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Will faith lead to action on climate change?

Asian Catholics debate how to implement pope's encyclical on environment
Will faith lead to action on climate change?

A Manila family leaves their home, which sits atop a sea of garbage, on June 5. (Photo by Jay Directo/AFP)

Published: September 01, 2015 08:00 AM GMT
Updated: November 17, 2022 11:55 AM GMT

Churches around Asia are using Sept. 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, as an opportunity to reflect on Pope Francis’ plea for the environment.

But more than two months after the pope issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato si’, the reaction from around Asia reveals local churches’ uneven track record on environmental issues — and the urgency of setting a road map for action.

In Hong Kong for example, Cardinal John Tong Hon recently announced the establishment of a study group on the encyclical, which was released publicly in June.

That group, led by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing of Hong Kong, has decided to raise awareness in the diocese by printing a pamphlet explaining the encyclical in Chinese, since a full translation of the encyclical is not expected to be available until the end of the year.

A source with deep interest in environmental issues in the diocese wondered if this group would be able to take the significant steps demanded in Laudato si’.

"I wondered if it is simply organized for reading the document," said the source, who asked not to be named. "But the encyclical invites Catholics to undergo a transformation in their lifestyles."

Similarly, Catherine Hung, secretary of the Catholic Messengers of Green Consciousness group, which has been promoting environmental protection in Hong Kong since forming in 1997, said the Church, like the wider society, seemed not to be interested in environmental issues.

"When we started the [group], the atmosphere in the society and in the Church just had no interest in this issue. We were far behind Taiwan on talking about eco-theology," Hung said.

The recent focus on Laudato si’ may change that. The challenge now is to give people a way to convert their words into action.

"Now there is more resonance with parishioners as awareness has grown," she said. "They just don’t know how to do it and we keep teaching them with practical ways."

Bishop Ha said the newly formed study group for the encyclical will offer more than just words. He said that he sees issues such as waste and unsustainable development as pressing problems.

Lau Yiu-chung, a Catholic student who studies environmental science, said he hopes the Church will concentrate on local issues relevant to the diocese. He cited the construction of a new high-speed railway and a third runway for the airport as examples.

"Some global issues such as glacier-melting … are too distant for local Catholics to see as relevant," Lau said.

Thick smog hangs over Hong Kong in this file photo taken in January 2014. (Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP)


‘The ultimate pro-life issue’

Just as in Hong Kong, Catholics in the Philippines are using the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation as an opportunity to call for swift action on an "impending ecological crisis."

Father Dexter Toledo, chairman of the Ecological Justice Interfaith Movement, warned against "faith without actions."

In a statement, Father Toledo said climate change requires a faith-based response based on science-driven discourse.

"Instead of contradicting each other, empirical data has supported and complemented what our faith has taught us to do: become good and caring stewards of all creation or face dire consequences," he said.

Church officials in Catholic-majority Philippines have generally taken a more active approach to environmental issues than their counterparts in other Asian countries.

In 1988, for example, the country’s bishops’ conference called environmental destruction "the ultimate pro-life issue."

"There is an urgency about this issue which calls for widespread education and immediate action," it said in its statement.

More recently, priests and nuns have taken an active role in resisting controversial mining projects. Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of Caritas, has urged the Church to be at the forefront of the fight against coal.

As outspoken as the Church in the Philippines has been, however, Catholics in Indonesia have been less active. Christians represent a minority in the Muslim-majority archipelago nation.

In July, Indonesian bishops urged action on climate change while acknowledging that the local Church has failed to establish a sense of ownership of the issue.

"With the encyclical letter, the hierarchy and lay people must get out of their comfort zones," said Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, secretary of the conference’s Commission for Justice, Peace and Pastoral for Migrant-Itinerant People.

A woman wades through floodwater during rainy season in coastal Bangladesh’s Satkhira district. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)


Asia’s vulnerability

Like several Asian countries, climate scientists believe Indonesia is particularly threatened by the effects of climate change. But Bangladesh is also among the most vulnerable.

The low-lying nation could face dire consequences if predicted sea level rises come true. Roughly 20 million people live in the country’s coastal districts, where authorities have struggled to adapt to and prepare for the effects of climate change.

Ahead of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Dhaka archdiocese hosted activists and religious leaders from various faiths to discuss the issue.

Philip Gain, an environmental activist and director of the Dhaka-based Society for Environment and Human Development, said the pope’s strongly worded encyclical gives an opportunity to the country’s most marginalized to speak out on the environment.

"In the past, we couldn’t raise our voices about the environment and development concerns," Gain said. "But this document gives us that strength because it speaks up against a throwaway culture and exclusion of the poor, powerless communities."

Sanjeeb Drong, secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, said Pope Francis’ message gives hope to the often overlooked indigenous communities.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether Catholics in Bangladesh and beyond can translate the pope’s words into meaningful, immediate action.

Hossain Zillur Rahman, a development researcher and executive chairman of the Power and Participation Research Center, a Dhaka-based think-tank, noted that the pope’s encyclical highlighted the urgency of the challenges the world now faces.

"The pope urged a 'sense of urgency' on this matter of universal concern and this is extremely important," Rahman said. "He says if we can't scale up significantly our sense of concern and engagement, things will go beyond our capacity of control."

This story was reported by Rock Ronald Rozario in Dhaka and ucanews.com reporters in Hong Kong and Manila.

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