Philippines Cardinal Tagle talks to NCR about Pope Francis, climate change


Philippines Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, sat down with NCR a day after Pope Francis gave a powerful speech to over 150 world leaders in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations at the opening of the 70th General Assembly. Tagle, as President of Caritas Internationalis, remained in New York City in order to lead a high-level climate change dialogue co-organized by Caritas Internationalis and CIDSE later this evening at the United Nations.*

Caritas Internationalis is the global confederation of 164 Catholic organizations working on behalf of the poor. CIDSE is an international alliance of 17 development agencies.

NCR: President Obama described Pope Francis’ “words and deeds” as “shaking us out of complacency,” especially in reminding all of us of the “sacred obligation” to protect the planet. How do you respond to critics who believe that Pope Francis should stay out of science and the question of climate change?

Cardinal Tagle: Pope Francis is not the only one who has been criticized for mentioning the sacred obligation to protect the planet, especially by addressing climate change. Even our part of the world, whenever church people mention climate change we get a lot of criticism. But if we read carefully Laudato Sí and other pronouncements of the pope and episcopal conferences, especially those he quoted in Laudato Sí, there is no pretension whatsoever from church people and other faith groups in terms of making these pronouncements from a scientific perspective. We are not claiming to have scientific expertise in this area. It is very clear that the Holy Father is inviting scientists, business people and all people of goodwill to discuss and even to debate on the changes in the climate. Our views, and I believe the view of the pope, come from an existential, pastoral perspective. For example, I can speak from the Philippines experience. We have been getting these typhoons with intensities that we have not seen before. We cannot explain [them] scientifically, but we live through all of those. We have seen the effects. We have seen also how poor people are the most vulnerable when these things happen. So we don’t approach the question from a scientific or a pseudo-scientific approach, but it comes from an existential, pastoral perspective. And from that perspective I think we have every right to get involved in the discussion.

The Holy Father and the church appear to agree with the preponderance of scientific consensus and data on climate change. Isn’t that true?

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It is true because the church also consults some scientists and the church would offer a great critique as a skeptic when scientists also present data. Faith and reason come together and faith listens to reason. In fact, the Holy Father has said that the best scientific studies and results could lead us to the voice of God, to the voice of Earth and the voice of the poor. So research-based studies can help the church in her discernment.

In his United Nations speech, Pope Francis stated “a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist.” Would you explain further what this means?

I was able to read the text of the discourse of the Holy Father, and yes, the ‘the right of the environment’ exists. Now he had no time in that discourse to really elaborate on it. But the way I read it, and I hope I am not being presumptuous in interpreting the Holy Father’s views, this is part of integral ecology. For him the environment is not just animate and inanimate creatures; included in the whole of the environment is human beings, and what happens in the environment impacts the human beings. There is no disassociation. And what human beings do with their lives and the choices of human beings will definitely affect the environment. So in this sense there is what we might call “an extended understanding of rights,” the right of the environment precisely because human beings have an obligation to preserve their lives by being respectful of creation.

So here I could see how the Holy Father is reflecting on all of creation here by using the terminology of rights. He is saying that creation has its own internal logic which is based on the Creator’s plan. So our responsibility to nurture creation, to respect what creation is meant to be, to take care of creation and to avoid the domination of creation that destroys. And so in that sense the environment has a right and when we violate that right, the first victims are human beings.

Pope Francis is directly connecting care for our common home to so many other issues like immigration, care for the elderly, elimination of the death penalty, care for the poor, the unborn and so on. The connection seems to develop a ‘consistent ethic of solidarity.’ Is that an accurate observation of what’s going on here?

Yes definitely. This consistent ethic of solidarity is another way of describing what Pope Francis calls an “integral ecology” and our “ecological conversion,” to see that all elements of creation are connected to each one. And our attitude towards one affects our attitude towards the other. And so our misuse of creation is usually manifested in the poverty to which other people are subjected to it.

At first glance we might not make the connection. For example, in the Philippines, in the Archdiocese of Manila, we have pockets of very poor communities, informal settlers, they don’t have land of their own, and employment is scarce and people live in extreme poverty. Many of them live on trash and in the midst of trash, what those who have throw away and what even the poor throw away.

I was able to talk to a family, three generations of them living on trash. What will prevent them from thinking that they are trash?

And so we need a new form of solidarity that requires this review of our lifestyle. How we use the goods of creation definitely will have an impact on those who are deprived of access to all of this. And so it is really it’s a consistent ethic of solidarity requiring a conversion and a review and transformation of consciousness of individuals, of communities and even of nations.

Pope Francis is creating a culture of encounter and of dialogue. On the topic of climate change, what advice do you offer for those who attempt to “encounter and dialogue” with Catholics and others who deny that humans are a cause of climate change and do not see any urgency in addressing it?

