Q: Archbishop J, why the AEC bishops’ priority on the environment?
We are in the midst of a pandemic that has raised consciousness of our environment in significant ways. Every person on the planet now knows that lifestyle is not the highest good. The threat of a microbe has forced us to reconsider what we believed to be sacrosanct—unfettered freedom, immoral consumption and unbridled markets.
For the health of the nation, we have been willing to curtail our freedom, to limit night life, bars, restaurants, etc, and shut down businesses. The thinking that allows such drastic action is unprecedented. The pandemic is not in someone else’s country, and later down the road; now, time and geography press down upon us.
We have tolerated for decades various threats to this planet that Pope Francis calls “our common home” and taken little action. And yet, the ecological disaster we are facing will have more widespread effects on the planet than the microbe. We must now ask ourselves why this unwillingness to act on behalf of the sustainability of the planet?
This is Laudato Si’ Week, inspired by Pope Francis’ ground-breaking encyclical Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home. The Week, May 16–24, is intended to emphasise the urgent need for all to work together in solidarity “for a more just and sustainable future”.
In the encyclical, Pope Francis writes: In 1971… Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”…“the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity”, inasmuch as “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man” (4).
As Laudato Si’ itself shows, the reality of climate change and its impact on the integral ecology, has been part of Catholic thinking long before Pope Francis. He adds his unique voice, however, calling humanity to repentance.
Drawing upon the writing of St John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus, he says:
“The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies” (5).
Reflecting on his patron St Francis, he adds: “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically…He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast…He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (10).
In this time of COVID-19 the words of the Holy Father call us to an even more urgent response. What we have been prepared to do for the health of individuals and the nation, we now need to do for the sake of the planet and the most vulnerable who experience the devastating effects of climate change.
In a column on climate change, disease and the vulnerability of the ecosystem (Washington Post, May 7, 2020) Fareed Zakaria reflects on the sudden death of the saigas, a small antelope; two-thirds of the population died within a few weeks: “A bacterium called Pasteurella multocida, which had long lived in the animal without doing harm, suddenly turned virulent. Why? The Atlantic’s Ed Yong explains that the Central Asian region in which the saiga lives was becoming more tropical, and 2015 was a particularly warm, humid year. ‘When the temperature gets really hot, and the air gets really wet, saiga die. Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet’.”
If we have learned nothing else from the COVID-19 experience, let us understand that we are part of a very delicate ecosystem and have a moral responsibility to take care of “our common home”. We also have a responsibility to care for the most vulnerable who are usually the most affected by climate change.
From October 6–27, 2019, a special synod for the Pan-Amazon region took place in Rome. Four of our bishops attended the three-week event; all were struck by the depth and humility of the Holy Father as he participated in the synod, which was an exercise in discernment.
Bishop Karel Choennie, one of our participants, believes that only through a radical change in lifestyle will the ongoing destruction of the Amazon forest end. He says: The “good life” for the indigenous peoples is mainly characterised by living in harmony with oneself, neighbour, nature and God.
The “good life” in the rich countries is mainly seen as living in comfort and luxury. A lifestyle where there are no limits to economic growth. Economic growth is at the expense of nature and the poor.
Their way of life poses a serious threat to the climate. Conversion is, therefore, a key to leaving the path of self-destruction and growing towards a life in accordance with the values of the Kingdom of God. Listening to the call of the earth and the poor of the Amazon, the bishops conclude that there must be complete conversion. A new lifestyle of sobriety and joy must be developed.
There is an inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
(1) Reflect on the impact of your lifestyle choice on the integral ecological system. (2) Begin a food garden in your home. Participate in Laudato Si’ Week https://laudatosiweek.org/