The Great Emergency

That every five hundred years the Church passes through a crisis is not a novel insight. It may be something of a contrived schematic, since there have been other crises as well, but each of those periods of crisis has influenced the Church to an extraordinary and radical degree: The Fall of the Roman Empire, the Great East-West Schism, and the Protestant Revolt.

These days there seems to be a “perfect storm” of events which add up to a fourth crisis, and the faithful must trust that “through toil and tribulation” the purging of corrupt elements will result in a stronger Catholic witness. Recently, Pope Francis told the press: “I will not say a word” referring to some of the most serious allegations of decadence in the Church, and he has long declined to respond to the dubia of four cardinals on the spiritual economy of marriage. Some have thought that such reticence is inconsistent with his dogmatic outspokenness on ambiguous matters such as climate change and capital punishment. Last New Year’s Day, he said: “I would once again like to raise my voice” about immigration, and on Palm Sunday he told young people: “You have it in you to shout” even if “older people and leaders, very often corrupt, keep quiet.” This is why there was an eagerness to hear him when in the course of these most tumultuous months, on the fourth day of World Prayer for the Care of Creation, he finally spoke—but it turned out to be a warning about plastic debris in the world’s waters.

On September 1, 2018, this successor of Gregory I, who saw Latin civilization crumbling, and Leo IX, who grieved at the loss of Constantinople, and Pius V, who pitied souls lost in the heretical northern lands, implored and lamented: “We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic. Here, too, our active commitment is needed to confront this emergency.” The struggle against plastic litter must be fought “as if everything depended on us.”

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It was a sobering moment for all who care for what the Holy Father called “the great waters and all they contain.” The poignancy of such pastoral solicitude inevitably brings to mind the historic document of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in 2007 which was entitled: “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road.” It marked precisely the one thousandth anniversary of the no less important peace treaty with the Vikings signed by King Aethelred the Unready. The world will long remember this pontifical document’s opening line: “Moving from place to place, and transporting goods using different means, have characterized human behavior since the beginning of history.” The guidelines also pointed out (n. 21) that “A vehicle is a means of transport…” and observed (n. 23), “Sometimes the prohibitions imposed by road signs may be perceived as restrictions on freedom.” Drawing on generations of pastoral wisdom, the instruction (n. 24) warned: “The fact that a driver’s personality is different from that of a pedestrian’s, should be taken into account” (n. 24) and cautioned against “rude gestures” (n. 27). From their own cultural experiences as Italians, the president of the Council, Renato Cardinal Martino, and the Council’s secretary, Agostino Marchetto, titular archbishop of Astigi, noted that “Cars tend to bring out the ‘primitive side’ of human beings, thereby producing rather unpleasant results” (n. 29).

More than a decade later, there is yet to be realized the Pontifical Council’s dream of “periodic celebrations of liturgies at major road points” (n 82). One hopes that the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation will produce more tangible results. There are cynics who would try to dismiss the plastic pollution emergency as though it were “not a massive, massive crisis.” However, the issue will not go away. You might say that the problem has been with us since plastic first appeared in 1284, as a naturally made compound of tortoise shell and horn. And, of course, 1284 was the year that the Lüneborg manuscript first recorded the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whom the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, in a lecture in Villanova University in 2013, used as a metaphor for the charism of Pope Francis. He was unaware that 130 children were never seen again after the Piper led them into a cave.

The first man-made plastic, derived from cellulose, was exhibited at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1862, being the invention of Alexander Parkes. As a specimen of accidental synchronicity, it happened that during the installation of that marvel, the British Minister to Rome, Lord Odo Russell, assured an anxious Pope Pius IX that Queen Victoria would grant him asylum in England should he have to flee the Eternal City.

In the 1967 film The Graduate, Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin: “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” That optimism, born of naïveté about Fallen Man’s abuse the oceans, is mocked by today’s emergency. Condemning the privatization of water resources, Pope Francis implied that a large burden of fault is to be blamed on Western capitalists. However, an awkward fact looms: a 2017 report of the “Ocean Conservancy” indicates that more plastic is dumped into the oceans by China, along with Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, than by the entire rest of the world. Indeed, ninety per cent of all plastic in the seas and oceans are carried there by rivers in India, Africa, and mostly China. Nonetheless, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Science, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, has said: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” In China “the economy does not dominate politics, as in the United States” where President Trump is “manipulated” by global industrialists. Shortly before the Chinese government bulldozed yet another church and banned crucifixes, Sorondo declared that China was implementing Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si better than many countries and “is assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned.”

Plastic is not mentioned in Sacred Scripture, not even in the New American Bible. But we may safely assume that Jesus would have had difficulty walking on water if it had been filled with plastic trash. Saint Peter found a gold coin in the mouth of a fish but today he might very well find only a piece of styrofoam. When our Lord fed the five thousand and the four thousand, the leftovers filled twelve and seven kphinoi, or wicker baskets, respectively. These were huge crowds, especially if you add the number of women and children, and more so if 2+2 = 5. But the point is: these baskets were biodegradable, and it would never have occurred to the Master to use plastic trash bags even if such had existed. Eventually the baskets would have decayed and returned to the soil from whence they came. And that is how it should be. Even the parables can be updated for the present emergency: the Good Ecologist, having recycled ninety-nine plastic bottles, still goes out in search of the one polyurethane bottle that is lost.

On the other hand, our Lord does seem to have had a different concept of moral emergencies, to wit: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters a man from outside can defile him; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within men, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mark 7: 15, 20-23). But for many facing the emergency of plastic refuse, that may be a matter for another day.

(Photo credit: Pope Francis speaks about the environment at the UN, September 25, 2015; Alan Holdren / CNA)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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