The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973

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The Greening of the Church

Sean McDonagh

The care of the planet was the theme of the Pope's message for World Peace Day. A slightly abbreviated text was published in The Tablet last week. Below, a missionary working in the Philippines assesses the document's merits - and flaws.

For the first time a papal document has been devoted exclusively to environmental concerns. The Pope's message for World Peace Day is written in a lively style; its coverage of ecological problems is comprehensive; the analysis is incisive and the text reverberates with a note of urgency.

The Pope insists that environmental degradation has, ultimately, an essentially moral and religious dimension which concerns every individual and institution. He begins by reflecting on the relationship "between mankind and the rest of creation" envisaged in the early chapters of Genesis. There is no reason to "hack and rack the growing green", to use the pain-filled phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Adam and Eve should have exercised their dominion over the earth "with wisdom and love". Their sin resulted "not only in man's alienation from himself, but also in the earth's 'rebellion' against him".

The Pope then enumerates the chief manifestations of ecological degradation. But he is not content with listing the problems, he also looks below the surface at the causes. Human beings have altered the natural world since the beginning of human history, but the damage until recently was not great and the healing powers of the earth are enormous. The industrial revolution, however, in its engineering, chemical, electrical, nuclear and microchip phases, has brought an exponential leap in the catastrophic impact of human beings on the other life-systems of the planet.

This papal critique of technology will not be sweet music to those who design the civil or military technology which damages the earth and is sometimes used to exploit people. Advertising, which in many ways drives the consumer economy, would have us believe that all technology is good and that it will, in fact, save us even from ecological destruction. Without having to mention Chernobyl, Bhopal or the Exxon Valdez, the Pope insists that "we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations".

Equally unpalatable for many environmental consultants is the reminder that the standard of living which many in the First World enjoy is at the expense of the Third World and the earth itself. Even the Bruntland Report presenting the findings of the commission on environment and development set up by the United Nations succumbed to the fallacy that the pursuit of economic growth is the best way to generate resources to protect the environment. The catch-phrase "sustainable development" assumes that we can have our cake and eat it. Pope John Paul warns that "simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few".

This is an excellent papal document, so it is a pity to find one crucial omission which may well detract from its overall impact. There is no mention of the pressure which rapid population growth places on the resources of the natural world, especially in Third World countries - though not only there: the average person in an industrialised country uses 20 or even 30 times more resources than his Third World counterpart. Nor would the problem be as severe if land reform were vigorously pursued in the Third World.

Nevertheless, almost every environmental commentator who is not blinkered by ideological bias insists that rapid population growth must be faced if further damage to the environment is to be avoided. The Bruntland Report argued that present growth rates cannot continue. They undermine the ability of many governments to provide education., health care and secure supplies of food, and still more their ability to raise living standards. Robert Rapetto of the World Resources Institute in Washington insists that, while it is incorrect to lay the bulk of ecological problems at the door of population growth, "there is a consensus that human population must become stable as it was for most of human existence. Rates of population growth even remotely approaching those experienced in this century are unsustainable over the next."

My own experience of 20 years in the Philippines confirms this. The population of the country has jumped from 7 million at the beginning of this century to over 60 million today. With a 2.7 per cent annual increase it will double again within 30 years. How will it be possible to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and care for 120 million when, even now, the Philippines has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in Asia and many of the ecosystems have been irreversibly destroyed? The tropical rain forest has dwindled from 17.5 million hectares in 1946 to less than 1 million today. Countless species have become extinct. Deforestation has led to severe erosion and consequent crop loss. Coral reefs and mangrove forests - the breeding grounds for fish and crustaceans - have virtually disappeared. Fish, once an essential component of Filipino's diet, is now expensive and will be more difficult to obtain as environmental damage increases. Many rivers and springs, essential water sources for towns and villages, have either been polluted or have dried up altogether.

Despite all this, the bishop who is chairman of the episcopal commission for family life in the Philippines insists that there is no population problem. Many Filipinos disagree with him. They feel that it is incumbent on a Church which is beginning to be sensitive on environmental problems to think again.

The Pope calls on individuals, institutions and states to be more actively involved in protecting the environment and ensuring its long-term fruitfulness. The right to a safe environment "must be included in an updated Charter of Human Rights". There is in fact a World Charter for Nature, ratified by the United Nations in 1984, which calls for a moral code to guide human interaction with the natural world. The failure of the papal statement to mention this important, but poorly known, document confirms the need for widespread education in ecological responsibility for which the Pope appeals.

Finally, though the document is dated 8 December 1989, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, there is no mention of Mary or the feminine dimension of ecological concern. This is a curious oversight for a Pope who is deeply devoted to Mary. The Philippine bishops in their pastoral letter on the environment, "What is happening to our beautiful land?", see Mary, Mother of Life, as challenging Filipinos to "abandon the pathways of death and return to the way of life". Ecological destruction affects women in a special way. When the forests are destroyed, they spend more time and energy collecting firewood and fetching water. Soil erosion reduces the food in their pots. When this happens, mothers meet the needs of their husbands and children first, often by eating less themselves. Many are constantly hungry and in a real way starve themselves to death.

The Pope's message is a landmark in the greening of the Church. One hopes and prays that his voice will be heard and acted upon in parishes, church schools and dioceses. If such energy were devoted to care for the planet and work for justice, that would be good news for our earth, the only green planet of the universe.

From The Tablet dated 13 January 1990.

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