Times of Malta, 12th May 2008

by Salvino Busuttil

Last year, the Pastoral Institute held a series of dialogue meetings on the Church and society, open to the public. A considerable audience from all walks of life engaged in a lively debate with a panel of speakers that included academics and politicians. Building on the success of that venture, the institute, in collaboration with the Church Environmental Commission, is this year launching a new series dedicated to the Church and the environment (see programme). Once more the public is cordially invited.

Why, it may be asked, is the Church interested in the environment?

Apart from the topicality of the theme, it is useful to point out that ,even in international fora, the Holy See has taken an active role, particularly at the first UN Conference on the Environment (Stockholm, 1972) and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992).

At the first conference, where I led the Maltese delegation, I remember questioning, rather provocatively, the “vision” of the Holy See insofar as it seemed to me, at the time, to be somewhat simplistic in mooting the idea that the Lord of Creation would somehow ensure imminent perpetual cosmic balance even if the human species plundered His work. Twenty years later (where I led the UN Mediterranean group), the Vatican delegate to the UN delivered such an impassioned and brilliant defence of our responsibilities towards future generations and their environment that Fidel Castro, who followed him and whom we all feared would hold the rostrum for seven hours, just stood up for seven seconds stating that the representative of Rome had said more forthrightly what he himself would have said!

The Church’s “interest” in environmental matters stems from her radical commitment to humanity, transmitting a gospel of love through a theology of beauty. For the act of love, that is God’s creation, is, in Genesis, described as “beautiful”, since God Himself so described His own work.

Mandated to man as his common and lasting heritage, patrimony of his species till the end of time, the resources of planet Earth (and, to the extent that man may harness them, of other components beyond our cosmic confines) are to be “enjoyed” not as possessions but as temporary bequests from the Creator to be used and developed in accordance with that economy of celestial planning and management that should harmonise the relationship of man with the world around him.

That sins against the environment are now considered as major faults within Catholic penitential rubric confirms that the Church has affirmed its belief that, because global common resources belong to all, and that includes rural and urban landscapes, the ocean surrounding us, the air we breathe and the climate we would like to cherish, they are to be “respected” by all. Any sins against the environment, be it in terms of building monstrosities or of rural rampage, are not omissions but egoistic sacrileges taking the name of God in vain by usurping the beauty and purpose of His creation.

The theology of beauty, itself not distant from the platonic concept of goodness and beauty in the unity of the supreme being, is Trinitarian. For the Father, in His Love, shares His Onenness with His Son (who, as man, was supremely respectful on earth of His Father’s work; witness his manifold references to all kinds of animals and plants) breathing the wonder of His shared existence with that spirit which, moving above the waters, rendered it all “beautiful”. Is it not the very Spirit, our defending paraclete, that infuses us with the enjoyment of all that is around us? Is not our blatant discard, in what we would like to call a “holy” island, for our environment, that most nefarious of faults, a sin against the Spirit? Is it not a sign of our consummate egoism, we who pride ourselves in our seeming generosity towards others?

In cherishing the environment, we embrace beauty, and that is Him. For, as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, concludes in his celebrated Pied Beauty: He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

Programme: The Environment… An Opportunity And A Challenge

Today: The Environment And Development. Speakers – Victor Axiak and Alfred Baldacchino.

May 19: Environmental Responsibility. Speakers – Simone Borg and Vince Caruana.

May 26: Environmental Education. Speakers – Grace Grima and Paul Pace.

All dialogue meetings will be held at the Pheonicia Ballroom, Floriana between 7 p.m. and 8.30 p.m. and will be chaired by Salvino Busuttil.

Prof. Busuttil is chairman of the committee organising the series of dialogue meetings.