INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: Some Theological-Pastoral Interventions at MSPC XVII

Last of five parts 

(This is the last of five parts of the presentation of Fr. Reynaldo D. Raluto on “Integral Ecology Ministry in Mindanao Context” at the 17th Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference in Cagayan de Oro City on November 7 to 10, 2022)

LIBONA, Bukidnon (MindaNews / 14 December) — My cursory review of the MSPC proceedings, the sub-regional/diocesan reports on best ecological practices, and the respective synodal syntheses both from diocesan and sub-regional levels has guided my discernment on the following theological and pastoral interventions. However, due to limited space, it is not possible to thoroughly discuss them here in this section. 

Admitting Our Lack of Ecological Concern 

The Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas recalls that “In the traditional manuals of theology there is hardly any place for ecology.”[1] Along this line, the study of American theologian Elizabeth Johnson confirms that “for the last five hundred years the religious value of the earth has not been a subject of theology, preaching, or religious education.”[2] This largely explains why many of our church leaders and theologians are ecologically illiterate. 

In the Philippine context, Fr. Sean McDonagh, MSSC, an Irish missionary in Mindanao for many years, sadly observed that the social justice agenda “occupied the minds of ‘church activists’ to such an extent that they often downplayed or dismissed action to preserve the environment.” Accordingly, “the ‘activist’ often insisted that environmental concerns could wait until the human structures were renewed first.”[3] Similarly, Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ clearly pointed out that the “sociopolitical scene remains the main focus of interest among those who work on immediately relevant issues” in the Philippine context.[4]

Indeed, until recently, it can be shown that the promotion of ecological advocacy remains a lonely ministry in the Philippine Church. Based on the 2010 Catholic Directory in the Philippines, Bro. Karl Gaspar, CSSR reported that “only about 5.2% of the religious were engaged in … urgent pastoral ministries (to include JPIC, inter-faith dialogue and solidarity work with the IPs). … 81% were involved in traditional ministries, 8.7% in formation and 5.1% in administration.”[5]

My review of the Mindanao synodal syntheses could attest to the fact that little attention has been given to ecological concerns. For instance, CaBuSTaM Synodal Synthesis has mentioned only one ecological concern (see p. 7). The Synodal Synthesis of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro (ACdO) admits that “lack of awareness of one’s responsibility to protect and preserve creation and the environment was noted to be an emerging concern” (ACdO Synodal Synthesis, p. 9).  

The Diocese of Butuan affirms ACdO’s experience as it also admits that “an understanding about mission for the environment, for the minorities, and mission for social media receive low priority among those who form part of the consultation.” This is shown in the fact that Environmental Concerns is number 7 out of 9 issues (in descending order of priority) “that the participants stressed as needing attention” (Butuan Synodal Synthesis, p. 7).

Again, as I have noted earlier, the respective Synodal Syntheses of both KidMaCo and ZamBaSulI have hardly mentioned anything about ecological concerns. There are diocesan synodal syntheses (e.g., Marbel and Zamboanga) that contain some important ecological concerns but, for some reasons, they were absent or excluded in the sub-regional level of synodal synthesis. Could this be a symptom of a certain lack of ecological concern? 

Presenting the first topic in the morning of the third day of MSPC XVII. Photo courtesy of Fr. Elric Jorquia

Overcoming the Limitations of Anthropocentrism 

Literally, the term “anthropocentric” means human-centered. A perspective is anthropocentric when it prioritizes those attitudes, values, or practices that give “exclusive or arbitrarily preferential consideration to human interests as opposed to the interests” of nonhuman beings.[6] Moreover, it is also anthropocentric to claim that God created everything solely for human beings. It can be shown that both strands of anthropocentrism are present in many MSPC materials. 

It has been reported that in 1967, American historian Lynn White, Jr (1907-1987) boldly accused Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” For White, Christianity “bears a huge burden of guilt for environmental deterioration”[7]  because it has allowed itself to be used to justify the ideology of ecologically exploitative and distorted anthropocentrism. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis considers Modern Anthropocentrism as one of the “human roots of the ecological crisis” (see LS #115-136). 

Pope Francis admitted that “Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature” (LS 67). “We must forcefully reject,” he added, “the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures” (LS 67).  In his analysis, this erroneous interpretation “has at times led us to justify mistreating nature, to exercise tyranny over creation, to engage in war, injustice and acts of violence” (LS 100). 

