Pope cites Filipino bishops in historic encyclical

Paterno Esmaquel II
In 'Laudato Si,' a global plea for action to prevent climate change from destroying the planet, Pope Francis lifts from a pastoral letter published by the CBCP in January 1988

'POPE IN RAINCOAT.' Pope Francis, wearing a plastic raincoat, waves to well-wishers after a Mass in typhoon-hit Tacloban City in the Philippines on January 17, 2015. File photo by Johannes Eiselle/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – Drawing from the wisdom of one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, Pope Francis cited Filipino bishops in a groundbreaking papal document released Thursday, June 18. 

In his 200-page encyclical on the environment titled Laudato Si (Be Praised), Francis lifted from a pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) published in January 1988. A world first, the CBCP statement is titled “What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” 

Sounding the alarm on the destruction of oceans, Francis quoted the CBCP: “Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?”

Francis continued in his own words: “This phenomenon is due largely to pollution which reaches the sea as the result of deforestation, agricultural monocultures, industrial waste, and destructive fishing methods, especially those using cyanide and dynamite. It is aggravated by the rise in temperature of the oceans. All of this helps us to see that every intervention in nature can have consequences which are not immediately evident, and that certain ways of exploiting resources prove costly in terms of degradation which ultimately reaches the ocean bed itself.”

The CBCP in 1988 cited pollution in the Pasig River, one of the Philippines’ dirtiest rivers located in the country’s capital. (READ: Esteros and the river warriors

The Filipino bishops said back then: “How can fish swim in running sewers like the Pasig and so many more rivers which we have polluted? Who has turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?  Imagine: Only 5% of our corals are in their pristine state!”

Francis quoted other passages from “What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” in another landmark document of his papacy, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

Citing the CBCP’s 1988 statement, Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium: “Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the bishops of the Philippines: ‘An incredible variety of insects lived in the forest and were busy with all kinds of tasks…. Birds flew through the air, their bright plumes and varying calls adding color and song to the green of the forests…. God intended this land for us, his special creatures, but not so that we might destroy it and turn it into a wasteland.”

Pope: Blame human greed

“What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” is considered the world’s first pastoral letter of Catholic bishops on the environment. 

Nearly 30 years later, in a trail set by the CBCP in 1988, Laudato Si is said to be the first encyclical or papal letter on the same topic. (READ: FAQs: What’s an encyclical?)

Through Laudato Si, Francis on Thursday issued a global plea for action to prevent “extraordinary” climate change from destroying the planet. He also said wealthy countries must bear primary responsibility for creating the problem and for solving it.

PAPAL LETTER. The Vatican presents copies of Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment, titled 'Laudato Si,' its official presentation in Vatican City on June 18, 2015. Photo by Alessandro di Meo/EPA

In a radically-worded letter addressed to every person on the planet, the leader of the world’s 1.2-billion Catholics blamed human greed for the critical situation “Our Sister, Mother Earth” now finds itself in.

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her,” he wrote in one of the opening passages of his long-anticipated encyclical on the environment.

Green activists have hailed the charismatic Argentinian pontiff’s widely-trailed intervention as a potential game-changer in the debate over what causes global warming and what can be done to reverse it.

They hope it will significantly increase the pressure for far-reaching measures to be agreed when more than 200 countries gather in Paris for a December summit aimed at clinching a global accord on carbon emissions.

CBCP hits ‘roots of indifference’

The CBCP, for its part, clarified that the Pope’s encyclical “is not a teaching on science” but on morality.

In a statement issued Wednesday, June 17,  CBCP president Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas said, “We are taught the science, and we are given various technologies to cope, insofar as coping remains possible.”

“But the roots of our indifference to environmental and ecological concerns – which, in the ultimate analysis, are concerns for the good of all – and the sinful dispositions in all of us that make us contributors to the depredation of a world entrusted to our stewardship, these are what scientists cannot teach us. All this, the encyclical promises to address,” Villegas said. 

He added: “But the Pope’s letter will remain nothing more than ink on paper until we all allow ourselves to be won over by St Francis’ exaltation of all of created reality…. Praised be God for brother sun, sister moon…praised be God for all that lives and moves…praised be God for grass and trees, flowers and plants in their myriad forms! It is this joy that breaks out into song.”

Villegas also said the encyclical “should be truly exciting” as it tackles “the worrisome and truly pressing environmental and ecological issues.”

“We are still suffering from the sweltering heat of this summer, and hardly anyone will contest the claim that this was among the hottest of summers we have ever gone through. We are also warned about more erratic weather systems including more violent typhoons,” the bishop said.

The top Philippine bishop said: “How do we respond as human persons, and as sons and daughters of God? What should all of this mean for us? If, as scientists seem to allege, we are to blame to a large extent for ruining that delicate balance of our ecology, then how do we make up?” – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.