In his recent The Revenge of Gaia, James Lovelock refers to Mother Teresa’s assertion made in 1988, that we need “to take care of the poor, the sick and the hungry, and leave God to take care of the Earth”. To this, Lovelock seems to have replied: “If we as people do not respect and take care of the Earth, we can be sure that the Earth, in the role of Gaia, will take care of us, and if necessary, eliminate us”. The interchange of ideas is interesting and revealing, both for Lovelock’s understanding of Gaia as a living organism to which we belong, and for Mother Teresa’s immediate concern with the poor and destitute of this earth.
One of the challenges that Roman Catholic Church (RCC) theologians today face in their own church, concerns, precisely, the questions whether eco-concerns do not turn our attention away from the real and concrete poor and whether the emphasis on climate change is not a convenient cover-up allowing the rich countries not to address the development of the poorer countries up to the point of providing arguments against such development, as it would be costly to all of us. In other words, investing in eco-concerns moves us away from our commitments towards the poor. Or, more abstractly speaking, are climate change and ecological commitments not a way to forget about social justice. This is a critical question we will always have to ask ourselves. Indeed, it cannot be that ecological concerns and policies would result in worsening the fate of the poor or in legitimizing the globally unsustainable lifestyles of the rich. RCC theologians, therefore, feel the need to address the social justice dimensions of climate change. This is, how paradoxically it may seem to some who feel that prioritizing the ecological issues is absolute, an urgent priority in the RCC. It does not mean that environmental challenges should not be taken seriously or minimized, but that they should also be viewed in the light of social justice and sustainable, dignified relationships between all of us on earth.
Therefore, the connection between environmental challenges (especially the urgency of climate changes) and the Millennium Goals should be emphasized and studied carefully. But, in my opinion, one should be careful also not to fall prey to the trap of not considering structural issues or global issues, out of an absolutization of the direct care for the poor and destitute. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to overcome some of the prejudices of his Lutheran theology, when he emphasized that there comes a time when it is not sufficient to bandage the wounds of those who suffer at the hand of the state: a spoke has to be put into the wheel of the state structures that oppress people and cause poverty and suffering. Liberation theologians have over and over again stressed the fact that charity, although absolutely necessary, may not be sufficient in view of the structures that cause the poverty that calls for our charity. Therefore, Jon Sobrino stressed the “principle” of compassion (mercy = misericordia). Therefore also, a Latin American bishop, addressing audiences in the USA, said: “as long as I ask you for money, there is no problem and you are very generous … as soon as I beg you to change the policies of your country that cause so much poverty and suffering, you don’t invite me anymore”.
One has the impression that Mother Teresa, although a very saintly person, has not sufficiently perceived these structural dimensions, paradoxically out of a profound compassion with the concrete people who suffer. It would be wrong, I fear, not to see how the poor will be most hit by the environmental crises and the climate changes. They are also often trapped in not having the luxury to address the environmental challenges that are threatening them more than they often now. Rich peoples have a tremendous responsibility here, and that can only be addressed if they are willing to lower their lifestyles to sustainable levels that can be shared by all. This is certainly not going to be easy, and it will require careful political planning. But the claim that the poor should introduce costly environmental policies can only be seriously made, if the rich are willing to foot a great part of the bill by changing their ways of living.
As a RCC theologian, I am worried that Christian scientists, philosophers and theologians, as well as the RCC hierarchy, attempt to escape the structural complexities of environmental crises by focussing only on well intended charity that does not address the root causes of the issues. It would be like taking away the pain that for a patient signals a life threatening illness, without addressing the illness.