By Bishop Paul D. Etienne
The implications of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, are beginning to sink in like a light rain, or even a drizzle. And like precipitation, this encyclical doesn’t discriminate who it’s aimed at: it has something to say to everyone. As The Holy Father made clear, “all of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”
Yet in a particular way, Laudato Si resonates with those in rural areas, those who live and work closest to God’s glorious creation.
Pope Francis takes as a starting point the goodness of God’s creation, a truth that rural Americans who work with nature see firsthand every day. God’s masterful creation is not only good, but it works like clockwork, as “everything is connected.” (#91) This harmonious connection certainly exists in nature, but a central point of Laudato Si is that human activity has an impact–and is in turn impacted–by our natural environment. In other words, there is a fundamental link between mankind and creation. (#66)
Rural people are uniquely situated at the heart of this relationship. We deal with the raw materials of nature, just as Jesus Himself did, when as a carpenter he worked “in daily contact with the matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship.” (#98) We make our homes not in concrete jungles, but in the very fields and forests that sustain earth’s life. Our livelihoods are directly tied to the integrity of creation.
As rural people, our relationship with creation is self-evident, not obscured by degrees of separation, but noticeable in immediate and tangible ways. So if Laudato Si is a call to defend God’s creation, rural men and women need to be the front line of that defense. This is a great responsibility, but it’s also a response to God’s invitation to be stewards of his creation.
So how can Catholics in the countryside live out the teachings of this encyclical?
Fundamentally, we need to reground ourselves in the truth that creation is not something for us to exploit as we see fit, but is instead a reality with which we are called to cooperate. Humility should guide our interactions with nature and her resources. We can apply this to the industries that thrive in our rural communities, from forestry to mineral extraction. Let us ask ourselves: Are we cultivating nature, or dominating it into submission? Are the choices we make made with the wellbeing of the planet and our neighbors—near and far—in mind, or are they solely motivated by a desire to turn a profit? We may call endeavors that harvest and use natural resources “businesses,” but the reality is that they have social, ethical, and environmental dimensions that are just as relevant as economic outcomes.
This is especially true of agriculture. Although there was not a dedicated section on farming in Laudato Si, Pope Francis used ag-related terminology over 30 times. Clearly, agriculture has to do with more than just making money. Our Holy Father illustrates how certain farming techniques injure not only natural ecology—through pollution and deforestation—but also human ecology—by disrupting rural communities and forcing family and proprietary farmers out of business. He suggests alternatives that are sustainable, working in harmony not only with nature but also healthy patterns of human living.
The approach to agriculture that clearly informed Pope Francis can only be described as “vocational.” That is to say, farming is not just a way to make a living; it’s a way of life, a unique and privileged way of cooperating with God’s plan. Catholic Rural Life, a national organization of which I am currently the president, is in the midst of a project to help articulate this vocation in the 21st century. In partnership with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, we will produce a set of resources that give faith-based, practical guidance to the next generation of food and ag leaders. I believe that this is one way of putting the teachings of Laudato Si into action in rural America.
We may not all be farmers, or have livelihoods that directly put us in touch with nature. But we all have a vocation, a call to holiness. And for all of us—but especially rural Catholics—that means respecting, cherishing and cooperating with God’s glorious creation. May Laudato Si help bring about the needed conversion in our hearts to live this truth of our faith.
Bishop Paul D. Etienne of the Diocese of Cheyenne, is president of Catholic Rural Life.