The Deforestation of God’s Earth - Pope Francis Speaks Out

The fight to combat climate change and global warming has been a pressing issue since the start of the heat wave that has plagued the planet since the 1800s. Luckily for us, 2017 has been quite a cool year, as scientists' claims that Earth will likely get a relief from the record scorching temperatures of years past seems to have held true. At least so far. Unfortunately, there is one environmental no-no that, unlike temperature change, has not been able to catch a break. In fact, it's become so bad that the almighty Pope has repeatedly pleaded for an immediate call to action on this pressing environmental issue on god’s earth. And it really is a biggie - he's calling it the "sin of our times." Dear readers say hello to deforestation…

  (L-R) Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I plant an olive tree sapling as a gesture of peace after a prayer meeting at the Vatican June 8, 2014. (credit: Max Rossi)

(L-R) Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I plant an olive tree sapling as a gesture of peace after a prayer meeting at the Vatican June 8, 2014. (credit: Max Rossi)

'Francis of the Forest', as the popular Jesuit priest has often been called, has long decried the destruction of South America’s rainforests such the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest alone houses around 390 billion trees but as of 2005 has the highest deforestation rate in the world. While speaking at the University of Molise back in July 2014, the Pope cited the destruction of forests in both North and South Americas as a mortal "sin" that rests solely on the shoulders of those irresponsible and selfish enough to exploit the Earth and allow her to "give us what she has within her."

Similarly, during a gathering of activists for the World Meeting of Popular Movements, he stressed that "cowardice in defending [nature] is a grave sin" – and that the responsibility to act now is not only a moral issue but a practical one. The pope believes that deforestation should be placed alongside other environmental challenges, like global warming and ocean acidification, at the top of our to list of things to fix. If it continues he warned in his encyclical letter on the environment, it might just cause "serious consequences for all of us."

Originally published in mid 2015, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," further highlights the Argentinian natives’ developing reputation as a faith-based environmentalist who has spoken up on behalf of the Amazon. His challenging green encyclical is just one of several papacy initiatives significantly dedicated to promoting both humanity and the earth - which Francis insists are intimately connected to each other through "integral ecology."

So, let’s get down to the hard facts. Is deforestation and environmental injustice truly a horrid "sin"? A crucial moral issue that needs not just to be addressed by religious circles but Planet Earth as an entire whole as well? Many individuals, Catholic or not, believe that the human act of taking more than is needed is akin to robbing the earth, and the Papacy's strong statements about ecological destruction essentially force everyone to slow down to really think about that concept of sin.

Sure, we understand responsibility, as so much of Western moral tradition (whether theological or philosophical) is based upon that very individualistic paradigm of whether or not an action is seen as wrong or sinful. But it really is interesting to see even the Vatican apply the language of sin to environmental destruction—as it helps further pinpoint the fact that causality is way more complex than we could have ever imagined.

There isn't a single sole cause of things, but a messy mixture of patterns, dealing with the global economy, governance, incentive, poverty, or the need for arable land and subsistence. All that said, it seems that Pope Francis is attempting merely to complicate the grand picture, forcing Americans, Europeans, and others to illuminate the fact that the economy, environmental degradation, and social injustice all relate to one another in complex structural ways. It's about time we got around to thinking about responsibility and sin in those terms - the Catholic Church is only helping to ignite the conversation.

History shows, in fact, that the Catholic Church has long played a key role in trying to protect god’s earth, namely South American rain-forests. Prior to Francis, Sister Dorothy Stang, a Catholic nun who was often called the "Angel" or "Martyr" of the Amazon, spent over forty years advocating against the deforestation of the rainforest and calling attention to the plight of the region’s indigenous people. Church groups and Catholic-based communities in Brazil have also championed endlessly for a stop to deforestation, especially since the destruction of Amazonian lands gravely harms its indigenous people, whose lives and land are violently exploited by wealthy ranchers and land speculators.

What's more is that Franciscan, Jesuit, and Dominican priests alike have been spreading the gospel in that specific region for many centuries. What makes Francis' appeal so special, however, is that he is directing his words straight at North Americans and Europeans (i.e. us), whose continued demand for meat, leather goods, biofuels, and timber products is what happens to be driving the destruction of god’s earth and imperiling the lives of indigenous populations.

Like it or not, we are a huge part of that cause - we are committing a crime against the natural world that in the end will likely be a deadly sin against ourselves as well as one "against God." There is a special responsibility for luckier individuals like ourselves to provide solutions to the problem of deforestation on god’s earth. Forest communities should receive the same kind of "relief" that other Americans have been blessed with due to all the mass efforts and policies aimed to prevent extreme weather events that could take significant human and economic tolls.

Deforestation is definitely a real issue. According to researchers, one in six Americans and one in three Catholic Americans already say they are influenced by the Pope's thoughts on climate change. It's about time that we all got on the bandwagon.