Myanmar's Cardinal Bo calls for 'green theology of liberation'

Women carry drinking water near Naypyitaw, Myanmar, in April 2016. (CNS/EPA/Hein Htet)

Women carry drinking water near Naypyitaw, Myanmar, in April 2016. (CNS/EPA/Hein Htet)

by Gail DeGeorge

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Warning of the dangers of ecological crisis, especially its impact on the poor, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon addressed participants Monday (Feb. 27) on the opening day of the 17th Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious, saying, "Today, we face an environmental holocaust — it is a scary moment."

"Climate change is real," the archbishop of Yangon told the 132 participants in a strongly worded keynote speech that outlined "ecological sins" and the need for "ecological conversion."

Pope Francis "is raising the great cry against this impending disaster," Bo said. Bo cited the pope's environmental encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," in which Francis quoted Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew as saying: "For human beings ... to destroy biological diversity ... by causing changes in [the] climate ... to contaminate the earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life — these are sins."

Bo's address focused on the core theme of the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious, "Call for Global Ecological Conversion." This is the first meeting in Myanmar of the group known by its acronym, AMOR, which was founded in 1972 and brings together leaders of women religious from across Asia every two to three years to strengthen their work through sharing ideas and setting goals around particular themes.

Men religious are participating for the first time in an AMOR meeting this year, in recognition that the conference theme requires commitment by all religious and for their input in planning the event, organizers said.

It is significant that the conference is in Myanmar, a country that is opening up after more than 50 years of military rule, Sr. Margaret Maung, president of the Catholic Religious Conference of Myanmar and a Sister of Our Lady of the Missions (known as RNDM — Religieuses De Notre Dame des Missions), said in welcoming participants.

Myanmar ranks as the second-most vulnerable nation for global warming, Bo said, subject to cyclones, floods and other disasters spawned by climate change. "We are gathered here today not against ISIS terrorists," he said. "We are gathered here against economic terrorists and ecological terrorists."

Rich countries bear the brunt of responsibility for global warming, he said. "We are a poor nation," he said. "Rich countries throw carbon into the atmosphere. We suffer and bury thousands after every natural disaster."

Bo called for a "new green theology of liberation" as the major part of his address.

"We need a major revolution — a revolution in thinking — a revolution in our theology," he said. "We need to evolve an eco-theology — a theology that integrates God's creation as our cause and source of our contemplation."

Thirty years ago, theologians like Fr. Gustavo Gutíerrez responded to the cry of the poor and "out came the explosion of liberation theology," Bo said. "But theologians like Leonardo Boff point out the liberation theology needs to be complemented by an eco-theology because the cry of the poor is often caused by the cry of the Earth."

Bo is the first cardinal of Myanmar, appointed in February 2015 by Francis. Bo's appointment was seen as recognition of his efforts in national reconciliation for peace and justice and of his support of ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims. Earlier this month at a general audience, Francis prayed for the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority being persecuted in Myanmar.

"Climate change is an atom bomb waiting to explode — not one Hiroshima or one Nagasaki," Bo said.

"Already the desert is extending, waterways are drying, Arctic ice is melting at an alarming rate," he said. "We are standing on the threshold of an ecological apocalypse."

Just an increase of 4 degrees more will inundate and destroy many islands of Oceania, and countries like Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia will see millions of environmental refugees, he said.

Bo outlined several concrete proposals that religious can undertake to help counter ecological degradation, including fighting for ecological justice, undertaking ecological evangelization, paying greater attention to indigenous religious traditions, and listening to Eastern religions and their concept of "interbeing" with nature that affirm the sacredness of ecology more than Judeo-Christian religions do.

Catholic religious life needs to be a counterculture to the greed and consumerism that are behind many environmental issues, and embrace a simplicity and an eco-spirituality exemplified in Eastern religions, Bo said. Buddhist monks are not allowed to own anything except a begging bowl and needle and thread. Catholic religious of the East "need to adopt a lifestyle that is more like Eastern religions: simplicity and veneration of nature."

While his address was to Asian religious, "my message is valid for the whole world and America," Bo said in a brief interview later. "We have to have regard for each other as human beings. There is an interconnectedness with plants and animals and the environment."

Asked about the administration of new U.S. President Donald Trump and concerns that environmental safeguards and measures to stem climate change will be rolled back, Bo said that rich nations should use their resources to help solve environmental problems. Science needs to "really consider what the options are, because poor countries are really suffering because of global warming — I think that's a warning for the whole universe."

As for those who would deny global warming exists, he said, "It's a reality. The Earth is groaning, and if she is in pain, all of us are in pain."

Rich nations "should have regard for those who are really helpless and homeless and stateless," he said. "Those should be the ones that as much as possible should be provided for — not only for making American great by itself but greater will be the nation that really goes out and reaches out to others who are the most needy. That will make America great."

In the afternoon sessions of AMOR XVII, delegates from countries gave brief presentations on how climate change was affecting their nations, the response by governments and the church, and the challenges ahead. In reflections and discussions, participants suggested additional actions, including personal and congregational responses and undertaking the eco-evangelization and eco-spirituality steps proposed by Bo.

The AMOR XVII meeting continues through Friday.

[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter covering women religious around the world.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 24-April 6, 2017 print issue.

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