By Fr. Innocent Wefon Akum, MHM*
There is a saying in Latin which goes thus: “verbum docet, exampla trahunt” (word teaches, examples draw). In our contemporary era, unlike any other eras in the history of mankind, the cry of the environment resounds loudly than ever. The environment laments of the devaluing attitudes and actions of man towards nature, which is essential to human health, well-being, and prosperity. As a consequence of man’s actions, nature is at its brink. In response to this constant cry of the environment, the Church has never turned a deaf ear. Different popes of different epochs have written strong letters encouraging the faithful and people of goodwill to use the natural environment, not from an egoistic perspective; an awakening call to realise our interdependence and coexistence with other species and with the whole of creation. However, the gap between the teaching and practice need to be bridged through actions suggested in this article.
With the even the worst degradation of the natural environment being witnessed in our time, there is a great need for the Church as mother and teacher to take a more serious consideration, to mitigate environmental damage. Hence, the Church must transcend letters to actions. This is the era of action, the Church must start showing the example of caring for nature. The Church has a very important role to form the conscience of her faithful towards an ecological conversion. She has to rethink her strategies on religion, development, economy and politics. The truth is, nature in its purest form does not need humans for its survival but humans cannot exist without the rest of nature.
From the onset of creation, human life has been grafted in an interrelated threefold relationship., These include a relationship with God, our neighbour and with the earth itself (Laudato Si n.66). These relationships have been broken by man (sin against God, man and nature.) The sin against nature has led to what has been termed an Ecological Crisis. In the book of Genesis 2:15, man was mandated with the responsibility of “Tilling and Keeping” the garden of the world. Thus, this implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human being and nature. Rather man has exploited nature for his own selfish use. This explains St. Pope John Paul II’s concern and warning in his first Encyclical Redemptor Hominis of 4th March 1979, n. 287 that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate consumption.”
Nature and the Human Person
It is evident that nature is in crisis, nature is declining, and nature is in ruin. In other words, we are pushing nature to the brink of being vanquished. This, in effect, is hazardous for us since we are part of nature. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live in (Laudato Si, n.139). We need nature for our survival since it forms the bases of our livelihood: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the cloth we wear and so on and so forth. Thus, if you take away nature, you are taking away the human person. Destroying nature is destroying the human person. I think this is something that man has failed to fully understand and need to be reminded of these basic facts. Maybe the Church has also failed in its role to help its 1.8 billion followers to realise their participation in the ecological sins.
How many Christians are aware of sins against nature especially in Africa and other third world countries? The Catholic Social Teaching on the environment is very clear and it is based on four major pillars. 1.) The dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, co-creator with God and not a consumer or destructor of Gods beautiful art of creation. 2.) Responsibility as custodians and caretaker of the beautiful garden of Eden with all its riches; mammal, plants, the water bodies and all they contain, etc. 3.) Our life of solidarity with the less privileged and the poor; taking into considering those who are being affected by greed and self-centredness. Lastly, looking for the common good and happiness for all is a very core value in the Churches teaching. But how can we translate all these beautiful Church teaching into concrete action?
The Church’s Response
The Church as mother and teacher has never been indifferent in the midst of such crisis. However, the question we can ask is; has the Church done the best it could to take critical decisions that have positive impacts on Ecological Crisis? It is no doubt that the Church has written lots of documents and encyclical on the ecological crisis. The Church has very rich knowledge found in its social teaching which raises awareness on this issue. As they say, this teaching remains the “best-kept secret. Beyond this knowledge what practical measures h the Church put in place for the applicability of such rich and in-depth theoretical knowledge? The Church seems to lack practical measures that would enhance the practicality of its social teachings on the ecological crisis. There is still a big gap between what the Church teaches in her official documents, what the majority of Christians know and what is happening in and around our parishes. The Church boasts of around 1.3 billion followers, if only half of the Church’s population were involved in this new deal to safe mother earth our common home, the effects would have more than be visible.
The social teaching of the Church must have a central place in the pastoral life of a Christian community. Christians have to be taught how to listen to the cries of the earth and the poor. Most Christians in their pursuit of profit and gain have become deaf to the voice of nature and the poor. Priests and Church leaders should have the ability to educate their faithful on sustainable development and challenge the culture of wanting to get more even when we do not need it. By so doing, a new model for development and business would be created. Inasmuch as a lot has been written about integral ecology and the need to protect our ecosystem, very little has been done to make it part of our catechism and formation in the seminaries. The Catholic Social Teaching is an optional course taught in the last semester in many seminaries, but this could be the foundational course.
