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Op-Ed: The Pope calls on humanity to protect the Earth

By Russell Pollitt 19 June 2015

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” because of “unfettered greed and out-of-control consumption”, Pope Francis says, in what must be the most keenly anticipated papal document of modern times. It’s the first encyclical to be written by Francis and it’s an uncomfortable read – dealing with everything from climate change to the breakdown of human life and “blood diamonds.” It is also for everyone because, significantly, the Pope addresses it to “every person on the planet.” He strongly critiques the international community saying that recent world summits have failed to reach effective global agreements on the environment. And, in what must be the first time ever, the bishops of Southern Africa are quoted in the introduction to the encyclical. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Less than an hour after the document’s release, Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN and Chair of the African Progress Panel, applauded the Pope for his strong “moral and ethical leadership”.

The objective of the encyclical, entitled “Laudato Si’” (There have been a number of translations of the title but the one that is widely agreed upon is “Praise be to You” – or literally “Praise be”) is to articulate an integral vision of ecology. The Pope reminds us that the earth is our “common home”. He laments that the earth has been mistreated and abused and says that the groans of the earth join all the forsaken of the world. He invites everyone – individuals, families, local communities, nations and the international community to an “ecological conversion.”

Francis, in this thorough text, does not want us to think that our relationship with the natural environment is separate from the rest of human life and activity. He conceives of it as part of the whole, which includes the social, political, cultural and spiritual dimensions. From the outset Pope Francis makes it clear that we cannot deal with environmental issues in isolation.

Reacting to the publication, Bishop José Luis Ponce de Leon, the Catholic Bishop of Manzini, Swaziland, welcomed it. “I hope it is widely read and reflected on with all our people, even in the smallest of our communities,” he said. Anglican Bishop of Christ the King Diocese, Johannesburg, Peter Lee, said: “The Pope has once again shown why he chose the name Francis, in issuing an important document about the environment with all its consequences for human beings, for poverty and for the world around us.” In a statement SAFCEI (Southern African Faith Communities’ Environmental Institute) endorsed the Pope’s call for systemic change. SAFECI expressed “support and enthusiasm for Pope Francis’ Encyclical, which explains how human life is grounded in three fundamental relationships: one with God, one with our neighbours, and one with the Earth, and that the relationship with the Earth has been ignored by Christian theology.”

In answer to his critics – who suggest that he is meddling in the domain of science (and question his authority to speak on ecological matters) – he says that the ecological crisis is not only a political or scientific one. The ecological crisis the world faces poses serious questions to and about humanity. Francis says that dealing with environmental issues necessarily means that we need to ask questions about the meaning of human existence and values that should be at the core of our social life. “Unless we struggle with these deeper issues I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results,” he says.

The theme of dialogue runs through the text. At the press conference in which the document was released Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, quoted the text, saying, “The Church does not claim to pronounce on science nor replace politics but to enable honest and transparent dialogue.” Throughout the document Francis wants to draw as many people as possible into dialogue about the state of the earth. The Pope believes that dialogue is an instrument for addressing and solving problems. Francis thanks those who have taken up and made us aware of the ecological crisis humanity faces. He notes that the environment has been a concern for other Christian communities and religions as well.

The document is written in accessible manner – as is typical of Pope Francis. The Pope tries to link what he has written with our own experience and move us from the abstract to the concrete. He says the “realities are more important than ideas.” He wants the reader to read what he has written through his or her own lived experience.

Laudato Si’ is divided into six chapters. The first chapter looks at what is happening in our “common home.” It’s a rather uncomfortable read as the Pope looks at the impact of pollution and climate change, water shortages, the loss of biodiversity and the decline in the quality and breakdown of human life. The Pope says that a true ecological debt exists in the world: the debt of the north to the south. He says that there are “differentiated responsibilities” but that those of the developed countries are greater.

The Pope rejects the notion that population growth is the problem at the centre of the ecological crisis. He says, “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.”

In the second chapter the Pope looks at what biblical and theological sources have to say. He reflects on the Judea-Christian tradition and its emphasis on humanity being the stewards of creation. He rejects the idea that humanity has dominion of the earth and can therefore exploit it.

In chapter three he addresses the human roots of the ecological crisis. He tries to analyse the symptoms but also the deepest causes in a dialogue with philosophy and the human sciences. He acknowledges that technology has contributed to improving living conditions but says too that technology has given those with knowledge dominance over others. “The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economics and political life… which prevents us from recognising that by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.”

