Print Version    Email to Friend
An encyclical on the environment?

HONG KONG (SE): A statement released by the Vatican on January 24 indicates that Pope Francis has already begun working on a document on what has been termed human ecology, which Vatican-watchers believe could be published as an encyclical.

The phrase, human ecology, was popularised by Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, explained the term as describing how people must respect not only the environment, but also the nature of the person—masculine and feminine—as created by God.

Certainly there is a move in the Vatican to produce material on the environment. Theologian and environmental scholar, Father Sean McDonagh, told the Sunday Examiner that he has been commissioned by the prefect of the Council for Justice and Peace, Peter Cardinal Turkson, to write a 20,000-word piece on the theme of Care for Creation in the Catholic Church.

The Irish Columban missionary, who is a regular columnist for the Sunday Examiner, is no stranger to the world of the Church and the environment, developing a profound interest during the 1960s, when he was a young priest working with the indigenous T’Boli people in the southern Philippines.

He has written extensively about the effect that logging and mining, as well as the clearing of the rain forests for agriculture, has had on the environment of Mindanao, highlighting their connection with the widespread flooding plaguing the country at present.

He later became the primary author of a document produced by the bishops of The Philippines entitled, What is happening to our beautiful land? published in January 1988.

The bishops described the destruction of the Philippine landscape as being on old problem for humankind and God’s creation, saying it spelled out a death knell for the people and their environment.

“There is an urgency about this issue, which calls for widespread education and immediate action,” the bishops said. “We are convinced that the challenge which we have tried to highlight here is similar to the one which Moses put before the people of Israel before they entered their promised land.”

They then quote Deuteronomy 30:19-20 as saying, “Today I offer you a choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life and then you and your descendants will live.”

They then add, “We reap what we sow; the results of our attitude and activities are predictable and deadly.”

As Pope Benedict did some years later, the Philippine bishops placed their pastoral letter in the context of human ecology, although not using the expression.

“At the root of the problem we see an exploitative mentality, which is at variance with the gospel of Jesus,” they say in their pastoral letter.

“This expresses itself in acts of violence against fellow Filipinos. But it is not confined to the human sphere. It also infects and poisons our relationship with our land and seas,” the bishops wrote.

The pastoral letter describes itself as based on a study of the web of dynamic relationships which support and sustain all life within the earthly household. “This includes human life,” it stresses.

Father McDonagh submitted his 20,000-word paper on Care for Creation in the Catholic Church to Cardinal Turkson on January 27 at the Palazzo di Calisto in Trastevere, Rome.

He said that he has also submitted position papers on A Contemporary Theology for Creation: The role of human beings within creation; Climate Change: The potential for disruption; The State of Rivers Globally; and Pollution of the Oceans: The destruction of biodiversity and the impact of extractive industries, especially mining.

In his first encyclical, Pope Francis quoted at length from the Philippine bishops pastoral letter, a segment which Father McDonagh proudly points out is 100 per cent the work of his own hand.

Father Lombardi explained to the media that the pope has already begun writing, but at this stage it is not known what type of document it will develop into.

Nevertheless, Father McDonagh is heartened at the interest of the current pope, as the environment and religion is a topic that has largely been avoided by previous popes and official Church documents.


An Italian bishop stated on his website in May of last year that Pope Francis is also in the process of writing an encyclical on poverty, which he believes is to be titled Blessed are the Poor.

More from this section