Photo of a child playing on Smokey Mountain’s highest peak. The once famous mountain of trash in Manila is no longer an open dumpsite and some residents have been trained in recycling as their livelihood and as a means to improve their environment. Poverty and Environment Fund (PEF), Smokey Mountain Remediation and Development Project, Philippines. Some rights reserved by Asian Development Bank.

This talk was presented on December 14, 2015 at DBCS Paranaque City, and is the second in a series of four presentations under Talakayan: A theological-pastoral forum organized by DBCS FIN (Salesian Philippine North Province) students of theology for AY 2015-2016.

Even before and ever since the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on care for our common home Laudato Si’, various interpretations and misinterpretations of the document have emerged and are still emerging. Its unprecedented popularity has raised the debate on environmental concerns into the global and religious spheres. This media hype is due primarily to the discussions of environmental policies at the world level. Just last December 12, 2015, the United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP 21 (1) held in Paris, France successfully concluded after achieving a universal agreement on methods to reduce climate change in the pact known as the Paris Agreement which would be implemented by 2020. Our very own Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, as the President of Caritas Internationalis, gave a keynote speech to the United Nations General Assembly on ecological conversion as part of the preparation for COP 21.

Certainly, Laudato Si’ must have an impact on these areas but at the same time we must remember that its value, breadth, and depth cannot be reduced to the mere scope of determining environmental policies. We must also remember that we can only be able to richly understand the meaning of Laudato Si’ by putting the person of Pope Francis before our eyes and his vision for the Church and the People of God. Thus, the primary aim of my reflections is to provide particular lenses upon which we may be able to approach and understand better the encyclical. Certainly, the best way to be acquainted with the encyclical is to have a close reading of the material itself. Most of time, as in Biblical studies, we become slaves of commentaries and ideologies that we often fail to appreciate the meaning and beauty of the text itself. In order to contextualize the letter in our particular Philippine context, I will also put forward the three statements from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP): Stewards, Not Owners (July 20, 2015); The Lord Made Them All (November 4, 2015); and On Climate Change: Understand, Act, Pray (November 11, 2015), which came out as a response of the Church in the Philippines to Laudato Si’.

I commence with the proposal of Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in his address to the United Nations International Children’s Fund of a reading of Laudato Si’ based on a key question, which the Pope himself addressed: “What sort of world will we bequeath to future generations?” (2) “What kind of world do we want to leave those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (3). The temporality of our earthly sojourn is not be taken as a limitation which leads to despair but a challenge that asks us to reflect on what particular legacy we would be leaving behind.

The Encyclical’s name is derived from the invocation of St. Francis of Assisi, “Praised be to you, my Lord,” which is part of the Canticle of the Creatures. Let us begin our discussion on Laudato Si’ with the very prayer which inspired its title and realize how much every creature brings us the love and mercy of God which tells us His great glory. [In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…]

Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day and through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of you, Most High.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather
through whom you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

[St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us! St. John Bosco, pray for us! Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!]

This second encyclical of Pope Francis, which is also the first that has been independently written, (5) hinges on the two key concepts of “an integral ecology” and a “global ecological conversion.” Integral ecology is a paradigm able to articulate the fundamental relationships of the person: with God, with one’s self, with other human beings, with creation. This reminds me of the Jewish concept of Shalom (Peace) which is described as integral and harmonious relationships with these four areas. It is not a surprise then why St. Francis of Assisi, who was explicitly named in the encyclical as the guide and inspiration of Pope Francis and the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically, is the patron both of ecology and peace. Peace and ecology are intrinsically united and thus the work for an integral ecology is also a work for the achievement of peace. The encyclical urgently calls us into action and encourages us to make that start of caring for our common home today.

Integral ecology provides us of a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis with its human and social dimensions and noting that “the whole is greater than the part.” The pursuit of an integral ecology starts by listening spiritually to the results of the best scientific research on environmental matters. Science is the best tool by which we can listen to the cry of the earth. Our capacity “to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (6) Are we capable of suffering with the world or have we grown cold and indifferent to her plight? It leads us back to the understanding of the meaning of our existence and what ecology is so that we may be able to honestly confront the complex realities of the present ecological crisis. Pope Francis notes several aspects of the present ecological crisis: pollution and climate change, the issue of water, loss of biodiversity, decline in the quality of human life and breakdown of society, global inequality, weak responses, and a variety of opinions. At the root of this situation is a “throwaway culture,” which we have to oppose by introducing models of production based on reuse and recycling, and by limiting the use of non-renewable resources. That is the reason why I do not personally believe in businesses which ride along the current popularity of the encyclical and begin to sell “organic” or “eco-friendly” products. The extreme and selective consumeristic-capitalistic mentality has been one of the major causes for the current ecological crisis. We do not need more products in the market since these surpluses create wastes and more problems rather than solutions. We must learn from history that what sometimes appears to be the “wonder” of today would ultimately end up to be the “disaster” of tomorrow. What we need is a responsible use and management of what we already have. It has been years since alternative forms of renewable sources of energy have been discovered and introduced and yet the full application to daily living has been kept to the minimum.

