As a hobby astronomer, I tend to be a little naive and optimistic about the motives of space exploration. When I contemplate journeying to a distant planet, dwarf planet, moon, or asteroid, my thoughts fixate on the adventurous side of human nature. They are moments that not only ask, "What is out there," but also beg the question, "What is in here," reflecting on my interior life, exploring fundamental questions of the human condition. Nevertheless, God has blessed me with a number of "reality checks" known as friends who are professional scientists (from many fields) who help me stay "grounded" when sharing these thoughts with them. For example, I once asked a friend who worked at a major space agency how long it will take to put a person on Mars? His response: If we found a new type of rock or element that could power New York City for ten years, we would already be there. His response was a little deflating, but rang with an undeniable tone of truth. These conversations remind me that, despite my naivety, space exploration takes money, is wrapped in national politics, and, at times, is driven by motives that are not as "pure" as simply wanting to explore space for the sake of exploring space. Put another way, space exploration is human, in every sense of the word, which includes the fundamentally good part of who we are along with the fallen apart of who we are.
Nevertheless, the dreamers still dream and our natural inclination will always be to look beyond our world for other worlds. This inner desire, both for scientists and non-scientists, can awaken many ideas, practical and impractical, for future space missions. One type of space mission I often hear people speak of is the quest to find a new home before the Earth becomes an unsustainable wasteland. At one level, there is a real, functional value to exploring this idea. One day, our planet will not be able to support humanity and we will need to find a new home. However, we are still infants (probably still in the womb) when it comes to space travel, making the short term practicality of finding a new earth hopelessly naive, even to this daydreamer. This ambition, at times, can also ring with a tone of arrogance, presuming we can just plop down on any "earth type" planet we find without considering the impact this would have upon the world we would be going to... have we not learned from our past? I also struggle with the implied, defeatist mentality that comes from some of these galactic dreamers who presume that, because of our poor ecological decisions, the Earth is already doomed and there is nothing we can do to reverse the damage we have done. Therefore, to heck with this planet and let's start over on a new one. Are things on our planet really this bleak?
A sobering reality of Pope Francis' Encyclical, Laudato Si', is that it rightly identifies our ecological situation as a crisis. His call to act with urgency implies a bleak future if we don't change our lifestyles. Therefore, the Pope's call to change also implies hope that something can be done. I find the Pope's sober, yet hopeful plea refreshing in contrast to the "doom and gloom" message from some that, ironically, contribute to an apathetic mentality toward creation: If the earth is so far gone, why care about it? If all we hear is "all is lost," then why try to save anything? Applying this to my earlier reflection on finding a new home for humanity, we must ask, "Are we doing everything we can to protect the home we already have?" With this question as a backdrop, I hear Pope Francis' Encyclical speaking not only to those who may deny the impact of climate change, but also to those on the other extreme that presume our Earth is beyond hope. Once again, Pope Francis is standing between two social polemics and is inviting us into a vision of "sacramental ecology" in which our common home is to be respected and reverenced as God's gift to us.
Should we look for a "New Earth?" My first response would be, "Of course we should!" The human heart is wired to explore and if we don't feed that desire, we lose something as a people. On the other hand, as we do this exploration, we should also protect the earth under our feet. Do we have the courage to allow Pope Francis' Encyclical to transform the way we treat our world or will we allow it to become a "dead document" collecting dust on the bookshelf? As we study the planets, we should also discover new ways to provide clean drinking water, protect fertile soil, and embrace a lifestyle that is rich in meaning and modest in material possessions. This call to a modest lifestyle is not an implicit rejection of technology. Rather, we should use the best of our technological advancement to understand how we can improve human dignity across the board so that, in the future, our children and their children will not be reduced to a survivalist mentality, fighting over small plots of usable land, hoping that someday a new home can be found to remove them from the dusty Hades they live on. The irony is that many of the best technologies we have that contribute to humanity have come from space exploration, learning how to make our world better by studying other worlds.
There is a temptation in me to connect the "ecological renewal" called for by Pope Francis with the theological vision of the "New Earth" and "New Heaven" referenced in the book of Revelation. However, this vision from Scripture speaks more to a reality we cannot fathom that will be fully established when Christ returns in final glory. Nevertheless, human reason and Divine Revelation can give us momentary glimpses into this vision, such as our celebration of the Eucharist. Just as we speak of the "kiss" between Heaven and Earth that occurs with every Mass, could we also see, as we are sent forth from the Eucharist, a call to reflect the joyful hope of this New Heaven and New Earth by treating our common home a bit more "heavenly," drawing upon our spiritual tradition of reverencing that which has been given to us by God as gift? If we embrace this vision of ecological renewal, could we come to the point where people will cease to presume that the "planet is bluer on the other side of the universe" and instead realize that the Earth we have, the gift given by God, is the home intended for us and that the answer to how we are to survive when our home no longer sustains us might not be as "far out" as we think?
The United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are working on a series of resources and programs to inspire the young and old to take ownership of our common home. These resources are wonderful and provide a curriculum to effect real change on a local level. However, as is the case with any education initiative, if the resources simply become click bate on Facebook walls and data stored on flash drives tucked away in a desk with its content safely hidden from any actual application, then it is of little, if any good. Let us commit to take seriously the responsibility of caring for our common home. Together, let was join our voices to the hymn of creation, giving praise and thanksgiving to God for all that He has given to us. And in that hymn, may its refrain echo for generations to come, nourished by gifts that come as the fruit of our labor with God's grace and blessings upon our common home.
Are we willing to take a risk and work for change (or know someone who is)? Check out these resources to learn how we can embrace God's call to care for creation.
- Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
- USCCB Environment/Environmental Justice Program
- USCCB Renewing the Earth
- USCCB Catholic Social Ministry Gathering 2016 - Focusing upon caring for our common home.
- Just about anything on the Catholic Relief Services Webpage
- Contact your local Catholic Charities, Catholic Charities USA, or Caritas International