I once posed a question to a bishop if the teaching for the care of creation could be given the same level of importance as we do for the sacraments or similar emphasis? The Church has to champion this new paradigm of living together where everyone matters and the common good is our main goal not production with the sole intention to make profit. In addition, seeking the common good and how to see the earth as our common home, making sure that we protect the beauty of the landscape and the diversity of species. The sacraments help us to communion with God, and we should also by extension be in communion with our environment. In the Eucharistic celebration, we are commissioned to go in peace and extend this peace to the neighbour, and this should also include the environment. Justice and peace must include the injustices we do to nature and to the future generation. The species that are extinct, the landscape destroyed rivers and wetlands that have been invaded. One wonders the quality of the Church and the world we are going to leave for the coming generations. The airspace, land and marine are being polluted at a very alarming rate and they might not have the pleasure to worship and praise God (Psalms 104) as freely and happily as we do today.
Proposed Measures for the Church
In Laudato Si, the Holy Father, Pope Francis calls for a new dialogue about how to shape the future of our planet (No. 14). He further stipulates that we need a conversation which includes everyone since it affects us all. The Church, particularly the Church in Africa is called to look for new approaches in this environmental challenge. Below are some proposed measures that could be put in place.
First, a concrete and integral catechesis should be developed for teaching at all levels of life. In all catholic schools, institution and seminaries and all Church structure should be set up with this new paradigm of ecological conversion.
Second, the teaching of sacraments can be linked with ecological interventions such as children to be baptised in arid and semi-arid areas and can be asked to integrate tree planting as a symbol of new life which we get in baptism which has to be nurtured if not it will die. Just like baptism, it is a seed of faith planted in us to be nurtured if not it dies. Removing and treating of unwanted waste such as plastics in our environment can be linked with the sacrament of reconciliation and penance as a sign of not only self-purification but also purification of our environment.
Third, the Church at the local and universal levels should enter into meaningful dialogue with multinational and government to help them generate policies, business strategies and development plans that are sustainable and friendly to our environment.
Fourth, our churches, institutions and parish houses should be encouraged to build with sustainable plans and renewable energy where possible. The lifestyle of each and every leader in the Church like our current pope, Francis, has to be a leading example of simplicity and option for the poor. This is because the action, as pointed in the beginning, speaks louder than the word.
Fifth, conscienceless capitalism is at the centre of excessive production and exploitation of the natural environment, and the Church has to take its leadership role to challenge and educate her faithful on the dangers of such a mentality. The Church as the teacher can create more awareness seminars on various means of co-existing with nature especially with this novel invisible enemy such as the Coronavirus which has been linked with zoonosis from animals illegally trafficked and consumed without care.
Sixth, at the diocesan level, there should be implemented in the diocesan pastoral plan on measures on how to combat this crisis and raise awareness. Formation and empowerment of Bishops and local clergy with ecological skills and knowledge are of capital importance. One cannot give what one does not have. Most clergies are still very ignorant of basic facts on the environment. Seventh, as a link to a hopeful future, youths at the parish level should be directly involved in practical ways of dealing with and managing the environment (environmental conservation) such as planting trees and recycling plastics.
Finally, for the message of ecological conversion to take deep root in people’s minds and hearts, it needs to have the family as its yardstick. The family, being the first Church, school, and community, has a vital role to play in this conversation. It is at this base that the minds and hearts of young people capable of being ecologically converted are being formed. Such formation includes how to manage water, electricity, plastics by not littering it, separating perishable waste from non-perishable and so on.
Inasmuch as the Church is called to bear witness to the Gospel, she is even all the more called to address ecological concern (in a more practical way), which blessed Pope Paul VI referred to as, “Tragic consequences”. This implies re-balancing our relationship with nature which has to begin with what St. Pope John Paul II refers to as a global ecological conversion. But how can we narrow this gap between what the Church has in writing and what we the followers do on a daily basis? How can we create greater awareness of the ecological sins and realities? How can we ensure that the clergy and religious are not agents of the culture of consumerism and wastage? How can every priest on planet earth preach the ecological gospel the same way we talk about Church’s doctrines and dogmas?
The train for ecological conversion has left the station with Pope Francis as the captain, my call for everyone is to pick a ticket (Laudato Si) and be part of the movement it will surely take us to the promised land and guarantee that our children to enjoy the promised land. This is our wake-up call to act!