2015-09-24 12:16:00

Cardinal Turkson at World Meeting of Families: Laudato Si' and Family

(Vatican Radio) Cardinal Peter Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has addressed the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on “Family and Environment.”

In his address, Cardinal Turkson discussed how the new Encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, relates to the family.

The full text of his address is below:


World Meeting of Families: “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive”

Philadelphia, 23 September 2015

Family and Environment - Caring for Our Common Home:

The Holistic View of Pope Francis[1]


Let me begin with the title of the new Encyclical launched three months ago. What the world anticipated was a policy statement on great environmental difficulties and how to confront them. Instead, the Encyclical, according to its sub-title, is all about “Care for our Common Home.” It salutes the home, the place where the family nurtures life and where individuals become family. Laudato si’ does not treat the environment as a separate background or mere resource for human life. The environment is part of us, we are part of it. It provides one common home for the entire human family and, within it, a particular home of each particular family.

Accordingly, Laudato si’ stands as a contribution to the Social Teaching of the Church – social, not scientific or economic or technological. These other perspectives are bound up into the social orientation, and an important focus of this is the family.[2]

The moral import of ecology and economy for the family is undeniable. “Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families” (§ 152). In our days, the family can easily suffer a double danger. Families may face economic vulnerability due to insufficient salary and even joblessness, or insecurity or dangers at work; and most horribly in our supposedly modern world, even trafficking and slavery. Families may also face ecological vulnerability in the guise of hunger and malnutrition, insufficient access to water, precarious housing, wasted lands, depleted or polluted waters – briefly, environmental degradation of all sorts.

The Holy Father is attuned to all these threats; he aggressively chastises those who indulge in unbridled greed and the throw-away culture that threaten our common home for all of our families.

But he also points positively to the family as an essential element of finding a better path. This culminates in his reference to the Holy Family and Saint Joseph, who “can inspire us to work with generosity and tenderness in protecting this world which God has entrusted to us” (§ 242).

To stimulate our discussion, let me recall some main insights of Laudato si’ and offer suggestions for our reflections on family.

A. How the Encyclical Talks about the Future of our Common Home

The vision of Laudato si’ is extremely broad, all-inclusive. Among the main points made by Pope Francis are that

·         humanity is not separate from the environment in which we live – rather humanity and the natural environment are united inextricably;

·         the accelerating change in climate is undeniable, catastrophic, and worsened by human activities, but also amenable to human intervention;

·         the grave errors that increase our disastrous indifference to the environment include a throw-away culture of consumerism, and a naïve confidence that technological advances and undirected commercial markets will inevitably solve our environmental problems;

·         the ethical nature of our crisis must be addressed, both through dialogue, and by recovering our fundamental spiritual dimension.

As Pope Francis already affirmed earlier,[3] “Realities are more important than ideas.” Laudato si’ is not an abstract document. It resonates with our lived human experience. And that includes the experience of family life.

Pope Francis sets the boundaries of family both intimately and broadly. As I will show, he deals with actual families, the challenges of parents bringing children into the world and raising them. And of course, he deals with the human family as a whole and its common home. But all his points – both the critical remarks and the avenues of solution – cluster around his key question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (§ 160).

The Holy Father’s embrace of the multi-generational human family resonates very strongly with me as an African. Many traditional African cultures honor and respect the generations who have gone before and those who are still waiting to be born. This inter-generational vision is a source of wisdom for those who are alive right now.

So I sense the pain in his words when Pope Francis laments the consequences for children whose families are forced to migrate after local animals and plants disappear due to changes in climate. “This in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children” (§ 25). What anguish we should feel that thousands of plant and animal species are lost every year, so our children will never see them (§ 33).

The Holy Father is deeply critical of parents who selfishly waste resources on what is not really needed, reducing their children’s chances of building lives of their own later on. And more broadly, he holds everyone alive now accountable for leaving “debris, desolation and filth” to future generations (§ 161). Here is his diagnosis of why these problems are so hard to confront:

Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centered culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other. Parents can be prone to impulsive and wasteful consumption, which then affects their children who find it increasingly difficult to acquire a home of their own and build a family. Furthermore, our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development. Let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting. Hence, “in addition to a fairer sense of inter-generational solidarity there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intra-generational solidarity”[4] (§ 162).

Note the link that the Holy Father makes between descendants and neighbors: “our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development”. He ties this in with the throw-away culture which not only allows the sexual exploitation of children but also the “abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests…. Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted?” (§ 123). If we want to leave a wonderful world to our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we had better start thinking right now about our neighbors’ neighbors. In today’s world, there are zero degrees of separation![5]

B. The Family as Locus of Caring

Care is central; it opens the sub-title, “Care for our Common Home.” The Encyclical repeats care dozens of times. This is very important. Care goes further than “stewardship” (mentioned just twice in the English version). Good stewards take responsibility and fulfil their obligations to manage and to render an account. But one can be a good steward without feeling connected. If one cares, however, one is connected. The intimate family is where people care for and about each other. This on-going evolving experience should in turn ripple out to care throughout the human family.

Commentators have noticed a simple elegance in the style of Laudato si’ and even a child-like quality. For instance, there are similarities between important points in the encyclical and the insights of the popular book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Their sage advice is that the early lessons we learn as children should be recuperated in adulthood and indeed social life. Such lessons include: “Share. Be kind. Clean up after yourself. All things in moderation. Make time for wonder.”[6]

Care begins in family. We care about our children; we care for our children, so much so that parents will sacrifice enormously – even their lives – to ensure the safety and flourishing of their children. Remember the beautiful lesson in The Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: the fox teaches the boy that the flower has meaning in relation to his care for it. With caring, the hard line between self and other softens and blurs – it even disappears.

