The Pope’s welcome environmental manifesto – Rev Dr John Weaver

John Weaver
John Weaver
Pope Francis has written an exhaustive encyclical to all the churches of the Roman Catholic communion, Laudato si’, mi’ Signore – ‘Praise be to you, my Lord’. He affirms that all species give glory to God, who cares for each one (Luke 12:6, Matthew 6:26).

The Pope recognises the seriousness of the global environmental crisis and draws out its implications for the world’s poor and disadvantaged. He identifies the human causes, and lays the blame fairly and squarely on the activities of the developed world.

This clear, factually based, unbiased and hard-hitting paper from the Pope is a most welcome contribution to the climate debate in the run-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference November 30 – December 11 this year.

With St Francis as his inspiration the Pope expresses his concern about our common home and the need for global, sustainable, integral, development. He challenges us to avoid the short-term outlook that has dominated politics, and calls for a new political will. He maintains that we recognise that the destruction and wanton disregard for the environment is both a sin against ourselves and against God. He outlines the scientific consensus and develops the thesis of the climate as a common good or a global commons. In rehearsing the scientific observations of drought, flood, loss of rainforests, reduction in biodiversity, aquifers, coral reefs and glaciers he challenges the developed world to see the impacts on the poor in the form of water poverty and crop failure. These demonstrate global inequality and injustice, and threaten the breakdown of society. He observes that world leaders fail to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. He concludes that ‘In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.’ (paragraph 56)

The Pope offers a clear biblical mandate to care for creation calling for a Christ-like attitude, which recognises that all people are in the image of God and none is superfluous. He presents a picture of a sacramental creation, where God is manifest and present in the whole created world, and where all things are created, redeemed and reconciled through Christ (Colossians 1:15-20). He goes further and states that ‘every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity’ (paragraph 92). He concludes that the earth is to be seen as a collective good – a shared inheritance, which offers fundamental rights to the poor and the voiceless.

The Pope pulls no punches in laying the blame for environmental degradation and destruction on human beings. While recognising that technological creativity has brought vast benefits to humankind, he warns against the global view of technological progress, the mastery of creation, domination, and exploitation. He rightly observes that progress has become the new mantra, but such progress must be in the service of all humanity. He challenges us to recover Christian values and goals in our relationship with the environment, others, and God. These I observe are the pre-Fall relationships of Genesis 2, which we see broken in Genesis 3, when human beings decide that they want to play God and have the power and control that belongs to God. Christ calls for their renewal in the two commands to love God and to love our neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40).

The Pope rightly recognises that ecology teaches us that everything is interconnected. Environmental degradation affects social structures and cultural identity, the very meaning of life and community. This is not just in our own time, he challenges us to consider what kind of world we want to leave for those who come after us, which leads us to consider the meaning of our own lives – who are we, and what are we here for? He recognises the various global governmental attempts to address these issues, but stresses the need for transparent political processes in finding agreement on the governance of the ‘global commons’. He rightly notes that any technological solution will be powerless to solve these serious problems if we lose our moral compass to live in harmony, make sacrifices, and treat others well. The same is certainly true of allowing market forces to control our decisions.

He commends to the church new lifestyles, which demonstrate a covenant between humanity and the environment. Furthermore he challenges us to an ecological conversion whereby the effects of our encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in our relationship with the world around us. He calls us to find joy and peace in a life of simplicity, with love overflowing in our acts of care for creation, as we journey toward the Sabbath of eternity (Revelation 21:5).

This encyclical is profound which is not something that can be said for those crass comments made in attacking the Pope. Jeb Bush, a Catholic and a Republican Party candidate for the presidential nomination attacked the encyclical suggesting that the leader of the worldwide Catholic communion should ‘steer clear of global affairs’ – Hello, he’s leader of a global church of some 1.2 billion members! Bush went on to say, ‘I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops, my cardinal or my pope.’ To compound his misunderstanding of the pontiff’s words he said: ‘I think religion ought to be about making us better people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.’ Bush echoes the comments of the coal industry in the USA and the climate change deniers, and although we may find these comments ill-informed, we do have our own climate change deniers.

Others in the US such as New York Review of Books believe that the Pope has communicated our environmental peril as the most pressing issue of our time. In the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne Jnr urges us to recognise in the Pope’s words a concern for our ‘common home’ and an insistence that a belief in God means that human beings cannot put themselves at the centre of the universe. Time Magazine saw the encyclical as a masterpiece, which will play a key role in the UN Paris Climate Change Conference. The evangelical Lausanne Creation Care Network also recognised the importance of the Pope’s message and declared their commitment to care for God’s creation and to serve the poor affected by climate change impacts.

The encyclical presents a message that we all need to hear and act upon. We should at least be ready to support those who call for enforceable agreements to reduce carbon emissions and wish to see financial assistance given to the developing world in their attempts at sustainable development.

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group at Oxford University who said, ‘What I find most puzzling is the suggestion the Pope has no business to talk about climate change. Critics now largely agree with mainstream climate science so if Pope Francis can’t speak up for our unborn grandchildren, then God help us all.’
(“i” newspaper Friday 19 June 2015)

John Weaver was born and brought up in Cardiff. After taking degrees in Geology at Swansea, he taught at the University of Derby. John trained for Baptist ministry in Oxford and was then pastor of Highfield Baptist Church from 1981-1991. From 1992-2001 he taught theology at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and from 2001-2012 served as Principal of South Wales Baptist College. He is a former President of the Baptist Union, and is the Chair of JRI. His main areas of research are: relating faith to life and work; theological reflection; adult education; and the dialogue between science and faith.

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