It has been argued that “Fighting anthropocentric views seemed the natural starting point for any environmental ethics.”[8] Today, there are emerging biblical studies that try to correct the prevailing anthropocentric interpretation on the Genesis stories of creation and on other related passages (e.g., Psalm 8).[9] They critically rediscover other biblical passages, such as the book of Job,[10] that would challenge the prevailing tendency to view everything as created by God merely for human sake.

Furthermore, to challenge the arrogance of human dominion, the book of Job reminds us that some ferocious wild animals are inconceivable to capture, control or rule over (see Job 38-41). Think, for instance, of the existence of wild animals mentioned in this book: the hawk, the mountain goats, the wild ox, the leviathan, etc.). As Clare Palmer commented, these wild animals “are completely independent of humanity … [and] are not made for humanity, not made to be human’s companions, nor even made with humans in mind.”[11]

Forming BECs as Members of Ecological Community

Our understanding of the Christian doctrine of creation needs to be continually updated with the help of various disciplines and best available sciences. St. John Paul II rhetorically asked: “If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology…?”[12]

Along this line, Pope Francis affirms that “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (LS 118). In any case, theology and religion are challenged to dialogue with the best sciences and wisdom in order to overcome the limitations of the prevailing distorted and exploitative anthropocentrism.

There is a need to reframe our sense of community in light of Laudato Si’. In effect, the commitment to form and transform communities needs to evolve in a spiral way: from Christian communities to human communities to ecological communities. This would push Christians to go beyond what social sciences could offer and to critically appropriate the best available knowledge offered by the Earth sciences, particularly the emerging ecological perspective, that would promote a holistic sense of community.

Anthropocentric perspective has rightly been criticized for restricting the understanding of community only to the human community even if our community has myriad other living things with whom we share the Earth, with whom we have entwined destinies.[13] To transcend this anthropocentric notion of community, American ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) rightly proposed to enlarge “the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”[14] This is discernible in Eugene Odum’s (1913-2002) ecological meaning of community that includes all of the populations and groups of individuals of any kind of organism of a given area.[15]Along this line, Thomas Berry (1914-2009) could say that “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human.”[16] This ecological perspective of community will certainly overcome our anthropocentric sense of community.    

Living as an ecological community requires that we overcome the tendency to exaggerate our human distinction from other creatures. To balance this, it is helpful to critically appropriate Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) scientific finding that “all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vehicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.”[17] This important scientific insight can be used to strengthen our recognition of human being’s kinship with other creatures. 

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) has actually embraced this sense of kinship with all creation eight centuries ago as “he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’” (LS 11). Indeed, he praised the Lord “for our SisterMother Earth” (LS 1). Today it has been interpreted that “the language of St. Francis is not a metaphor: we are all brothers and sisters. … All living things are related in the most literal genetically-based way.”[18]

Significantly, Laudato Si’ affirms that “we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements” (LS 2). It also acknowledges that “a good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings” (LS 138). Furthermore, it envisions God’s creation as forming “a kind of universal family” (LS 89) and a sort of “universal fraternity” (LS 228). All these affirmations clearly imply that relating with other creatures as one family of creation is imperative to Christian life. 

Forming BECs after Laudato Si’ must promote the ecological praxis of kinship with other creatures. This holistic praxis presupposes that BECs should decidedly embrace a non-anthropocentric perspective of community—for, indeed, a BEC is not only a Christian community within the larger human community but also a human community within the whole ecological community of creation. 

A pose with Fr. Randy Odchigue of the Diocese of Butuan, a fellow speaker of the 17th MSPC and a theological consultant of the CBCP-BEC Commission. Photo courtesy of Fr. Reynaldo D. Raluto

Promoting the Institutional Commitment to Integral Ecology

In 1991, the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II) explicitly decreed that “An ecology desk must be set up in social action centers.” Moreover, it pushes the Philippine Church to “make ecology a special concern of the social action apostolate down to the parochial level…”[19] This can be interpreted that the call to have an institutional commitment to ecological concerns is not optional but a moral imperative for the church especially at this time of climate emergency.  

