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Why Indian Godmen Should Read the Pope’s Green Message

Why Indian Godmen Should Read the Pope’s Green Message

Our godmen are rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but ask one of them to set out a position on climate change and he will tie himself in knots and call it yoga

An aerial view of the landscape near Uummannaq, Greenland, and the fastest moving glacier on the planet. Photo: United Nations, CC 2.0
An aerial view of the landscape near Uummannaq, Greenland, and the fastest moving glacier on the planet. Photo: United Nations, CC 2.0

Laudato Si’, the encyclical on climate change that Pope Francis issued in June, is an extraordinary document. Starting with a masterly summary of the enormous problems identified by science, which other denominations still refuse to accept, it argues that climate change is the work of man, which risks destroying the work of god, and therefore, from the perspective of faith, makes an eloquent, powerful plea on behalf of humanity, but particularly for the poorest, who will be the hardest hit, as the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change has warned in its Fifth Assessment Report. This is the second encyclical of Francis’s pontificate, but since the first, Lumen Fidei, promulgated in June, 2013, was the work of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, left unfinished when he stepped down, Laudato Si’ is the first that presents a world-view that is entirely his. One of the central messages of the last encyclical was “Unless you believe, you will not understand”; here, Francis almost seems to tell his flock that unless they understand they will not believe.

Back to liberation theology

Anyone who remembers the intellectual debates of the 1970s will read the encyclical with a sense of déjà vu, because many of the concerns it voices – on social justice, the special needs of the poor, the sin of rampant waste, the whoring after the false gods of technology – were first raised then in the Catholic Church in the tracts of liberation theology, which started in and took over Latin America as Francis began his priesthood there. That movement divided the Church, with conservatives fearing that the “preferential option for the poor”, the mantra that liberation theology espoused, as well as the practices it urged, were based on Marxist, rather than Christian, doctrine. The counter-attack on liberation theology, and on its leading ideologue, Father Gustavo Gutierrez, was launched in the 1980s by Cardinal Ratzinger, who later was to become Pope Benedict XVI.

It was believed Francis was ambivalent about liberation theology, but in 2013, soon after being anointed Pope, he invited Father Gutierrez to the Vatican for what was symbolically an embrace of the author, if not of the doctrine. The latest encyclical goes a step further. In echoing the concerns of liberation theology, it heals the rift his predecessor opened as Cardinal and widened as Pope. In a way, this encyclical is a rite of passage, from the last pontificate to this.

What is remarkable, though, is that the intellectual arguments and the moral positions on climate change that Francis adopts were first presented by the Catholic bishops of the United States in two astonishing pastoral statements, “Renewing the Earth” in 1991 and “Global Climate Change: a plea for dialogue, prudence and the common good” in 2001. In 1991, the Bishops began with the following bold propositions:

  • “Humanity faces problems in five interrelated fields: environment, energy, economics, equity, and ethics. To ensure the survival of a healthy planet, then, we must not only establish a sustainable economy but must also labour for justice both within and among nations. We must seek a society where economic life and environmental commitment work together to protect and to enhance life on this planet.
  • The whole human race suffers as a result of environmental blight, and generations yet unborn will bear the cost for our failure to act today. But in most countries today, including our own, it is the poor and the powerless who most directly bear the burden of current environmental carelessness.
  • How can we recognise and confront the possible conflicts between environment and jobs, and work for the common good and solutions that value both people and the earth? How do we secure protection for all God’s creatures, including the poor and the unborn? How can the United States, as a nation, act responsibly about this ever more global problem? And how, in working for a sustainable global economy, do we fulfil our obligations in justice to the poor of the Third World?”

In 2001, they went further:

  • “At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both “the human environment” and the natural environment. It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.
  • The dialogue and our response to the challenge of climate change must be rooted in the virtue of prudence.
  • Because of the blessings God has bestowed on our nation and the power it possesses, the United States bears a special responsibility in its stewardship of God’s creation to shape responses that serve the entire human family…..
  • Therefore, we especially want to focus on the needs of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests. Inaction and inadequate or misguided responses to climate change will likely place even greater burdens on already desperately poor peoples. Action to mitigate global climate change must be built upon a foundation of social and economic justice that does not put the poor at greater risk or place disproportionate and unfair burdens on developing nations.”

