Catholic theology on environmental protection and integral human development –Laudato Si

Rev. Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD)*


The current crisis of climate change has challenged disciplines to traverse traditional barriers in intellectual discourse. This is largely because no single discipline can address the multilayered issues involved with climate change. Catholic theology is not spared this paradigm shift in intellectual discourse. Fortunately, Catholic theology has from time immemorial engaged other disciplines through its social doctrines that engages diverse disciplines as ethics, philosophy, politics, economics, anthropology, law, medicine, technology and natural sciences. Underlying catholic social teaching is a strong commitment to integral human development that looks at the human person holistically –physical, spiritual, intellectual, economic, political and technological. This brief presentation examines catholic theology on environmental protection and integral human development though the lens of Laudato Si – the much celebrated letter of Pope Francis on 'our common home' or the environment. The main point I want to make is that Laudato Si offers the best hermeneutical tool for environmental protection and it also offers a platform for interreligious dialogue as well as an ethical framework for global cooperation around the issue of climate change.

Key pillars of Catholic theology on environmental protection

Any Christian theology must be grounded in scripture as the primary data on fundamental propositions concerning ultimate meaning and nature of all reality. What are the main theological assertions in sacred scripture that provide principles for Catholic theology on environmental protection and integration human development? The first fundamental tenet in scripture regarding the environment is that all created things in as far as they are God's creation are good. Even the smallest creatures whose immediate value might not be apparent, are good and have some value in the broad scheme of themes. This is the main theme found in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. The interrelated nature of all things can also be found in Genesis 2:7 – that human beings are made from dust. Even from a biological point of view, this fact is evident – plants get nutrients from the soil, humans and animals feed on plants and animals. Such a complex web of interaction confirms the integral dimension of all created things.

The next important theological assertion with regard to the environment rooted in sacred scripture is the responsibility of stewardship that human beings are given to take care of the environment. The command – be fruitful, multiply, have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) and 'till it and keep it' (Genesis 2:15) is a divine instruction to take care of the environment through work, innovation and technological advancement. Unfortunately, this command has been mistaken to mean plunder and exploitation of natural resources. This has led to what Pope Francis has described thus: '…as result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual' (Laudato Si no. 66; cf Genesis 3:17-19).

Since the whole of creation is created by God, this leads to another important theological principle on the universal destination of created goods. Catholic social teaching holds that all created goods are for the use of all human beings and not just for the lucky few. This principle follows from the principle of stewardship. Whatever resources an individual has, are held in trust and not for just serving individual selfish interests. The world with its abundant resources and technological advancement, should not be having millions living in poverty, disease and ignorance. From this theological principle follows the responsibility for future generations who equally have a right to find a safe and good environment. This is why Pope Francis called his famous letter: On care for our common home.

The last major theological principle that is grounded in creation theology is the common good. The notion of the common good is the central and organising principle of social ethics. It is the '…sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.' (Laudato Si no. 156). It is easy to see how the notion of the common good is closely related to climate change and the environment. Not caring for the environment undermines the common good. Clean air, safe environment, food, and habitable spaces, are all aspects of the common good.

Way forward: Radical hermeneutics and inter-religious dialogue

Pope Francis' letter Laudato Si, is in fact a radical hermeneutics and a global call for dialogue on how to care for our common home – the environment. How does Pope Francis interpret the current climate change crisis? Quoting the book of Wisdom, Pope Francis argues that to know creation is to know God its creator: 'Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker' (Wisdom 13:5). He proceeds to quote St Paul: '…his[God] eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world' (Romans 1:20). To address the issues of climate change, the first step is to acknowledge that the whole of creation is as it were a sacred scripture revealing God. If we take nature as sacred, we cannot go ahead to destroy it for selfish motives and greed. Taking nature as sacred leads to what St Francis of Assisi, whom Pope Francis chose as his patron saint, did by singing praise to mother nature: 'Praise be to you, my Lord, through Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.' Are we radical enough to consider the environment as our brother and sister?

The second shift in hermeneutics of environmental protection is a new humanism that considers human development from a moral perspective, and not just from economic growth. Concern for the human person entails concern for the rest of creation since all beings are mutually interconnected. This approach helps us to look at environmental problems as ethical and spiritual, suggesting that solutions for climate change crisis will go beyond technology. Radical approaches such as sacrifice, generosity, and sharing will have to replace consumption, greed, and wastefulness (Laudato Si No. 9). This is what an integral ecology is all about, whereby care for the environment is also linked to justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior harmony or peace.

Hermeneutics of environmental protection is also about dialogue among religions and between religions and science. A passionate call for dialogue is made by Pope Francis: 'I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.' (Laudato Si no. 14) This kind of dialogue that includes all stakeholders, will lead to a new universal solidarity. No single person or nation can solve the crisis of climate change.

Conclusion: From hermeneutics to praxis

Karl Marx is famously quoted having said: 'Philosophers have hitherto interpreted reality, the issue however is to change it.' What needs to be changed if climate change is to be addressed? Concrete steps at individual level include: ending pollution including mental pollution caused by too much accumulation of data, proper waste disposal, and ending a throw-away culture. Other concrete measures to address climate change are: restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity, ending global inequality, challenging the technocratic paradigm and enthropocentrism.

All these strategies can only succeed if the citizens are educated for environmental protection and integral human development. Such an education will produce what Pope Francis calls 'ecological citizenship' – citizens who see themselves as belonging to the universe and not just their respective countries or races. Issues of climate change can only be addressed if there is an honest and frank dialogue at local, national and international levels, and between religion and science. It is important to conclude with the sharp critique of global capitalism by Pope Francis: 'Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals" (Laudato Si No. 203).

Rev. Mubangizi, a Jesuit priest, is a philosopher, and is currently the Deputy Director and Director Academic Affairs - The Proposed Hekima University, Kenya. 

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