So when we cast aside anything precious in the world, we destroy part of ourselves and our families too because we are completely connected. This helps to explain why the Church promotes the greatest respect for human life, from conception to natural death. Destruction of human life at any stage violates the absolutely fundamental human dignity upon which all human rights and responsibilities rest.

Let me repeat the Pope’s pivotal question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (§ 160). His chosen formulation – care for and about our children and the world that future generations will inherit – is how he conveys the seriousness of the looming catastrophe. It is almost parable-like: “There once was a society that forgot to care for its children…”

Thinking about the needs and the world of children now and yet to be born is also an index of justice. The common good is not just horizontal (the good of everyone now) but vertical (the good of future generations). Indeed, some North American indigenous peoples insist on thinking about seven generations onwards: today’s decisions must consider consequences for the next seven generations. Some might say that this would eliminate all innovation because it sets too high a demand for predicting the unpredictable. But look at it this way: knowing that processes have cumulative effects, the seven-generation requirement would make us react quickly to modest measurements – for instance, a small amount of pollution in the first few years of a new process – rather than wait until the negative consequences are much larger, affecting our grandchildren and their children. Pope Francis agrees: “The burden of proof” on the latest advancements, he writes, “is effectively reversed”, our immediate responsibility is “to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (§187).

Laudato si’ brings us back to basics, to the fundamentals of human existence. Often children approach these basics innocently, yet profoundly, when they ask “Why?” Pope Francis is unafraid of this and other huge questions that children also ask: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” (§ 160). Indeed, in Laudato si’ he rejoices in such questions as the beginning of the dialogues our world so desperately need. And conversely, our willingness to open our eyes to the challenges, judge the situation intelligently and act courageously is an index of our adult maturity and authenticity; as he says: “It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn” (§160).

Let me add another perspective that should apply to individual families, the human family and Mother Earth too. Not all relationships should be seen as contracts. Contracts set out the balance of rights and obligations between parties, and that is useful. But if things go wrong, contracts can be canceled. We must not think of canceling our relationship with our ancestors, our children, our descendants. We must think of these most important relationships on the model of a covenant that cannot be broken, that must always be honored and restored. So too, the human family and the environment must restore their relationship, not cancel it.

C. What Can Families Do?

Where can families begin to face these challenges? Fully aware of what really goes on in family life, Pope Francis highlights the need for education and the family as the primary educator:

Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life: Here, though, I would stress the great importance of the family, which is “the place in which life – the gift of God – can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life”.[7] In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures. In the family we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity. In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say “thank you” as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggressivity and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm. These simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy help to create a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings (§ 213).

With such good education, then, apparently small daily actions can lead to real changes in lifestyle, to new ways of behaving which directly and significantly affect the world around us. The Holy Father isn’t afraid of giving very practical examples:

avoid the use of plastic and paper
reduce water consumption
sort out waste of different kinds
cook only what can reasonably be consumed
use public transport or car-pooling
plant trees
turn off unnecessary lights
reuse something instead of immediately discarding it
instead of turning up the heat, wear warmer clothes
show care for other living beings (cf. § 211).

In a world already undergoing more and more frequent environmental disasters, what difference do modest efforts make? Anticipating the objection, Pope Francis gives moving testimony to faith and hope: “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world.  They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.  Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile” (§ 212).

D. From Family to Family

In our Christian tradition, the story of humanity begins with family: with God creating Eve as a companion for Adam, and with Adam and Eve going into the world of struggle to work and bear children. And as we meet here in Philadelphia, which means love (phil-) and brothers (adelphi), we recall that the first family story includes the fratricidal tragedy of Cain and Abel.

Our salvation history also begins with family – with the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem; with their desperately taking refuge in Egypt; with their (hidden) family life in Nazareth; with the drama of temporary separation when Jesus was “lost” in the Temple. What Jesus learned about family while growing up finds expression in many of his teachings and miracles (Jairus and his daughter, the widow of Naim, the Prodigal Son, the scenes with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, etc.).

Laudato si’ has us look at family with fresh eyes. Let us allow ourselves to be startled and appreciate family as the birthplace of each one and of all humanity. And in the family we can begin the learning, the believing and the doing that can change the world.

From the intimate family, let us build toward the broad family of all humanity now and in the future. What will make us the people we were born and called to be, says Pope Francis, is our connectedness to one another, our willingness to sacrifice for our children and all the children that will ever walk on this world: this is indeed the full family fully alive.


Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson,

President, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace


[1] I am grateful to Robert and Katharina Czerny of Ottawa (Canada), 46 years of marriage and active involvement in their parish, three children and three grand-children, for their contribution to this paper.

[2] The encyclical mentions family explicitly more than a dozen times. There are references to the characteristics and needs of the entire human family; to conditions that threaten the flourishing of families; and to the role of families within education and society.

[3] Evangelii Gaudium §§ 231-33, and Laudato si’, §§ 110, 201.

[4] BENEDICT XVI, Message for the 2010 World Day of Peace, 8: AAS 102 (2010), 45.

[5] Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of "a friend of a friend" statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation

[6] http://americamagazine.org/content/dispatches/our-kids-can-help-us-understand-laudato-si. Cf. Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, 1988.

[7] JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 39: AAS 83 (1991), 842.

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