Scientifically, Laudato Si’ is understood better if we appreciate the concept of ecology. For the past years, evolution was the theme which unified the biological sciences. Until recently, there was a movement from evolution to ecology. Ecology is the study of relationships between organisms and the environment. Environment here must not be regarded simply as “something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live in.” (7) Behind this simple definition of ecology lies a broad scientific discipline. Humans have been students of ecology as long as we have existed as a species. Our survival has depended on how well we can observe variations in the environment and predict the responses of organisms to those variations. Today, most of earth’s human population lives in cities and most of us have little direct contact with nature. (8) This is one of the reasons why we at times fail to see the impact of what we have been doing which is rapidly changing the earth’s environment. Ecology teaches us that we are not independent and isolated from each other and from our environment. We are all interconnected. Our daily actions affect all. It has been hard for us to accept this fact for we have grown in an individualistic social milieu where one’s own advantage and profit is put forward above that of the common good. We fail to see that it is actually our commitment to work for the common good which would eventually ensure our personal good. I think this is what Pope Francis is trying to tell us: we need to work together in order to take care of our common home. The care for our common home is not only the responsibility of some but of all. This scientific understanding is further enlightened by Divine Revelation. The second chapter of Laudato Si’ offers a comprehensive view of the Biblical accounts that express the “tremendous responsibility” (9) of humankind for creation, the intimate connection among all creatures and the fact that “the natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of humanity, and the responsibility of everyone.” (10)

Fostering dialogue with current philosophical trends is also essential in our task of taking care of our common home. The third chapter of Laudato Si’ analyzes the current situation “so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes.”(11) In contrast with other “radical” environmentalists, Pope Francis appreciates and recognizes the power of technological progress and sees in it a hope of contribution toward sustainable development. He sees as lacking “a sound ethics, culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint” (12) due to the dominant technocratic mentality which perceives reality as something that can be manipulated limitlessly. It is a reductionism that involves all aspects of life. Technological products are not neutral, for “they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities.” (13) Moreover, “scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history.” (14) Integral human progress needs a progress of values as well. Another human root of the current ecological crisis is a misguided anthropocentrism which no longer recognizes nature as a valid norm and living refuge and which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests and thus leads to relativism in practice. In spite of the fact that we do have many good laws which safeguards the environment, Pope Francis noted that “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.” (15)

The fourth chapter on integral ecology is at the heart of the encyclical. Pope Francis clearly pointed out that there is a relationship between environmental issues, and social and human issues, that can never be broken. This chapter comprises a discussion on environmental, economic and social ecology; cultural ecology; ecology of daily life; the principle of the common good; and justice between generations. After the discussions on integral ecology, Pope Francis proposed lines of action which we can and must do to respond to the current ecological crisis which would ultimately lead into the spiral of our self-destruction. He proposes dialogue which is not limited to analyses as the best solution to the current situation. Dialogue at different levels requires patience, self-discipline, and generosity. At times, we act haphazardly to obtain the results we want without really entering into a sincere dialogue with ourselves as to how to move together toward the common goal of safeguarding our environment. How many “environmental” projects have we seen come and go? Most of these are merely stop-gap projects in order to show outwardly that we are doing something in response to the crisis but instead of providing solutions we add up to the problems for these sow disunity of knowledge and effort. Personal and communitarian commitments and convictions informed by faith and reason are necessary in order to provide sustainable solutions.

But most importantly, we must remember that Laudato Si’ is a spiritual testament of Pope Francis. It calls us to a deeper spiritual experience of seeing our intrinsic unity with creation which enables us to experience God through an ecological conversion. The final chapter of the encyclical discusses ecological education and spirituality. It is only through education and spirituality that we are able to have the possibility of change in our current paradigms and worldviews. Change is possible and Pope Francis is optimistic that people are capable of rising above themselves and choose what is good. He calls us to begin to trust and have faith in one another and conquer our individualism. He tells us not to be afraid to put pressure on those who wield political, economic and social power. (16) Faith and Christian spirituality offer profound motivations toward “a more passionate concern for the protection of the world.” (17)

