Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was profoundly moving. His address to the Joint Session of the US Congress could have earned hateful jeers for him from rowdy conservatives who dislike Pope Francis’ unabashed advocacy for the poor, the excluded and the discarded. But in soft-spoken English, he allowed the lives of four great Americans speak the message of their lives to the core of the American soul – Abraham Lincoln for freedom, Martin Luther King for dreams, Dorothy Day for social justice, and Thomas Merton for spirituality. Within this framework he was able to draw attention to the importance of the family, the welfare of immigrants, the sacredness of the environment. The speech was intimate, powerful, and fully disarming. At its end, partisan lines had been erased, and all stood to give the non-pontificating Pope a prolonged standing ovation.
Perhaps the most powerful of his speeches was to the United Nations. On the other side of the world, on the sacred feast of Eid’l Adha, terrorist suicide bombers attacked the al Badr and al Hashoosh mosques in Sana’a Yemen, killing 102 Shia Muslims and wounding 361. The extremist ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. In what was possibly the most moving part of this speech, Pope Francis said, “…while regretting to have to do so, I must renew my repeated appeals regarding the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other South African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their houses of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.”
“These realities should serve as a grave summons to an examination of conscience on the part of those charged with the conduct of international affairs. Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution, but in every situation of conflict, as in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region, real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be. In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls, who weep, suffer and die. Human beings who are easily discarded, when our only response is to draw up lists of problems, strategies and disagreements.”
Examination of conscience: the Pope was not just talking to assembled heads of state, government officials and diplomats at the UN; he was also addressing “the citizens of all the nations represented in this hall,” just as he had addressed all the inhabitants of the globe in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. He was talking to us.
“The appeal to the moral conscience of man has never been as necessary as it is today,” particularly in the context of “the grave challenges of ecological deterioration and of exclusion” that threaten our shared planet. “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, or every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are considered part of a statistic. … Such understanding and respect call for a higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”
An all-powerful elite. Clearly in the context of the need to protect our environment, our common home, in the interests of the common good, which excludes no person, he was pointing out how a powerful elite can be inimical to these imperatives.
In this context, it may be appreciated that in the Philippines the 1987 Constitution provides that “the State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthy ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature” (Sec. 16, Art. 2). There is an arsenal of environmental legislation in effect. Just some examples: The Philippine Environmental Policy, the Philippine Environmental Code, the Policy on Environmental Impact Assessment, the Policy on Environmentally Critical Areas and Projects, the Toxic Wastes Control Act of 1990, the National Integrated Protected Areas System of 1992, the Philippine Mining Act of 1996, the Electric Power Industry Reform Act, the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, the Clean Air Act of 1998, the Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, the Renewable Energy Act of 2001, the Clean Water Act of 2004, the Climate Change Act of 2004, and the Biofuels Act of 2009.
On Pope Francis’ invitation, we may all need to “examine our conscience” on whether we have contributed to or worked against “a balanced and healthy ecology in accord with the rhythm of nature” that respects nature created as a common good for all. We have a lot of laws, just as we have a host of international commitments to environmental responsibility. Without going into the morbid details, it can be safely said that all of our environmental laws have been undermined in favor of the interests of a powerful elite, against the interests of the poor and against the rights of the environment. In the interest of the mines, the indigenous peoples are discarded; in the interest of the banana plantations, biodiversity is sacrificed. Or would anyone who has seen the devastation caused by mining on the Surigao coastline, understood the toxic effects on water of aerial spraying in banana plantations, or breathed in the air in Metro Manila care to contest this?