Countdown to the Environment Encyclical: 1. Ecological Conversion

Double rainbow, Wrangell,  St Elias National Park, Alaska. Wiki image by Eric Rolph

Double rainbow, Wrangell, St Elias National Park, Alaska. Wiki image by Eric Rolph

Well the big day is here. Laudato Sii is to be launched in Rome later this morning at 10am our time. One term that will almost certainly appear in it is 'ecological conversion'.

'Ecological Conversion' was a term first coined by Pope John Paul II in 2001. He called Catholics to an ecological conversion in response to scientific information that the Earth was experiencing a global environmental crisis. He identified a spiritual and moral crisis of alienation from the natural world which has allowed us to dominate and despoil it. The term means a complete change in relation to how we interact with the environment and other living organisms. It suggests a change for the better, or for some sort of improvement to our environment.

Most environmentalists have had a conversion experience. Let me choose one story - that of Wangari Maathai. Educated by Catholic nuns in Kenya and the US, she became famous globally for founding the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya in the 1970s to reforest the land. In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2004, this great woman, whose main subject area was Biology, spoke about growing up in a very green environment near a small stream. Her family drank water straight from the stream. When she returned home after studying overseas for several years she found the stream had dried up and the surrounding trees were gone. "If trees are cut down, or vegetation removed from the ground, when the rains come the water does not go into the ground to replenish the underground reservoirs" she said; "instead, water runs off and goes into the streams and lakes and oceans, and carries with it our good, fertile topsoil". Rehabilitating the environment became her life's work. She urged that water be respected and used wisely, "even when it comes to us through the tap".

Pope Francis is likely to suggest that not only individuals but the whole world needs an ecological conversion so as to examine critically current models of thought, as well as those of production and consumption. A conversion will mean serious public investment in clean and renewable technology and a move away from our dependence on fossil fuels. It will mean a valuing of soil, water, forests and climate, for if the world's life-support systems are spoiled or destroyed irreparably there will be no viable economy for any of us, or for future generations. Desertification and drought now affect more than one-sixth of the world's population! We must get a move on, and the encyclical will be a massive prompt.

We are all responsible in some way for the mess and we are also responsible for the solution. We are morally bound to revise our lifestyles and the way we use energy and resources. The little bit that each and every one of us can do in this regard will have an effect if it is added up to the little bit that many others can do around the world. The rumours are that the encyclical will addressed not only to Catholics but to the world.

Caring for water globally and locally, for example, is a major ethical and religious challenge for Christians today. There is an onus on each local Christian community to respect water and do all in our power to ensure that it remains living, unpolluted water and continues to be a source of life for all creation. With St Francis we ought to be able to say 'Praise to you, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste'.

Laudato Sii!


Global Catholic Climate Coalition

Catholic Climate Covenant (US-based)

Tags: Ellen Teague, encyclical, environment, Laudato Si, Laudato Sii

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