St. JPII’s earth-y concerns | Inquirer Opinion
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St. JPII’s earth-y concerns

On May 1, 1898, 116 years ago today, the Battle of Manila Bay took place just off our beloved shores. That was during the Spanish-American War, when Comm. George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron fought and destroyed the Spanish Pacific Squadron under Adm. Patricio Montojo. The naval battle was a decisive event that marked the beginning of the end of Spanish colonization of the Philippines. It was the prelude to the takeover of the American colonizers. As punsters say of our fate, it went from the monastery to Hollywood.

Today there is another battle for Manila Bay. Recently, 21 Luzon bishops led by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle published as a paid advertisement their 2013 letter to President Aquino reiterating their objection to the reclamation of portions of Manila Bay. The commercial reclamation, the bishops said, would have dire environmental, geological and moral consequences for their constituencies.

Manila Bay is both land and sea. As far as the waters are concerned, maverick environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa and like-minded Filipinos have long waged their own Battle for Manila Bay. Protesting the bay’s pollution by land-based polluters, Oposa brought his quixotic battle to the Supreme Court and won a revolutionary ruling for the bay’s protection. Is the ruling being implemented?

The elation over the April 27 canonization of two beloved popes, John XXIII (who broke open the windows of the Catholic Church to the world) and the charismatic John Paul II has yet to wane. Their elevation to sainthood came a few days after Earth Day, but little has been mentioned about the latter’s earthly, earth-y concerns when he was alive.


John Paul II had called the world’s attention to the terrible state of Planet Earth, but his words were given little mileage.

“Acres of material were devoted to John Paul II’s life and teaching but few people drew attention to his message on the current despoliation of the global environment,” Fr. Sean McDonagh, noted ecologist and author, told the Inquirer some years ago. A Columban missionary, McDonagh had spent over 20 years in the Philippines, several of them among the T’boli and in the wilds of Mindanao. He has written extensively on ecology and religion.

In his essay, “The Environment and the Papacy,” McDonagh rued that “very few cardinals have spoken out in any significant way about the devastation of the earth, even those in countries like Brazil where the rape of the Amazon is so obvious.” Some cardinals, he added, even appeared critical of the green movement. But he credited those with a strong green voice in the College of Cardinals.

“True, the environment was not at the top of his agenda, but John Paul II did have insightful things to say which had been totally overlooked,” the missionary said.


On Jan. 17, 2001, McDonagh said, John Paul II came out with a strong “environmental critique.” This was what the Pope said then: “In our time, humans have devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted the waters, deformed the earth’s habitat, made the air unbreathable, upset the hydrological and atmospheric systems, blighted green spaces, implemented uncontrollable forms of industrialization, humiliating—to use the words of Dante Alighieri—the earth, the flower bed that is our dwelling.

“It is necessary, therefore, to stimulate and sustain the ecological conversion which over these last decades has made humanity more sensitive when faced with the catastrophe toward which it is moving.”


McDonagh said the call to conversion had, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears “because people in vital positions in politics, economics, the media and religion regularly fail to assess the ecological impact of their activities.”

He also pointed to John Paul II’s 1990 “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation” as a source of papal reminders on care for creation. John Paul II’s words, though apocalyptic, were substantiated by the Millennium Ecosystem Report published just before he died, McDonagh said.

The report was collated under the direction of Robert Watson, the British-born chief scientist at the World Bank, and aided by over 1,300 other scientists from almost 100 countries. It chronicled how rapidly humankind was destroying vital ecosystems like tropical forests, coral reefs and crop lands. It tackled the destructive impact of climate change, the doubling of water withdrawals from rivers and lakes in the last 40 years, overfishing, and the extinction of a significant number of species in the web of life.

McDonagh said the cardinal with the strongest environmental voice was Cahal Daly, who published the book “The Minding of Planet Earth” in 2004. He also praised Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa for taking a strong position against genetically engineered crops. He noted, however, that “elsewhere in Africa, environmental statements from church leaders are sparse.”

The world needs a moral and religious leader who will speak out on the large-scale and irreversible destruction of the environment, McDonagh said. “The [pope] should be unafraid to challenge [leaders] to face up to their moral responsibility for the future and sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases. Time is running out… Unless we take decisive action, future generations will be forced to live amid the ruins of the natural world.”

Pope Francis, who chose to be named after the poverello of Assisi and patron of the environment, can do no less.

One of my favorite photos of the aging John Paul II shows him walking in rubber shoes and with staff in hand on the green banks of a gurgling stream. He looked very much like a shepherd. There is also one of him as a backpacking young cleric in rugged clothes scaling the snowy wilds.

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TAGS: Battle of Manila Bay, Cardinal Tagle, Catholic Church, George Dewey, john paul ii, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Philippine Catholic Church, Spanish-American War

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