It can be recalled that, as early as 1988, the CBCP has already suggested to set up “a Care of the Earth ministry at every level of Church organization; from the basic Christian communities, through the parish structure and diocesan offices right up to the national level.”[20] This pastoral provision serves as a challenge to creatively bring the ecological concerns to the mainstream of church’s life and allow them to penetrate deeply to the core ecclesial structure and values of various Church ministries (or ADMOs)—and not simply within the confine of social action centers. 

After three decades, it is good to ask whether our respective dioceses, especially here in Mindanao, have already implemented the said ecological provisions from both magisterial documents. Have we established the Ecology Desk at the diocesan level and made “ecology a special concern of the social action apostolate down to the parochial [and chapel levels]”? 

Let us call to mind that our present ecological advocacy started in the 1970s as a greening movement—like conservationism, preservationism, and environmentalism. Today, it is imperative to move beyond this early stage of ecological ministry by responding to the conditions of poverty and all forms of social crisis, as these are considered “ecological aggressions against the most complex being of creation, the human being.”[21]

It is equally an imperative that our social action ministry must decidedly embrace ecological concerns since “the decline in the quality of their surroundings produces social tensions, violence, disease, malnutrition and even death.”[22] In the words of Pope Francis, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (LS 139). This justifies the emergence of integral ecology. 

In an attempt to creatively accommodate the ecological concerns in our ministry, many social action centers in the Philippines have evolved into an advocacy of justice, peace and integrity of creation or JPIC. But making the care of the integrity of creation a mere component (i.e., an Ecology Desk) of the social action center is tantamount to classifying the ecological concerns under the category of “social” issues. Arguably, this does not give justice to the integral scope of ecological advocacy, as understood in chapter four of Laudato Si’. For this reason, would it be more appropriate to treat the ecological crisis as a concern in its own right and not just attached to social concerns?

Pope Francis’ creative appropriation of the notion of “Integral Ecology” in Laudato Si’ may be interpreted as an invitation to properly treat the ecological concerns—and not simply as a component under the category of social concerns. Hence, instead of simply adding the ecological concerns (or the care for the integrity of creation) to expand the existing concerns of the social action ministry, Laudato Si’ proposes to have a holistic perspective on ecological advocacy that includes the urgent social concerns among others. 

In Laudato Si’, the notion of Integral Ecology brings together the environmental, economic, social, cultural, and everyday life ecologies (see LS 138–55), as well as ethical principles including the common good, human rights, intergenerational justice, and the intrinsic value of nature (see LS 140). Thus, to forcefully insert the holistic perspective of Integral Ecology within the particular category of the social concerns would not be appropriate since, as we have argued, the scope of ecology ministry is, obviously, broader than that of the social concerns. 

Following the impetus of Laudato Si’, would it also be appropriate, therefore, to change the name of this office: from “Ecology Desk” to “Integral Ecology Ministry?” Moreover, with this new configuration, should we also consider making the Integral Ecology Ministry as a co-equal ministry with the Social Action Center—and not simply as a component of the latter?

How to appropriate locally Laudato Si’s advocacy in the Filipino context, particularly Mindanao, so that our institutional commitment to Integral Ecology Ministry would become concretely transformative? Actually, the CBCP has recently issued two major pastoral letters on ecology which attempt to put Laudto Si’ into concrete transformative actions. One is the CBCP Pastoral Letter of 2019[23], which proposes 13 concrete ecological actions in caring for our Common Home. The other is the CBCP Pastoral Letter of 2022[24], which reaffirms the 13 action-points and enriches them with the interventions of the Laudato Si’ Goals. 

Let us highlight three important action-points affirmed by both pastoral letters: (1) “Continue the creation of an Ecology Desk [i.e., Integral Ecology Ministry] in every diocese … and strengthen [their] capacities. This would require our respective bishops and religious superiors to prioritize the allocation of budget and financial support for the desk and its activities…”;[25] (2) “Urge all institutions holding the Church’s financial resources to move away from extractive industries, including logging and mining, with haste. … Assert a CBCP-initiated non-acceptance policy of donations of whatever kind, from owners or operators and any representative of extractive industries especially coal, fossil gas, mining, quarrying, logging, etc. (regardless of scale of operation)”;[26] and (3) “Promote diversified and sustainable agriculture. Avoid the genetically modified agricultural products propagated in plantations and monoculture production, which destroy biodiversity and threaten indigenous lands.”[27]

Concluding Words…

As of now, the top-down approach still prevails in the church as an institution. For this reason, the success of appropriating and promoting Laudato Si’ extremely depends on the bishops’ and clergy’s reception of it. Without clergy’s support (especially parish priests), people will just ignore it. Let the clergy and religious be its prime agents and leading implementors by bringing it down to the parish and BEC levels.