Francis is critical of excessive anthropocentrism which, he says, has led to humanity being exclusively focused on itself and its power. This has led to a “use and throw away’” logic that justifies every type of waste, environmental or human. He says this leads people to treat others and nature as simple objects and results in countless forms of domination. The outcome of this mentality is the exploitation of children, abandoning the elderly, forcing others into slavery and over-evaluating the capacity of the market to regulate itself, practicing human trafficking, selling pelts of animals in danger of extinction and of “blood diamonds”.

In this chapter the Pontiff also addresses the fact that any approach to ecology has to take into account the value of human labour. He says, “to stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society”. Francis takes up the question of the limits of science, by referencing GMOs, and calls for a broad social and scientific debate about this, which must take all the information into account.

In chapter four, the key chapter, Pope focuses on an integral ecology as a new paradigm for justice. Francis uses many concrete examples and says, “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” He says, “The analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, and of how individuals relate to themselves.” The Pope calls on all people to commit themselves to the common good, in solidarity with and a preferential option for the poor. The Pope says that this would be the best way of caring for future generations: by committing to caring for the poor today. Pope Francis pays special attention to the “urban environment.” He says that authentic development presupposes an integral improvement in the quality of human life in the public space, housing, and transport.

In the penultimate chapter the Pope suggests lines of approach and appropriate action, as analyses are no longer enough. He says that the Church does not pretend to have all the answers but what he wants is dialogue that leads to action. He is critical of the monumental failure of summits and the lack of political will as catalysts for real effective action. He suggests there be forms and instruments put in place for global governance: “an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of the so-called ‘global commons’.” Francis insists on the development of honest and transparent decision-making processes, so that policies and business initiatives can bring about “genuine integral development.”

The Pope encourages the replacement of fossil fuels that contribute to global warming, and encourages better use of abundant solar energy – something South Arica would be well positioned to do and would also help alleviate the on-going Eskom crisis! He calls for proper environmental impact studies and warns that corruption, which conceals the actual environmental impact of a given project in exchange for favours, usually produces specious agreements that fail to inform adequately and do not allow for full debate. He tells those who hold political office to avoid a mentality of efficiency and immediacy when it comes to dealing with this complex problems.

In the final chapter Pope Francis invites everyone to ecological conversion and says that education and training are key challenges to this conversion. The Pope invites all sectors to be involved – families, schools and the media. He says that the starting point should be a new lifestyle that brings “healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power.” The Pope says “an integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.”

In his concluding chapter he reiterates, “happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.” In this way, Francis says, “we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

This encyclical is significant for a number of reasons:

  • It broadens what many have thought to be a rather narrow moral focus of the Church in recent years: a focus on personal morality – most especially sexuality. This encyclical invites the Church to a new way of seeing social morality, which has, at its core, the human person.
  • The document brings about a synthesis between Catholic theology and the ecological movement – this is new and therefore many theologians see Laudato Si’ as a major step forward in Catholic thinking which goes far beyond the confines of the institutional Church. Fr. Christopher Clohessy, a Catholic theologian working in Cape Town, says, “This is the key issue for me, Francis has reinforced that ecology and our lifestyle choices around it are part of our spirituality.”
  • The encyclical is relevant to believers and non-believers because concern for the environment is not only a religious concern; it is that of all – the concern of humanity at large. It makes the world’s biggest church a global voice on this common concern.
  • It challenges people across religious, political and social divides and brings into question, and therefore opens new discussions, on a number of the presuppositions and positions anyone might hold on the ecological question.

The encyclical also has relevance for SA. Bishop Paul Verryn, of the Methodist Church, welcomed the Pope’s encyclical saying that poorer communities in SA are suffering because of the huge emphasis on making profits at all cost and the environment is being destroyed in the process. “They [industry] are cutting corners,” he said, “and this results in water and air pollution.” “In communities all over SA we are seeing an increase in asthma, bronchitis and cancer. Industry needs to be forced to be compliant, ultimately it is the poor who suffer,” Verryn lamented.

All the big questions – poverty, unemployment, corruption, poor leadership, and yes, even Eskom, are indirectly addressed. The Pope asks us to think about how we build our houses, how we structure our economy, what we do to make profits in our business ventures, how we spend profits, what we teach in our classrooms, how we use water and electricity and how we treat the person begging us for help at the traffic light. The Pope is concerned about the common good and, frankly, any responsible person should be worried too. DM

Photo: Pope Francis delivers a speech during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican, 17 June 2015. EPA/MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI

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