Turkson talks papal encyclical, 'integral ecology' at Irish lecture

Offering a possible glimpse into the upcoming papal encyclical on ecology, a top Vatican official stated that disagreements over the cause of climate change do not preclude the need for action, and that religion plays a vital role in bringing about meaningful and lasting solutions.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, spoke Thursday at St. Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland, at a Lenten lecture for Trócaire, the overseas aid agency of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. The conference has made the growing problem of drought due to climate change its Lenten theme.

The Ghanaian cardinal began by addressing the idea of trócaire (“mercy”), described as a keyword of Pope Francis’ ministry, and ended by calling for all to “become artisans of the revolution of tenderness,” in a move toward a new global solidarity among all people.

Global inequality and the destruction of the environment “are the greatest threats we face as a human family today,” he said.

As for the encyclical, expected to be released in June or July, Turkson said it would explore the relationship among care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor -- what he described as “integral ecology.” According to Catholic News Service, the cardinal -- who provided the pope a first draft of the teaching document in August -- added that many people continue to work on it, and that it would be a “sciocchezza” (foolishness) to guess at what it might say.

The encyclical’s timing, Turkson said, was significant, in that 2015 is “a critical year for humanity.”

In addition to the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in December -- where world leaders could sign a binding agreement toward reducing global greenhouse gas emissions -- he listed as key events the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the U.N. General Assembly’s meeting in September, where they are expected to agree to a new set of sustainable development goals that would carry into 2030.

“The coming 10 months are crucial, then, for decisions about international development, human flourishing and care for the common home we call planet Earth,” he said.

Related: "Papal envoy to UN: Climate change 'an issue of justice for everyone'"

Turkson said the pope “has echoed the sense of crisis that many in the scientific and development communities convey” about the state of the planet and the poor. What Francis seeks to contribute, he said, is the “warmth of hope … in the midst of those he has called the ‘Herods,’ the ‘omens of destruction and death’ that so often ‘accompany the advance of this world.’”

The cardinal outlined four themes of the pope’s teachings on integral ecology:

  • The call to be protectors is integral and all-embracing
  • Care for creation and humanity are virtues in their own right
  • We will -- we must -- care for what we cherish and revere
  • A need for dialogue and “a new global solidarity,” where all have a part to play

“We are called to protect and care for both creation and the human person,” he said in describing the first principle. “These concepts are reciprocal and, together, they make for authentic and sustainable human development.”

Turkson pointed out that Francis moved the protection of creation “to the very forefront of his own ministry and the vocation of every Christian” in addressing the issue as part of his inaugural Mass, celebrated on the feast of St. Joseph (March 19). On that day two years ago, the pope outlined the vocation of the protector, saying it requires the care of the earth and all creatures, in addition to showing loving concern for all people, especially children, the elderly and those in need.

“Clearly this is not some narrow agenda for the greening [of ] the Church or the world. It is a vision of care and protection that embraces the human person and the human environment in all possible dimensions,” Turkson said.

When Francis has described environmental destruction as a grave sin, or criticized an economy that kills and places money ahead of people, Turkson said that “he is not making some political comment about the relative merits of capitalism and communism. He is rather restating ancient Biblical teaching.”

“He is pointing to the fact that being a protector of creation, of the poor, of the dignity of every human person is a sine qua non of being Christian, of being fully human. He is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little, that our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbour, especially the poor, and with the environment has become fundamentally “un-kept,” and that we are now at serious risk of a concomitant human, environmental and relational degradation,” Turkson said.

On climate change, the cardinal acknowledged debate exists about its origins, despite consensus among the majority of scientists within the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human activity has played a primary role.

“Is it the outcome of cyclical processes of nature, of human activities (anthropogenic), or perhaps both?  What is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer,” he said before describing the latest U.N. climate change report “as stark as it was challenging.”

Related: "UN report: As climate warms, poverty will grow"

“For Pope Francis, however, this is not the point. For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change. To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty,” he said.

While binding regulations to address climate change and poverty are necessary, they will likely fail “without moral conversion and a change of heart,” said Turkson. He noted that the Millenium Development Goals have come up short, with more than 1 billion people still living in extreme poverty, while the wealth held by the world’s richest has continued to grow. At the same time, international efforts to reduce carbon emissions has so far not slowed their growth, while deforestation, species extinction and water sources continue as challenges.

“Certainly international agreements are important, they can help.  But they are not enough in themselves to sustain change in human behavior,” Turkson said.

The cardinal pointed to St. Francis of Assisi’s reverence for the world and Pope John Paul II’s idea of “ecological conversion” as important contributions to sustainable development discussions. Leaving faith outside such conversation, he said, “undermines a vital and powerful source of meaning and action in the common effort to address both climate change and sustainable development.”  

“Giving space to the religious voice and to its ancient experience, wisdom and insight therefore can transform our attitudes to creation and to others in a way that purely scientific, economic or political approaches are less likely to achieve.

“What more radical and comprehensive charter for sustainable development and environmental care do we have after all than the Beatitudes, than the call to generosity that permeates Evangelii Gaudium: the command to go the extra mile, to give to the least, to give our tunic as well as our cloak to the one who asks us,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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