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Is Laudato Si' just a bundle of papers in Asia?

Asian churches need serious interventions to translate the pope's environmental encyclical into a blueprint for action

Is Laudato Si' just a bundle of papers in Asia?

Pope Francis waters a tree. His 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si' has won widespread praise in Asia but has not led to many significant changes. (Photo: https://laudatosiweek.org/)

Christians across the globe are observing the Season of Creation from September to early October with the theme “Restoring Our Common Home.”  The season has an ecumenical flavor as the world’s 2.2 billion Christians unite, pray and act for God’s creation and our common home, the earth.

In 1989, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Dimitrios I, established Sept. 1 as a day of prayer for creation. The World Council of Churches extended the season of prayer and celebration until Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis. Pope Francis officially welcomed the season into the Catholic Church in 2019, linking it with the teachings of his groundbreaking 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si' (Praise be to you). 

As guided by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Catholics have been encouraged to participate in prayer, reflection and actions such as discussions, rallies and tree plantation during the season. The Vatican also considers this as “a critical time for Catholics to raise the voices of the most vulnerable and advocate on their behalf." 

In the past two years, a major interdenominational effort in several Asian nations has been planting trees. From the Philippines to Korea to India, churches have also undertaken several diocesan-level activities in the spirit of Laudato Si'. Over the past two years, churches have also translated Laudato Si' into more than a dozen Asian languages. 

And when this much-hyped season is over, what will be the achievement of the churches in Asia? It is time to examine if these activities are enough to change the public psyche and prompt policymakers to consider environmental protection their priority. Will Laudato Si' and the Season of Creation ever lead to serious action? The seeming cynicism comes not without reason. 

Six years ago, when Laudato Si' came out, it was hailed as an influential papal document that addressed crucial global issues connected with environmental exploitation like never before. It aimed to explore new avenues to find a strong connection between human greed and irreparable environmental damage. It was projected as a treasure trove of ideas pushing for responsible development that could end environmental disasters and human suffering.

The extraordinary papal document didn’t become a catalyst for change on the continent, which ironically is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change

In the Christian world and beyond, Laudato Si' was able to create a strong buzz. Despite the document criticizing capitalist values, governments in the West welcomed it amid pressure from environmentalists and environmental groups.

But the momentum was short-lived, especially in Asia where Christians are a minority and have little sway over non-Christian societies, governments and national policymaking. The extraordinary papal document didn’t become a catalyst for change on the continent, which ironically is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change.

Despite Asia’s tragic vulnerability, we see no national bishops’ conference or the regional bishops’ federation making any serious action plan or social interventions to change national policies that adversely affect the environment.  

Last year McKinsey and Company’s Climate Risk and Response in Asia report warned that by 2050 parts of Asia may see increasing average temperatures, lethal heat waves, extreme precipitation events, severe hurricanes and drought. It will have a disastrous impact on Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. 

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In 2019, Climate Central, a US-based climate science group, predicated that a sea level rise by 2050 will hit some 300 million people globally and 237 million of them will be in Asia, including 42 million in Bangladesh. Apart from such warnings, health experts remind that some nine million global deaths, or about 15 percent of total deaths each year, are attributed to extensive pollution of water, air and land. Most of these deaths are in Asia, the world’s most populous region.

While environmental groups clamor for governmental action to mitigate these natural and man-made disasters, Christian leaders are conspicuous by their absence in Asia. The tokenism of speaking highly of Laudato Si' is never translated into an action plan.

Maybe the Asian Church's leaders are shy about challenging their governments. This is not just timidity but also a betrayal of millions of poor people who look up to the hierarchy to be their voice. 

The human greed for natural resources, exhibited in Asia’s mines, dams, mineral and metal-processing factories and multinational food-processing centers, continues to render poor people poorer, casting them away from their natural habitat and leaving them hungry, homeless and naked. The Church’s silence on these millions makes Laudato Si' a worthless bundle of papers. 

Policies that devastate the environment can change only when ruling political establishments understand the impact of their decisions and change them

Laudato Si' could become a blueprint to tackle the impact of climate change in Asia at national and regional levels. The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences could formulate an action plan on Laudato Si' to help national conferences and dioceses chart their own actions other than planting trees. 

Church groups in dioceses and at national level could develop stronger collaborations with leading environmental groups and find common ground to battle environmental degradation. Despite several meetings and consultations suggesting this, it continues to remain at the level of recommendation.

Policies that devastate the environment can change only when ruling political establishments understand the impact of their decisions and change them. In Asia, where authoritarian governments are rife, it could be an uphill task to influence those in power, but it's not impossible. No government likes to be unpopular. Patient, consistent and strategic action may help mobilize people, which could influence governments to think of pro-people actions. 

In any case, more than six years after Laudato Si' was launched, church leaders in Asia need to know that praising the pope for the document and planting trees in the backyard will not change the fate of exploited millions and the dying earth. They urgently need to develop a plan of action to make Laudato Si' a sturdy social movement through effective interventions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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