Op-Ed: The Pope Calls on Humanity to Protect the Earth

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” because of “unfettered greed and out-of-control consumption”, Pope Francis says, in what must be the most keenly anticipated papal document of modern times. It’s the first encyclical to be written by Francis and it’s an uncomfortable read – dealing with everything from climate change to the breakdown of human life and “blood diamonds.” It is also for everyone because, significantly, the Pope addresses it to “every person on the planet.” He strongly critiques the international community saying that recent world summits have failed to reach effective global agreements on the environment. And, in what must be the first time ever, the bishops of Southern Africa are quoted in the introduction to the encyclical.

Less than an hour after the document’s release, Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN and Chair of the African Progress Panel, applauded the Pope for his strong “moral and ethical leadership”.

The objective of the encyclical, entitled “Laudato Si’” (There have been a number of translations of the title but the one that is widely agreed upon is “Praise be to You” – or literally “Praise be”) is to articulate an integral vision of ecology. The Pope reminds us that the earth is our “common home”. He laments that the earth has been mistreated and abused and says that the groans of the earth join all the forsaken of the world. He invites everyone – individuals, families, local communities, nations and the international community to an “ecological conversion.”

Francis, in this thorough text, does not want us to think that our relationship with the natural environment is separate from the rest of human life and activity. He conceives of it as part of the whole, which includes the social, political, cultural and spiritual dimensions. From the outset Pope Francis makes it clear that we cannot deal with environmental issues in isolation.

Reacting to the publication, Bishop José Luis Ponce de Leon, the Catholic Bishop of Manzini, Swaziland, welcomed it. “I hope it is widely read and reflected on with all our people, even in the smallest of our communities,” he said. Anglican Bishop of Christ the King Diocese, Johannesburg, Peter Lee, said: “The Pope has once again shown why he chose the name Francis, in issuing an important document about the environment with all its consequences for human beings, for poverty and for the world around us.” In a statement SAFCEI (Southern African Faith Communities’ Environmental Institute) endorsed the Pope’s call for systemic change. SAFECI expressed “support and enthusiasm for Pope Francis’ Encyclical, which explains how human life is grounded in three fundamental relationships: one with God, one with our neighbours, and one with the Earth, and that the relationship with the Earth has been ignored by Christian theology.”