At the Vatican, it's all hands on deck

To counter popular misconceptions, Rome gets busy preparing the Church for the eco-encyclical

Helping to counter any erroneous expectations about Pope Francis’s soon-to-be-released eco-encyclical—especially those prompted by problematic media reports—Vatican officials have been busy these past weeks explaining how and why the Church is engaging environmental issues.

Speaking to Catholic Ecology in November, Fr. Michael Czerny S.J. of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace expressed apprehension that without proper preparation, the encyclical may have little lasting impact, even with the intense interest it’s receiving at the moment. Moreover, sometimes hostile discussions about whether or not the Church should be involved in the eco-movement—especially its calls for action around climate change—continue to divide communities and families.

“So the question becomes, what can we do to prepare for [the encyclical]?” Fr. Czerny said. “What can we do to receive and share it?”

Preparing the way

Rome’s Vatican Radio— “the voice of the Pope and the Church in dialogue with the World”—has over the past few months been running a steady series of global environmental stories, most especially related to natural disasters and climate negotiations. Many are republished from wire services, such as this story on flooding in India and Bangladesh, or on the millions impacted throughout Asia and the Pacific Ocean by storms “which may very well be on the rise because of climate change,” according to one source in the story.

In a groundbreaking talk at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, Ireland on Thursday, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana made public key themes of the eco-encyclical.

Making their own news, officials of the Holy See and local bishops are issuing statements and speaking about international climate talks, such as the December COP talks in Lima, Peru. And of course the Holy Father has been speaking of climate change and ecological issues on a regular basis, in particular in his visit in January to storm-ravaged areas of the Philippines.

This past week, two high-profile names within the Holy See are continuing the momentum.

On Friday last week in Geneva, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, added to a series of official statements that underline Rome’s thoughts on international climate negotiations. This followed a groundbreaking talk at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, Ireland on Thursday by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. In it, Turkson advanced the need for the eco-encyclical and made public its key themes.

“The Holy Father has echoed the sense of crisis that many in the scientific and development communities convey about the precarious state of our planet and of the poor,” said Cardinal Turkson in his talk in Ireland. “What he adds to the conversation about future approaches is the particular perspective of Catholic Social thought, rooted in the Sacred Scriptures and natural reason.”

"Integral Ecology"

The cardinal used his talk to re-introduce us to the term “integral ecology,” which made an appearance in Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

"Integral development" is borrowed from secular environmental philosophies. When baptized by the Church, integral ecology advances the meaning of the frequently used “human ecology” first used by Saint John Paul II and expanded by Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. With the addition of “integral ecology,” the stakes are being raised for a more-inclusive, fundamental, Catholic understanding of ecology. This is consistent with Benedict XVI's teachings that our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward he human person.

Where "human ecology" highlights how natural law forms the foundation for issues of human life and dignity, integral ecology links all that to the laws of nature and thus to natural ecology.

As Cardinal Turkson noted in his talk, this is consistent with the teachings of Francis’s predecessors.

Think of the present Pope’s choice of the name Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi is an example par excellence of a lived and integral ecology. In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II had declared him the patron saint of those who promote ecology. His love for creation, for creatures and for the poor, are one, they form an integral whole. And the prior and fundamental source of that integrated whole was his religious faith. In pointing to Saint Francis as a model, Pope Francis holds that a truly practical and sustainable integral approach to ecology, has to draw on more than the scientific, the material and the economic, more than laws and policies. When Saint Francis gazed upon the heavens, when he surveyed the wonder and beauty of the animals, he did not respond to them with the abstract formulae of science or the utilitarian eye of the economist. His response was one of awe, wonder and fraternity. He sang of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”. In other words, his response was that of reverence—of a deep and relational respect based on kinship and fraternity, the kinship with God, our neighbour and the land spoken of in the book of Genesis and praised throughout the wisdom literature and the psalms.

The cardinal’s address is a must-read—especially for those of us that teach the Catholic perspective of ecology. Of note is his desire to foster unity by underlining how ecology subsists within wider Church teachings. Interestingly, he does so by acknowledging the limitations of scientific and economic models. Much of this seems a response to popular opinions making the rounds that the Holy Father will be issuing an encyclical “on climate change” (as many secular headlines portray it) or in support of leftist economic models like socialism.

"Pope Francis holds that a truly practical and sustainable integral approach to ecology." Cardinal Turkson

According to Cardinal Turkson, the encyclical will be focused on “the theme of human ecology [and] will explore the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor.”

All that said, the Holy See is not holding back in its direct engagement of climate change. Although that it is doing so in a Catholic way is sometimes overlooked. Indeed, in his statement on Friday to the United Nations, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi stressed that the issue is connected to the human life and dignity.

“As we continue to search for viable solutions,” said Archbishop Tomasi, “we know that the path to a more just and sustainable future is complex and often uncertain. In our collective work to address global climate change, the Holy See is committed to working with all people of good will and it pledges its support for efforts that advance the common good, respect for human dignity and a special care for the most vulnerable.”

[Breaking News Update: On Monday, March 9th Cardinal Tomasi made another statement to the U.N., this time on sustainability. The preparation continues.]

With opportunities aplenty to continue preparation for the eco-encyclical between now and its release in June or July, stay tuned for much more from Rome—as well as from local bishops and an array of ecclesial communities. An upcoming meeting in Rome of Caritas organizations, for instance, will certainly expound on the Church’s ecological, economic, and social concerns (in other words, integral ecology). And the month of April will be a time of significant eco-talk given the Holy Father’s announced prayer intention that month for protecting creation.

And that’s just for starters. In other words, by all accounts this will be a hectic and blessed few months for Catholic ecologists.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.