“The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth …. This we know: Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it …..”
AT long last, the Vatican released to the expectant world Pope Francis’ environment encyclical “Laudato Si.” Encyclicals are considered the most authoritative document a Pope can issue. This one is about the dire effects of environmental degradation especially on the poor and urges the world to take action on moral grounds.
The encyclical could at best be described as the Pope’s lament and call to action for the earth’s protection and sustainability. It links environmental degradation with economic and social justice aiming to connect environment very tightly to the Church’s social teaching to give preferential treatment to the poor.
No one has written an encyclical focused on the environment before. For analysts, this could be traced to the Pope’s Jesuit formation which reinforces the idea “that we are stewards of God’s creation and that God is somehow present in all of creation.” Therefore, we have a duty to look after the earth responsibly. In that regard, Pope Francis should be credited for having added the religious/moral dimension to an otherwise purely scientific, political, and economic issue and concern.
Before the launch of “Laudato Si,” the Pope addressed a local group of grassroots organizers in Rome saying that an economic system centered only on money would “….plunder nature to sustain frenetic levels of consumption. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation are already showing their devastating effects…from which you, the humble, suffer the most.”
Critics of the Pope’s message against the unbridled pursuit of profits by businessmen, however, say that the free market, far from being the source of inequality is the great engine that will pull the world’s poor out of misery.
While the Pope’s devotion to nature has a theological basis it also has an ethical component based on who, in particular, is responsible for environmental problems. But more than the issue of who is responsible is the dispute over the idea that population control and contraception are the solutions to the planet’s limited resources rather than curve the consumerist, wasteful behavior of the rich and the privileged.
Be that as it may, the encyclical emphasizes that man is part of God’s creation and therefore entitled to protection.
Pope Francis has won much admiration for his humility and reputation as a truth-teller who speaks simply and plainly. He is the leader of a world-wide institution with 1.2 billion members with no political interests to protect and no reelection campaign to wage. Indeed, he is well positioned to win a debate on the issue of how to steward the Earth.
But will the encyclical make an impact on Catholics worldwide who did not pay attention to the environmental issues before?
No religion in the world could be identified as against protection of the environment from the effects of climate change. Buddhism is known to respect and hold sacred anything that has life – trees, species of fauna, etc. “In Islam, man is Al Khalifa (The Steward). His role on earth is to act as God’s steward, and trustee of the bounties of the earth.” Even faith-based organizations like the Evangelicals and Baptist faiths have been exceptional leaders working on climate change.
Hopefully, Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si” would lead to a united inter-faith response to make a case for climate change and urge everyone to take action on moral grounds. After all, we are the Earth’s Stewards.
*Ambassador Amado Tolentino lectures at San Beda Alabang School of Law and continues to write about environmental issues.