An old man in the city of Kaduna in Northern Nigeria pointed to a barren, sun-baked plain and said: "When I was young there was a forest out there and if we were hungry we could just pick fruit of the trees or hunt wildlife, which was plentiful". It was 1981 and Baba Kofi lived in the same compound as my husband and I. "Yes, the older missionaries say they have seen the Sahara creep southwards at the rate of a few miles a year" added the Missionary of Africa priest visiting us. I remembered this conversation four years later when I worked for CAFOD, and we were looking at the causes of the 1984 Ethiopian famine.
Clearly, environmental degradation in Africa was a factor in hunger, but as a Catholic agency we were also challenged to look into the links between environment and our faith. It was soon clear that the Churches had an ambivalent attitude towards Earth and creation, and that Church leaders had been slow to engage with escalating environmental problems identified since the 1960s.
Pope Francis will be addressing this with the release his new encyclical on 18 June. It will highlight issues of "integral ecology", namely concerns for people and the planet. He will address both the degradation of the environment and the challenge of climate change along with how this is impacting the poor and most vulnerable. Thus, social and economic justice will be an important theme along with care for the Earth and for present and future generations.
Care for creation hasn't always been a strong theme of Christian thinking over the last 2000 years. Care for creation is even a latecomer to Catholic Social Teaching. The natural environment gives us the basics to live and it is also a place where people have experienced a great closeness with God through its beauty and wonder. Yet it can so easily and so often be taken for granted.
The new encyclical will be the first dedicated to ecological and planetary problems caused by human activities. Encyclicals counsel and encourage and make clear that what is said is not to be taken lightly. They deal with complex social and moral issues and back up their claims with reference to the Bible and to Catholic tradition and doctrines. They also rely on the traditional significance of the teaching role of the Pope and the bishops as articulated at the Second Vatican Council. For theologians, both clerical and lay, encyclicals have traditionally informed their scholarship.
Pope Francis will speak as a pastor offering moral guidance rooted in central Catholic teachings about care for others and care for God's creation. His views were clear in his homily the day he officially became pontiff. He said, "please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be 'protectors' of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment". During his January visit to the Philippines he appealed to young people "to show concern for the environment", to be "responsible citizens", and "to make the Earth a beautiful garden for the human family, for when we destroy our forests, ravage our soil and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling". He pointed to climate change, which the multi-island nation "more than many others, is likely to be seriously affected."
Pope Francis is likely to underline his concern for vulnerable people, such as those whose ancestral lands are inundated with rising sea levels and are forced to migrate to other areas. He chose the name Francis because St Francis of Assisi was "the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation". Papal precedents now abound for connecting poor and vulnerable people with the degradation and exploitation of Earth. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI linked the degradation of the environment with exploitation of and vulnerability of the poorest communities on Earth.
In his World Day of Peace message in 2014 Pope Francis worried about children who suffer from hunger while food goes to waste in "the throwaway culture" in many parts of the world. His concern extended to future generations who fall prey to people who fail to preserve, respect, and consider nature as "a gracious gift" that should be "set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations." We can expect him to identify and explore in his forthcoming encyclical specific threats to poor and vulnerable communities, and to urge special concern for them in all aspects of decision making from personal to international levels.
Will Pope Francis challenge the obsession so many Christians have with "inner journey" spiritualities and debates about church structures and practices? We will know in ten days' time. It is surely certain he will feel the Catholic Church has a crucial contribution to offer to the Earth community in its struggle to mitigate climate change.
Does this new environment encyclical matter? Theologian Elizabeth Johnson puts it so well. In her her article 'For God so loved the Cosmos - Jesus and the Environment' she says: "This moment of crisis calls for a spirituality and ethics that will empower us to live in the web of life as sustainers rather than destroyers of the world. Ignoring this view keeps the church and its members locked into fatal irrelevance while the great drama is being played out in the actual wider world. But being converted to the Earth sets us who are the church and our ministries off on a great spiritual, intellectual, and moral adventure. Instead of living as thoughtless or greedy exploiters, we, by conversion to the Earth, are empowered to rediscover our kinship and live as sisters and brothers, friends and lovers, mothers and fathers, priests and prophets, co-creators and children of the Earth as God's good creation gives us life. This is our generation's great religious adventure which is absolutely a matter of life or death."
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