By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
If there’s a new impulse percolating in the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, it may well be a strong “greening” of Catholic consciousness in the region.
Ecological themes appear set to figure prominently in the bishops’ final document, something of a departure for a church whose social concern has long focused on poverty – sometimes, in fact, seeing Western environmentalism as a threat to employment and development.
This time around, however, the bishops of Latin America seem much more responsive to ecological concerns, in part because many have become convinced that the poor are also the primary victims of environmental degradation.
Earlier in the week, the bishops released an outline of their final document. Organized into seven sections, the first part of the document examines social and cultural realities in Latin America today. According to the official outline, “ecological damage” is the third topic to be treated in this section. Section two refers to the nature of being a disciple of Jesus, and here too, “creation and ecological responsibility” figures prominently.
When Bishop José Luis Lacunza of Panama presented the outline on Tuesday, he listed the major social concerns of the bishops as including “globalization, indigenous persons, and ecology” – perhaps the first time that ecology has been cited at CELAM as a top-drawer pastoral preoccupation.
On Wednesday, four prelates gave a press briefing in which they again accented the importance of the environment to the CELAM meeting.
“Ecology and care of the environment is important, especially care of the Amazon, which represents a major area of concern for the church,” said Archbishops Anuar Battisti and João Braz de Aviz of Brazil, along with Bishops João Braz de Aviz of Venezuela and José María Yanguas of Spain.
The outline of the final document was approved earlier in the week by a vote of 104 in favor and 27 against, suggesting a broad consensus around its major areas of concern. The Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean concludes May 31.
The language about ecology in Aparecida builds upon the results of the 1997 Synod for America, held in Rome.
In his concluding document from that synod, Pope John Paul II wrote: “To men and women, the crown of the entire process of creation, the Creator entrusts the care of the earth … In this area too, the action of believers is more important than ever. Alongside legislative and governmental bodies, all people of good will must work to ensure the effective protection of the environment, understood as a gift from God.”
“How much ecological abuse and destruction there is in many parts of America! It is enough to think of the uncontrolled emission of harmful gases or the dramatic phenomenon of forest fires, sometimes deliberately set by people driven by selfish interest. Devastations such as these could lead to the desertification of many parts of America, with the inevitable consequences of hunger and misery. This is an especially urgent problem in the forests of Amazonia, an immense territory extending into different countries: from Brazil to Guyana, Surinam, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.”
“This is one of the world's most precious natural regions because of its bio-diversity which makes it vital for the environmental balance of the entire planet,” the pope wrote.
CELAM's attention to ecology also builds upon comments by Pope Benedict XVI during his Brazil trip. "The devastation of the environment in the Amazon Basin and the threats against the human dignity of peoples living within that region call for greater commitment in the different areas of activity than society tends to recognize," Benedict said.