“I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…everlasting covenant between God and every living creature—every mortal being that is on earth” (Gen 9:13-16). 

Guide question for reflection and spiritual conversation

[1] John Zizioulas, “Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’: A Comment” (June 18, 2015). 

[2] Elizabeth Johnson, “Losing and Finding Creation in the Christian Tradition,” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, eds. Dieter Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge: Harvard University and Center for the Study of World Religions, 1999), 3-21, on p. 4. 

[3]Sean McDonagh, “Preface,” in Karl Gaspar, A People’s Option: To Struggle for Creation (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1990), xv-xx, on p. xviii.

[4] Catalino Arévalo, “Filipino Theology,” in Karl Müller, Theo Sundermeir, Stephen Bevans, et al., eds. Dictionary of Mission: Theology, History, Perspectives (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 161-67, on p. 165.

[5] Karl Gaspar, “To Speak with All Boldness,” Hapag: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Theological Research, vol. 8, no. 1 (2011): 19-38, on pp. 33-34.  

[6] Tim Hayward, “Anthropocentrism: A Misunderstood Problem,” in Environmental Values 6 (1997): 49-63, on p. 51.

[7] Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967). 

[8] Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, Environmental Ethics: An Anthology, eds., Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003),9. 

[9] See Richard Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), 17-18. 

[10] See Kathryn Schifferdecker, “The Book of Job,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Bible and Ecology, edited by Hilary Marlow and Mark Harris (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), 184-196.

[11] Clare Palmer, “Stewardship: A Case Study in Environmental Ethics,” in Ian Ball et al., eds., The Earth Beneath: A Critical Guide to Green Theology (London: SPCK, 1992), 70.

[12] John Paul II, “Message of His Holiness John Paul II: To the Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory,” in Robert John Russell, William Stoeger, and George Coyne, eds., John Paul II on Science and Religion: Reflections on the New View from Rome, edited by (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory Publications, 1990), m1-m14, in m11.

[13] Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, “Introduction: Ethics and Environmental Ethics” in Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, eds., Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1-10, on p. 7. 

[14] Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, eds., Environmental Ethics, 39. 

[15] Eugene Odum, Ecology: The Link Between the Natural Sciences and the Social Sciences, 2nd edition (London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), 4.

[16] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), 4.

[17] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species [1859], with Introduction by Jeff Wallace (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998), 364

[18] John Feehan, The Singing Heart of the World: Creation, Evolution and Faith (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2010), 55, 57. 

[19] PCP-II, Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, p. 243; part IV, title VI, section 4, article 31.

[20] CBCP, “What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” (Tagaytay, January 29, 1988), paragraph 31. 

[21] Leonardo Boff, “Social Ecology: Poverty and Misery,” in David Hallman, ed., Ecotheology: Voices from South and North (New York: Orbis Books, 1994): 235-247, on p. 237. 

[22] Leonardo Boff and Virgil Elizondo, “Ecology and Poverty: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor,” Concilium, (1995/5), ix-xii, x. 

[23] CBCP, An Urgent Call for Ecological Conversion, Hope in the Face of Climate Emergency (July 16, 2019), available online:https://cbcpnews.net/cbcpnews/an-urgent-call-for-ecological-conversion-hope-in-the-face-of-climate-emergency/

[24] CBCP, A Call for Unity and Action amid a Climate Emergency and Planetary Crisis (January 28, 2022), available online: https://cbcpnews.net/cbcpnews/a-call-for-unity-and-action-amid-a-climate-emergency-and-planetary-crisis/.

[25] CBCP, A Call for Unity and Action amid a Climate Emergency and Planetary Crisis.

[26] CBCP, A Call for Unity and Action amid a Climate Emergency and Planetary Crisis.

[27] CBCP, An Urgent Call for Ecological Conversion, Hope in the Face of Climate Emergency.