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Repenting our ecological sins

It is not yet too late to listen to the prophetic voices of the ecological scientists and pro-environment advocates. We can no longer afford to ignore them after experiencing the tragedy wrought by Tropical Storm “Sendong,” which violently claimed more than a thousand lives in Mindanao and destroyed around P1.7 billion in infrastructure and agricultural produce in Region 10 alone. In fact, until now, the survivors are still traumatized by painful memories of the devastating flash flood triggered by Sendong, which also wiped out livelihoods. For them, that ecological nightmare was simply too much of a reminder of man’s gross neglect, if not abuse, of nature.

Deeply disturbed by this tragedy, a good number of Mindanao bishops and priests gathered in Cagayan de Oro City on Feb. 13-15, 2012, to prayerfully reflect on the theme: “Typhoon Sendong and its Challenges for Mindanao.” Let us call to mind that, as early as the 1980s, the Catholic Church in Mindanao had already embraced its people’s ecological struggle, which erupted in the dioceses of Malaybalay, Zamboanga, South Cotabato and Pagadian. Thanks to the pioneering advocacy of the Columban and Redemptorist missionaries in Mindanao, the Philippine Catholic Church has recognized the escalating ecological struggles of the grass roots as urgent signs of the time.

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The Church’s commitment to embrace the snowballing struggle is crucial today. The Church, however, has to humbly recognize its limitations in terms of addressing the ecological issues (e.g., climate change, energy crisis, watershed protection, environmental effects of mining, etc.) as they are generally regarded as nonreligious in nature. In fact, most of these issues largely belong to the domain of ecology and have particular discourses of their own. Some conservative voices may narrowly classify them as outside the domain of the ecclesial magisterium and the “official” pastoral activities of the Church. Nevertheless, it bears stressing that the Church cannot simply remain neutral or silent on the pressing ecological issues.

How can the Church make a sound theological and moral judgment on these issues? It cannot just ignore the ecological struggle on the pretext that this is a secular concern. After realizing that Mindanao is not a typhoon-free island, there is growing fear among its people that the violent flash floods that swept the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro may happen again if we continue to ignore the prophetic voices of the  advocates for Mother Nature.

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What factors might have contributed to the Sendong tragedy? What led us to that situation? More importantly, how can we correct the erroneous practices that have caused us ecological tragedies? Obviously, giving the right answers to these urgent questions is beyond the competence of the magisterium.

In their celebrated pastoral letter on ecology in 1988, the Filipino Catholic bishops admitted that ecological scientists “are in a good position to tell us… since they study the web of dynamic relationship which supports and sustains all life within the earthly household.” The bishops recognized the need to “stand on the shoulder” of the experts (e.g., Eugene Odum, James Lovelock, Thomas Berry, etc.) whose valuable ecological insights could critically shape the Church’s prophetic mission and creatively enrich the human vocation to serve as a responsible steward of creation. Thus, listening critically to the scientific voices of ecologists is crucial to our attempt to do theology in this situation of ecological crisis.

It is said that many of the ecological calamities today cannot be purely the natural consequences of an evolutionary world, as they are also partly anthropogenic and human-induced. Arguably, human beings bear the huge burden of guilt for ignoring the ecological fact that the Earth’s material and energy resources are naturally finite and fragile. Consequently, we no longer enjoy today the usual ecosystem services of nature. In the face of climate change, we are highly vulnerable to various forms of natural disasters. But thanks to the series of ecological disasters, painful as they have been, they reminded us that everything is intricately related to everything else.

From a Christian perspective, the foregoing analysis strengthens the theological view that environmental calamities are contrary to the will of God. As the Filipino Catholic bishops have rightly declared, the “assault on creation is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith.” It may be argued that mankind’s obsession with modern economic development has produced many of today’s tragic events. The natural world has been severely damaged by human decisions that assaulted creation and went against God’s will.

Taking to mind our irresponsible stewardship, Pope John Paul II said that many of our ecological sufferings today are effects of human sin “which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order.” The ecological sins of the irresponsible stewards have caused the groaning of the poor and the earth to grow louder. In light of our prophetic call for ecological justice, we demand proper reparation for the damages done to nature, as part of the process to achieve authentic reconciliation with creation and as a sign of our sincere response to the call for “ecological conversion.”

To meet the requirements of ecological justice, we have to recognize the crucial role of ecologists as competent facilitators in achieving restitution for the wrongs inflicted by man on nature. The Church, with  its particular competence in matters of faith and morals, does not pretend to offer specific technical solutions to the ecological crisis. The task—to find and propose such solutions, whether mitigating or adaptative, and which should include both scientific and indigenous approaches—belongs to the ecology experts.

The Church’s position regarding ecology is based on the assumption—and hope—that many of the ecological damages “can still be halted” if only we take seriously our common responsibility. The Church embraces environmental cause, firmly convinced that technical solutions are not enough to solve the complex ecological problems. The Church considers the ecological crisis as “a moral issue” that must be addressed together with the more general moral crisis.

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Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He holds a doctor’s degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). He is currently assigned as a teacher of systematic theology at  St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Cagayan de Oro City.

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