Bishop's Interview: Pope Francis: Take better care of ‘Mother Earth’
Editor: Pope Francis discusses taking better care of our earthly home in his latest encyclical Laudato Si’. As far as I can tell this is the first time an encyclical has been devoted to ecology. Why do you think he chose this topic?
Bishop Vásquez: Obviously it has been on the Holy Father’s heart and his mind to speak out on the topic of ecology and especially about how we take care of the earth – our “common home” as Pope Francis says. He even uses the term “Mother Earth” in the encyclical, which tells us how much this means to him. In the opening of the encyclical, he writes, “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. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (2).
This is a moral concern for Pope Francis. He is truly concerned that we have to take better care of the earth and each other because in many ways we are destroying our earthly home and future generations will suffer because of this. He specifically highlights the effects on the poor and stresses that the poor suffer gravely from the effects of a poor ecosystem. Time and time again during his pontificate, Pope Francis has encouraged us to care for the poor. He does so again in this encyclical as he speaks to all people of good will about taking better care for our planet.
Editor: Many argue that the church should stay out of scientific issues, but the pope is adamant that climate changes are moral and spiritual issues as well. Why is that?
Bishop Vásquez: We must remember that Pope Francis is an intelligent man, and he was a scientist before becoming a priest. He studied to be a chemical engineer before entering the priesthood. He is also a Jesuit, an order of priests who are known for their knowledge and respect of science. Also Pope Francis says very clearly in the encyclical it is not meant to be a scientific document. He points right away to St. Francis of Assisi, who was not a scientist but a “mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself” (10).
Pope Francis encourages us to be more like St. Francis, who “helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human” (11).
Pope Francis wants us to examine our hearts and find ways to take better care of our planet for the sake of the poor, for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of future generations. “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others,” he writes (159).
Our Holy Father considers taking care of our earth not just about science but about morality. He considers how we treat the earth and our natural resources to be a highly moral issue.
Editor: The term integral ecology has been tossed around when it comes to the encyclical. What does this term mean?
Bishop Vásquez: My understanding of the term integral ecology is that we are all working together to care for creation, develop our resources and care for the poor. When we abuse or take advantage of any of those, it is sinful, Pope Francis says. I love that the Holy Father is so practical and he is very blunt. He says the beautiful earth that God has given us is a gift, it is to be cared for; and our earth as well as every human life in it is to be considered precious. And he is not just talking to scientists or to politicians, he talking to all people of good will –– that is me and you!
Editor: In the encyclical Pope Francis encourages us to act now in caring for our creation. What are some of the ways that we can do this as individuals in the diocese?
Bishop Vásquez: In many ways we are fortunate to live in Central Texas because the community is very mindful of creation and nature. Why? Because we live probably in the most beautiful part of the state. I am very proud of the fact that we are surrounded by lakes, streams, hills, forests and farm fields. We have beautiful vistas and we see amazing sunsets and sunrises in this area. We are surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation right here in Central Texas!
I think we are blessed to know the beauty of our area and we are sensitive and aware of our responsibility in caring for our environment. We know how precious the rain water is because we have experienced drought. We must not misuse our precious water resources and we must conserve as much as possible. We are also called to recycle and reuse as much of our paper, plastic and glass products as we possibly can. Yes, we are all trying to do this, but I am the first to admit that I could do this more and better!
Pope Francis writes that we are a “throwaway culture” and while there has been some progress in recycling and conservation, we must do more. Specifically he calls on industries to reduce waste and reuse materials. “But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them,” he writes (22).
Throughout the encyclical, the Holy Father keeps going back to the poor. He is very concerned that our abuse of the planet negatively affects those whose livelihood depends on the earth. “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” he writes (49). He makes it very clear in his encyclical he is not going to let anyone off the hook and that we are all called to make sacrifices for the common good. We all need to sacrifice so that all of us –– no matter our income or where we live –– can share in the blessings of our Lord and Creator.
Editor: What is your prayer for us as Catholics as we address climate change as a church?
Bishop Vásquez: Let us first of all give thanks to God. The title of the encyclical is Laudato Si’, which means “Praise be to you, my Lord!” We especially give praise and thanks for our beautiful earthly home. God made us in his image and likeness and so we give praise to him and honor him now and always. May we all be good stewards of our earthly treasures and be wise in using what God has given us so that we will care for the poor and preserve our earth for future generations.