Theology a key to guarding the environment

Pope Francis is greeted during his visit to Asuncion, Paraguay, this week. Photo by Reuters.
Pope Francis is greeted during his visit to Asuncion, Paraguay, this week. Photo by Reuters.
Religious reasoning on the environment will be crucial in bringing about the change of heart and the changes of life so desperately needed, writes Murray Rae.

The encyclical on the environment, recently published by Pope Francis, received a flurry of attention on its release, including predictable dismissals from some in the fossil fuel industry, and attempts by some commentators to discredit Pope Francis himself.

On the other hand, the Pope's thoughts On Care for Our Common Home, as the encyclical is subtitled, have been welcomed by religious leaders, by many in the scientific community, and by global leaders such as Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-general of the United Nations.

The Pope makes clear that addressing the challenges of climate change and of environmental degradation requires the contributions of both science and theology, alongside the political and cultural resources of humankind.

Scientific and technological expertise is important of course, but the biggest challenge is to change hearts and minds.

Any commitment to reverse the trend of environmental destruction will be driven by beliefs about the nature of our world, about the relationships between humanity and the rest of the created order, and, for many, about what God has created the world to be.

If we are driven instead by selfish short-termism and a relentless pursuit of economic gain, as if that were the highest good, then we are bound for destruction.

Setting out his Christian convictions about why we need to change our course, Pope Francis begins with an account of the goodness of creation. He draws on Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Creatures which speaks of Earth as our sister, and as our mother: ''Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.''

These words of St Francis remind us that we live in dependence upon Earth.

There is, therefore, a powerful imperative to care for it - for our own sake as well as for the sake of succeeding generations.

Earth is not an object to be exploited and trashed but is to be received as gift and preserved as blessing for those who will come after us.

The moral imperative for dramatic changes to our lifestyle is not based on humanity's interests alone, however.

According to the Bible, the creation is to be protected and enabled to flourish for the sake of all that God has made.

''The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.

''Together with our obligation to use the earth's goods responsibly'', the Pope writes, ''we are called to recognise that other living beings have a value of their own in God's eyes.''

Responsible habitation of our environment requires, the Pope contends, that we develop ''circular models of production''.

We must learn here from the natural order itself which in its cycles of life, death, and regeneration preserves rather than destroys.

Our throwaway society, by contrast, produces mountains of waste that can serve no further purpose and are destructive of the biodiversity of our planet.

The Pope adds his voice to prevalent scientific opinion and to centuries of theological wisdom that has recognised the foolishness of this unsustainable way of life.

Especially noteworthy in the Pope's call for more responsible ways of inhabiting our planet is his observation environmental destruction impacts disproportionately on the poor.

He refers particularly to the reality of climate change refugees, to the problem of poor water quality for millions of people in poverty, and to the scandalous waste of food, especially in relatively prosperous countries.

About one third of all food produced is discarded, the Pope observes.

''Whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.''

Arguing theologically once again, this is a violation of the biblical imperative to care for the poor and to feed the hungry.

''Every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.''

Alongside the encyclical's description and analysis of the problem of environmental degradation and its causes, the Pope also charts a way forward.

His proposals for change are again based on Christian theological convictions, but he appeals to ''believers'' of all religious faiths to recognise and respond faithfully to our God-given mandate to care for Earth.

There are others, of course, who are deeply involved in bringing about positive change who are not motivated by religious belief.

Because more than 80% of the world's population profess to be religious believers of some kind, however, it is clear that religious reasoning will have a crucial role to play in bringing about the change of heart and the changes of life that are so desperately needed.

The Pope's encyclical is a powerful contribution to that task.

• Murray Rae is professor of theology at the University of Otago.

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