The Pope’s dwindling divisions

Every argument made in the encyclical can be traced back to these two seminal documents. Insofar as an encyclical is first and foremost a pastoral letter, when he addresses the US bishops, Francis is preaching to the converters; they have baptised him. A liberal Pope has now brought the Church to a position that these bishops bravely staked out two decades back. But it is equally clear that the advocacy of the US bishops has not pushed the official US position forward. Will the encyclical help?

The authority of an encyclical far surpasses that of a statement adopted by bishops, but its impact on the US, and even on US Catholics, will be limited. A Pew study on the changing face of religion in America, issued in May 2015, shows that Catholics continue to shrink as a percentage of the US population, down from 23.9%, when its last survey was carried out in 2007, to 20.8%. Evangelical Protestants, whose leaders stridently oppose the science of climate change, are at 25.4%, Mainline Protestants 14.7%. The Catholic Church’s views are therefore in a minority within the Christian population, and strongly opposed by some of the other sects.

The composition of the Catholic population in the US has also changed dramatically. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics (up from 35% in 2007); most of them are Hispanics, at the bottom of the economic pile. The encyclical’s call to change lifestyles in the developed world, cutting back on consumption and industrialization, is a direct threat to those who have moved there to chase the American dream. (The encyclical’s solutions are almost Gandhian – smaller communities, small-scale industries.) What helps those they left behind in their mother countries will be opposed most stridently by the Hispanic Catholics of the US. Knowing this, with elections coming up in 2016, it is hard to see Presidential aspirants giving more than short shrift to the encyclical.

A message many can use

Barring Japan and Turkey, all the countries listed in Annexes 1 and 2 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change – those that have special responsibilities – are part of the Christian world, where a papal encyclical should carry weight. But though it will be read with interest in the Protestant and Orthodox ecumenical streams, with respect in the Catholic, its message is too inconvenient to influence policy in States where in any case the secular tradition is allergic to the religious. It may, however, have an impact on negotiating dynamics in international forums.

On critical issues at international conferences in the past, as on women’s reproductive rights, children’s rights and HIV/AIDS, the Vatican has made common cause with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to block liberal proposals, setting the Catholic world against the Protestant. (It is a blot on this encyclical that it uses a procrustean argument to justify a continued rejection of abortion.) In the upcoming conferences on climate change, including the Paris Summit, the Vatican may be expected to press for international commitments that address the problem without hurting the interests of the poorest. That will be a change from the divisive role it has played on other issues, but might not be helpful to India, whose needs and interests are sui generis.

The Pope’s apocalyptic vision of conflicts over water, of wars waged because “resources have been depleted”, can be used by Pakistan and the UK, which together brought climate change to the United Nations Security Council in 2013, to drag it back there. The UK, and other Annex 1 countries, wanted to use the Council to dilute the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, Pakistan to send more shivers down Western spines by hinting that this could be another trigger for conflict in South Asia. The encyclical’s message will appeal to many developing countries, weakening the unity of the Group of 77, which has so far opposed a role for the Security Council in climate change.

A report on climate change as ambitious as the encyclical, commissioned by Germany as the current chair of the G-7, has reinforced this message. Called “A New Climate for Peace”, it starts off with the claim that “Climate change is a global threat to security in the 21st century. We must act quickly to limit the future risks to the planet we share and to the peace we seek.”  The action it recommends is on three fronts – adaptation, development and humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding, the last of which brings climate change squarely within the remit of the UNSC. New Zealand, which holds the presidency of the Council for July, has announced a special meeting to consider the security problems of small island states. Both the encyclical and the G-7 paper will get full play there.

Silence of our godmen

It is a pity that nothing comparable to this encyclical has so far come out in India, which is at the centre of the debate on climate change. The Pope quotes from statements issued by his bishops elsewhere, but has nothing from the Indian bishops, who clearly either had nothing to say, or nothing worthwhile. Their intellectual inertia seems to have been infectious, though the principle of transgenerational responsibility, which the Pope stresses, should be of unique concern to Hindus. Unlike Christians, asked to ponder the consequences of their actions on generations after their death, Hindus will suffer them in their next lives. The impact of climate change across the generations is not just a moral dilemma for the Hindu, it is of the greatest possible self-interest. Our godmen are rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but ask one of them to set out a position on climate change and he will tie himself in knots and call it yoga. Or intone “Vasudevam kutumbakam”, after which he has shot his bolt. From Rome, the Pope has thrown down a moral gauntlet. Someone in Nagpur should pick it up.

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