Walking Together: Care for our Common Home

by Martin van Nierop

Does Pope Francis’s vision of the Church have anything to say to how South Africa manages environmental issues?

I attended a talk, hosted by Radio Veritas and the Jesuit Institute of SA, given by Mr Robert Mickens who was visiting South Africa last week. Mr Mickens is the editor of La Croix International and author of the weekly ‘Letter from Rome’ column. He was talking about the impact Pope Francis is having on the Church and the world.

One of the main themes of the talks was that Pope Francis has introduced an openness into the Catholic Church which did not exist before. He has created space for different voices and opinions.

The Pope is extending an invitation to dialogue, allowing us all to be free to express our views.

It struck me that some words came up often, for example:

  • Dialogue
  • Accompaniment
  • Discernment

Mr Mickens mentioned that the Pope’s first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, published in 2013, can be read as Pope Francis’ blueprint of how he envisages the church. The Pope wants to lead the church by encouraging people to listen, discern and working together. An example of this is the way the Pope is asking the Synod of Bishops (the bishops of the world acting collaboratively with the pope) to be open and frank, sharing different points of view, with the aim of discerning the best way forward. The recent sessions of the Synod (2014 and 2015), focusing on the family, are an example of how different points of view were allowed to be aired and heard.

The Pope’s encyclical from 2015, Laudato Si’ (on care of the natural environment) addresses the fact that solutions for environmental issues are only possible if we work together to find and implement them:

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” (Laudato Si’, 14)

South Africa’s environmental legislation is underpinned by the idea of co-operative governance. The primary environmental act is the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA – Act 107 of 1998).

The NEMA is a progressive piece of environmental management legislation for South Africa and globally. It has provided the framework for decision-making for individuals, institutions, and government. The NEMA defines its key principles in chapter one. These principles include promoting co-operative governance and ensuring that the rights of people are upheld, while at the same time recognising the importance of sustainable economic development.

To my mind, co-operative governance is another way of saying things like dialogue, accompaniment and discernment.

This co-operation is being implemented, for example, in the atmospheric emissions ‘offsets’ initiative. Government and industry are working together to reduce atmospheric emissions. Instead of forcing industry to reduce its emissions directly (often at vast costs), it may be better to reduce atmospheric emissions elsewhere. At present, researchers are investigating possible ways to reduce emissions from domestic fuel burning. The impact of such a reduction would be equally or more effective, but at a fraction of the cost.

Both Pope Francis’ vision of the Church and South Africa’s environmental legislation speak of walking together to find solutions. Now we need to work on our own implementation of these ideals.

If you would like to know more about our Care for our Common Home Seminar (presented by Gondwana Environmental Solutions in association with the Jesuit Institute of South Africa) visit our website www.gondwanagroup.co.za

Dr Martin van Nierop
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