Pope highlights need to address impact pollution has on human health

In this Oct. 26, 2011, file photo, Palestinians sift through garbage that was dumped in the West Bank. Some doctors say patients have a right to have causes of illness, especially from environmental pollution, studied as part of their care. (CNS/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)

Vatican City — Pope Francis encouraged greater attention to those whose health is affected by environmental degradation and pollution.

He said he meets so many sick people, especially children, during his weekly general audience or on a parish visit, who are afflicted with a rare disease that doctors can't explain.

"These rare diseases are the consequences of the illnesses we inflict on the environment. This is serious," he said Nov. 19.

The pope was speaking to hundreds of scientists, health care professionals, theologians, diplomats and other experts taking part in an international conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry. The conference, Nov. 19-21, discussed the culture of "health and welcoming" in serving humanity and the planet.

He encouraged participants to make sure their work considers those who "suffer harm -- serious and often permanent harm -- to their health caused by environmental degradation."

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Protecting and caring for one's neighbor and environment reflect the human responsibility to care for all of God's creation, he said.

Respecting and loving life find fulfillment in drawing close to those who need physical and spiritual healing, he said.

This "drawing near," he said, was exactly what Jesus did every day when he met with the ill, "public sinners, the possessed, the marginalized, the poor, foreigners ...."

Today, the kind of people Jesus attended to "are set aside, they don't count. It's strange. What does it mean? The throwaway culture is not from Jesus. It isn't Christian."

This throwaway culture accepts or rejects life based on whether it can be "useful" or "efficient" in society or the economy, he said. People who don't measure up are seen as "a burden, a disturbance."

This mentality, he said, is related to the way medicine is being pushed to respond to every personal desire -- the quest "for physical perfection at whatever cost, under the illusion of eternal youth."

The Christian sense of "closeness," especially in the health care profession, is seeing the other as "belonging to me, even an enemy belongs to me like a brother."

A true sense of closeness, "not fake," overcomes all obstacles and "barriers of nationality, social class and religion," he said.

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