After having published the encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis is showing that his concerns for the “common home” are not isolated thoughts, but a main stream in his pontificate, placing the environment at the same level as that of poverty in the “moral agenda” of the Catholic Church.
The visit to the United States has been a new opportunity for Pope Francis to renew his ecological commitment and to look for connections with poverty alleviation, international negotiations or the very concept of justice. Pope Francis struggles to show caring for the planet is a way of doing justice both for humans and for nature.
In many different ways he keeps on insisting and is persistent on the same message: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental (Laudato si’, 139).
In another way, while addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) on 25 September, he declared: “…today’s world presents us with…broad sectors which are vulnerable, victims of power badly exercised: for example, the natural environment and the vast ranks of the excluded. These sectors are closely interconnected and made increasingly fragile by dominant political and economic relationships. That is why their rights must be forcefully affirmed, by working to protect the environment and by putting an end to exclusion.”
Also at the General Assembly, and in the framework of his discourse about the mission of the UN as protector of rights, he declares the existence of a right of the environment: “First, it must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist.” And it exists because of two reasons.
“First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which ‘are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology’ (Laudato si’, 81), is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”
The Pope takes a very precise strand: the physical constitution of human beings. Certainly it is a basic affirmation but it acquires an important value because for many, the real value of being human is on the spiritual. Forgetting the “unicity” of the human constitution: flesh and spirit united and the unique reality of “a person.” But it is true that in a much-extended religious vision, there has been a slow sliding, diverting the centre of gravity towards the spiritual dimension of the human being. In this sense, Pope Francis is recalling a much more integrated consideration of what to be human means.
The Pope adds a second reason to explain this “right of the environment”: “(B)ecause every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.”
With this Pope Francis sets the principles for a right that has been controversial and not always recognized. The right of the environment puts nature at the same level as humans that need to be protected, acknowledging that nature is a gift from God and has an “intrinsic” value – not only because it is helpful to humans – and thus deserve respect and protection.
The Pope gets into a detailed description of the crisis (both environmental and social) we are facing, and how there are common roots for this situation: “…(A) selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.”
Social and environmental exclusion are part of the same dramatic situation for millions: “Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded, and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing ‘culture of waste.’”
Pope Francis looks for signs of hope to address this situation and he finds the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the UN and the Paris Conference on Climate Change as two milestones that provide practical paths to achieve poverty alleviation and sustainable future for all.
He is not naïve though and knows that commitments have to go beyond nominal declarations with no real and genuine content: “Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.”
Pope Francis is making a strong appeal for the right of environment not to be diluted as often happens during discussions on rights, as existing legal instruments are insufficient in protecting and ensuring the right of the environment.
But Pope Francis is also giving many references not only to justify the existence of this very right but to show the paths by which its implementation can be practically done, paths that he finds inseparable in reckoning with poverty and social exclusion as well.
Quotes for this article are from the Address of the Holy Father Pope Francis during the Meeting with the members of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, USA, 25 September 2015.