I remember the story of a blessed Salesian sister, Eusebia Palomino. In her simplicity, she was once asked by the superior why she was not reading any spiritual book during her meditation. She replied politely, telling her superior that she was unaware that one needs to read a book in order to contemplate God because for her to merely see a flower makes her already feel God’s presence which bears the a sign of his mystery. Ecological conversion implies gratitude for creation and generosity toward creation and develops creativity and enthusiasm. A concrete spiritual action suggested by Pope Francis is the observance of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation every September 1 in conjunction with a similar day in the Orthodox Church. It will offer believers and communities a fitting opportunity to reaffirm their personal vocation to be stewards of creation, to thank God for the wonderful handiwork entrusted to us and to implore God’s help for the protection of creation as well as his pardon for sins committed against the world in which we live. We only have one world, one home and when this home is destroyed we have no other option available to us as of now. We see also an ecumenical dimension in this wonderful gesture of the Pope toward our Orthodox brothers and sisters.

In the undelivered speech prepared by Pope Francis addressed to the young people gathered at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila during his pastoral visit, he emphasized the role of the young people in taking care of the environment and stressed the intimate link between human dignity and our role as stewards of creation. If we fail to take care of the environment, we fail to uphold our very own human dignity for we even become lower than an animal who would never consume something beyond its means.

Link to Rappler's Climate Change CalculatorIn the Philippines, the CBCP has suggested some activities which would help us implement Laudato Si’. The bishops presented fifteen concrete ways to combat global warming: 1. Grow a tree; 2. Switch off and unplug; 3. Good bye plastic; 4. Segregate; 5. Reduce, reuse and recycle; 6. No to burning of wastes; 7. Promote renewable energy; 8. Bring your own tumbler; 9. Use energy efficient appliances; 10. Walk, bike, or carpool; 11. Recycle electronics and batteries; 12. Environmental and energy awareness; 13. Save water: use pail, dipper, and cups; 14. Think before you print; and 15. Support earth products. (18) The CBCP also issued Pastoral Moral Guidance On the Poaching, Trafficking and Decimation of Endangered Species which prohibits clerics from blessing any new statue, image or object of devotion made or crafted from such material as ivory or similar body parts of endangered species. (19)

The capacity for change is in our hands and the future of the world depends on our actions and decisions now. True, it is the poor who are the first and most affected by the ecological crisis but we must remember that this crisis affects us all. A beautiful Filipino song by Joey Ayala entitled “Karaniwang Tao” may be a fitting song to encapsulate the current crisis. The Philippine bishops remind us that “it is a Christian obligation to be concerned with ecology and with climate change as a direct consequence of the moral concept of STEWARDSHIP and a concomitant of Christian charity.”

The encyclical is not an abstract document but resonates with our lived human experience. We turn to our Blessed Mother Mary, the Mother and Queen of all creation, in order for us to learn and be guided on how to protect this world that God has given us. And of course, we note that an encounter with Christ, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, would ultimately teach us how to care for our home, our only home, our common home. I believe that we have reached a turning point in our history where we are being given an opportunity to do something that would affect future generations – they will judge our generation based on what we choose to do or not to do, and this is the legacy that we shall leave behind.

1. The main objective of the annual Conference of Parties (COP) is to review the Convention’s implementation. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and significant meetings since then have included COP3 where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, COP11 where the Montreal Action Plan was produced, COP15 in Copenhagen where an agreement to success Kyoto Protocol was unfortunately not realized and COP17 in Durban where the Green Climate Fund was created.

In 2015, COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C. (“COP – What’s it all about?”, Climate Action, accessed January 2, 2016, http://www.cop21paris.org/about/cop21).

2. L’Osservatore Romano, “Through the Eyes of a Child,” July 10, 2015: 14-15.
3. Francis, Laudato Si’ Enyclical Letter on Care of Our Common Home (May 24, 2015), 160.
4. Canticle of the Creatures, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (New York-London-Manila, 1999), 113-114.
5. The first encyclical of Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, was a collaboration between him and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI which completed the papal encyclicals reflecting on the three theological virtues.
6. Francis, Laudato Si’, 19.
7. Ibid., 139.
8. Cf. Manuel C. Molles, Jr., Ecology: Concepts and Applications, 4th ed., (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008), 2.
9. Francis, Laudato Si’, 90.
10. Ibid., 95.
11. Ibid., 15.
12. Ibid., 105.
13. Ibid., 107.
14. Ibid., 113.
15. Ibid., 123.
16. Cf. Ibid., no. 206.
17. Ibid., no. 216.
18. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, On Climate Change: Understand, Act, Pray, (November 11, 2015).
19. Cf. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, The Lord Made Them All, (November 4, 2015).
20. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Stewards, Not Owners: CBCP on the Climate Change Issue (July 20, 2015).

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