Perhaps drawing on his brief experience as a part-time nightclub bouncer during his days as a chemistry student, the Holy Father has made not just one, but two references to physical resistance in interviews over the past week. Much has been said about his comments in relation to religious freedom, but I’m interested here in his interview with journalists on the plane to the Philippines. Pope Francis noted that “man ‘slaps’ nature, continually … we have taken hold of nature, of Mother Earth”.
The past week has certainly been an important one for stepping up the Church’s commitment to environmental stewardship, and this all bodes well for a new year which bring us the much awaited Ecology Encyclical.
Before embarking on his tour of the Philippines, in an address to Holy See diplomats, Pope Francis expressed his view that 2015 will be of tremendous significance for international leaders. He highlighted two forthcoming milestones: first, agreeing the Sustainable Development Goals to replace the existing Millennium Development. Second, he flagged the anticipated (Paris) Climate Change Agreement, saying this is “urgently needed”.
Arriving in the Philippines, Francis was met by his host Cardinal Luis Tagle, who is well known for his support for environmental initiatives in a country that is already suffering from rising sea levels and climate change. Tagle presented the Pope with a copy of the statement of the newly formed Global Catholic Climate Movement. The ever-expanding Movement consists of variety of Catholic agencies and prominent individuals (including, I’m proud to say, the Jesuit European Social Centre!). Its statement proposes that time-honoured and very catholic principle of the virtue of prudence – “right reason applied to action” as Aquinas frames it – could provide a way of transforming dry intellectual debates about climate change into conversations concerning “spiritual and moral implications of our failure to care for God’s creation”. It calls on Catholic leaders to speak prophetically and dialogue with leaders and consumers who “engage in climatically destructive policies and practices.”
Of course that includes every single one of us – we are all “consumers” facing daily decisions about how to reduce our own ecological footprints. But on a structural level, the Church has a special role in encouraging collective decisions to be made by nations and large organizations. This came out clearly and effectively during the Lima Climate Change talks. The secular media is recognising it too: only yesterday, Tim Stanley writing in the Daily Telegraph claims that Pope Francis is “showing he has the capacity to be a truly global force for good in our time”. A challenge is to ensure that the task is not seen to rest solely and exclusively on “Pope Francis” but rather the whole Catholic Church.
There is also a body of opinion building up that a concrete ‘prophetic’ action the Church could make would be to divest itself from those companies profiting from fossil fuels. An advocacy group known as 350.org represents this view and through its local partner, Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development has planned various events during the Papal Visit. Other faith groups have already started the divestment process, with various Anglican dioceses and Quaker communities around the world completely divesting from fossil fuel companies. Meanwhile, the Church of England has reduced its holdings in fossil fuel investments but not completely withdrawn them, on the basis that they are in a better position to lobby the offending companies if they have a small, but not insignificant shareholding.
Back to the interview with journalists on the plane to the Philippines. Asked about the forthcoming encyclical, Francis once again drew on his first hand experience of ecological destructive in his native South America. He spoke of his intervention to stop deforestation in the Tartagal zone of Argentina and how the monoculture of soya cultivation is “exhausting” the land. He cited two influences in his approach to ecology: the first his “beloved brother” Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and secondly, the Italian Oratorian theologian Romano Guardini. The latter is certainly an interesting choice, perhaps a subject for a later GreenJesuit article …