The Pope and the Crocodile

I would stress that education, correctly understood, cannot fail to foster respect for creation…. Environmental protection and the connection between fighting poverty and fighting climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development.

–Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to diplomats
accredited to the Holy See
on Monday, January 9, 2012

Our Holy Father is in love with Creation.  That is evident in his teachings, in his writings, in his smile when he encounters an animal or gazes upon a mountain range.

In July 2007, while vacationing at Lorenzago di Cadore, Pope Benedict told a group of 400 priests, deacons and seminarians that the debate between creationism and evolution is an “absurdity” since evolution can coexist with faith.  Speaking to MSNBC, he reminded them that although there is much scientific proof to support evolution, the theory cannot exclude a role by God.  And evolution, he noted, cannot answer the great philosophical questions, such as where everything came from.

In August 2008, he returned to the theme once again—telling 400 priests in a closed meeting that “God entrusted man with the responsibility of creation.”  The blame for destruction of the environment lies, he said, with materialism.  Living in a materialistic world where God is denied has led to environmental abuse.  “In a world closed in on its materialism,” he reminded us, “it is easier for the human being to make himself the dictator of all other creatures and of nature.”

In the same talk, he encouraged Catholics to look to St. Francis of Assisi as a man who lived “a way of life that is respectful of the environment.”

In December 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Roman Curia on the subject of the “Creator Spirit”—the Spirit of God who “creates the world and constantly renews it.”  So, he explained, the Creator Spirit is constantly present and active also today.

In his message for the World Day of Peace (January 1, 2010), Pope Benedict, in an address titled “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” asked:

“Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?  Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees’, people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it—and often their possessions as well—in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement?”

Environmental concerns were thrust to the fore again this week at his General Audience on Wednesday, January 11, 2012.  One of his special “guests” at the Audience was an endangered Cuban crocodile.  The scaly creature—a young Crocodylus rhombifer about two feet long—was seized by Italian forestry authorities last year, after being discovered in an Italian private collection.  It now resides in Rome’s Bioparco zoo, which is celebrating its centenary this year; but the young crocodile will be returned to Cuba in March when the Pope makes his official visit to the island country.  There, authorities hope it will survive to reach its adult length of 11½ feet.

The number of Cuban crocodiles has declined by 80 percent in recent years—endangered by development and poaching. Listed on the United Nations’ list of endangered species, it now survives only in Cuba’s Zapata and Isle of Youth swamps.

  • Pat Gohn

    Nice collection of quotes from the Holy Father on this subject. I’d also like to add that Pope Benedict’s last encyclical “Love in Truth” (Caritas en veritate) also has paragraphs (see 48-51) on the environment/creation and a magnificent few paragraphs in 51 on how we must also promote a human ecology, since the life of human person are tied to the ecology of the planet. I’ll reprint 51 here for your readership.

    The follow text is taken from the encyclical which you can read here:

    51. The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences[122]. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”[123]. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. Moreover, how many natural resources are squandered by wars! Peace in and among peoples would also provide greater protection for nature. The hoarding of resources, especially water, can generate serious conflicts among the peoples involved. Peaceful agreement about the use of resources can protect nature and, at the same time, the well-being of the societies concerned.

    The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology”[124] is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature.

    In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Thanks, Pat, for your excellent contribution to the discussion.

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