick to religion and refrain from pronouncements involving economics and politics. But in this case, he clearly has science on his side and is advancing the entire body of Catholic social teaching by bringing a sense of moral urgency to a call for action in defense of the environment.

The great Catholic tradition of social justice is at risk if Catholics and those within their sphere of influence fail to connect in the policy arena worldwide with all the great social issues of our day, not least of which are those related to the environment.

We can expect Pope Francis to carry these concerns with him to the United States when he visits in September.

It is late, but not, of course, too late for the pope to reflect on private property as an occasion of contemporary sin and unethical conduct. This would be yet another approach to the exaggerated egocentricity that is personal sin and the collective depersonalization, damage and disregard that describe social sin.

This is a fresh approach necessitated by the evidence of sinfulness in our times (the extremes of wealth, poverty, human oppression, starvation and the unjust exploitation of both resources and persons).

Personal and social sin must be examined today through the lens of private property and thus engage the principle of stewardship.

Since the possession of private property appeals to our self-interest, the institution of private property represents a workable, although risky, way of preserving “the land.”

But preservation is only part of the task of stewardship. Sharing the land and using it for the benefit of the community require equal attention. Traditional moral analysis would grant to those in real need, and to those who have been unjustly denied access to the land, the right to override another’s right of private ownership.

By refusing to share, or by denying necessary access, say, to water to others in the community, or by unreasonably exploiting — for motives of personal enrichment at the expense of others — the land and those who labor on it, the private owner reveals himself or herself to be unethical in the conduct of stewardship.

Attitudinal change will be a necessary forerunner to any realization of the ethical ideal outlined here. An attitude is a tendency toward action, and behind the tendency there will always be a motive.

Abundant motives are available for incorporation into a contemporary ethic of stewardship. Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is full of them. His hope in publishing it is, of course, to get people thinking and talking about the problem and eventually arriving at the conclusion that something must be done — even if it hurts.

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Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.