First of all there is no substitute for personal encounter. If they could only go to persons, communities, who are hardworking, who have dreams for themselves and their families, but have no access to the goods of the earth, having such contact with people will somehow makes us pause and think. What’s happening to the goods of the earth? Why are they reaching some and not reaching others? I think there is a power that comes from such personal contact. But we have to go to them with an open mind. And be able to ask ourselves painful questions: Do I have enough and why don’t they have enough? Why can I take a good shower and just take for granted that when I get home there will be water and others don’t have [that]? Also human beings they have lost the ideals for themselves like I do. How come? We enjoy such benefits [that] others do not have. To begin to ask those questions arising from the lived encounters with people and I have had a lot of that.

The second thing is that if we don’t have the opportunity [for personal encounters], we have social communications, we have media and we have instantaneous reports of what’s happening in many parts of the world. If we just allow ourselves to be touched. To be moved by those images. Then I think we would see.

We get 20 to 22 typhoons a year in the Philippines. We never get used to it. Every time a typhoon comes you prepare, but you are never prepared enough. With the latest typhoon that came, farmers in the northern part of the country lost all of their products. And it will take another year for them to earn enough money — it’s not just the loss of agricultural products, imagine the impact on their family. How many children will not have enough money to be able to go to school? How many people lost their homes? And then here we are.

One woman, who lives in a slum area where I celebrate the Christmas Eve Mass, after the Mass she said to me, “Many people recite the Lord’s Prayer by memory. I don’t blame them because they know when they get home there will be bread. But for us,” she said, “we have to pray the Lord’s Prayer by faith, as a struggle of faith, because we’re not sure that there’ll be bread tomorrow, whether there will be bread today.” She said, “It’s a struggle for us to call God ‘Father’ but we have to.” When you hear something like that you go home and you see stale bread. You buy a lot. You hoard in a way and then you see the expiration date. What do you do? There is so much bread. And then there are people who pray everyday, but maybe the answer is through me. So it’s getting to this lived experience that will eventually convert us, if we allow ourselves to converted.

Mother Teresa used to say, “come and see, come to Kolkata and see the poor, see our work of encounter.”

Yes, yes, come and see. I brought some young people from middle and lower-middle class families to celebrate their birthdays in a home for children with disabilities. Wow. That contact with the kids with disabilities, some parents told me that our children have been changed. When their birthdays come, they will say, “Can we just celebrate with those children there [at the home for children with disabilities]? We don’t need a lavish party.” Can we just be with them, give them some joy? And so with the power of encounter, it’s possible.

All the debates will not end, but the debate will probably take a different course if people just go and touch the hands of people who do not have daily bread.

Can the theological concept of prudential judgment be used to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus and data that humans are a significant contributor to climate change that is affecting our common home?

Well, it’s a theological concept. It has served its purpose because life is never black and white. There are situations where you will want to make clear, well-defined judgment but there are some circumstances that make it difficult. There are some circumstances where you use your prudence to make decisions based on your best moral judgment, and so you pursue something like this. It is a very personal act and so I do not want to judge people who appeal to prudential judgment. Prudential judgment is still being used and it has its usefulness. But maybe there are some situations where we just have to make prophetic and radical judgments. I don’t want to impose it for people, and it’s left to people to make discernment. There are moments where maybe we are being asked to be prophetic. Again, I don’t want to impose it, but we hope that people would not close themselves to that option. There is prudential judgment, but there is also a moment we might be called to some radical, prophetic witnessing by our actions. This will probably come from the encounter.

When the Holy Father visited the Philippines last January and one important, maybe the apex of the visit was to go to Tacloban that was destroyed by the typhoon. The people of Tacloban looked forward to this. It was some sort of a miracle [that the pope would visit] after that harrowing experience. But on the day that the pope would go there, a typhoon came and so all there preparations were destroyed. I prayed, “Lord, there are 365 days a year, why choose this day? When the pope is to go to [Tacloban] now we are not even sure whether we would be allowed to fly to Tacloban.” Things were not well. The pilots said we could go, but we should leave earlier. But God has a better story to tell.

The Holy Father saw for himself what a typhoon does to a community and the people in that and the Holy Father saw their resilience. All the preparations had been wiped out but the people were there. And when we were returning to Manila, the Holy Father said, “Maybe God sent this typhoon for me to experience”  — he had never experienced a live typhoon — to experience what people go through. I told the Holy Father jokingly, “This is a normal typhoon, only 17 km per hour. You should come when we have a 250 km typhoon!” He said, “Now I know. I know what people go through.” But he also saw that there is hope here because people stood there for hours under the rain and there was a CRS volunteer [Catholic Relief Services] who died.

And so this encounter makes you more compassionate and makes you see the strength of the human spirit.

There is a global movement to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, including an effort called Divest Invest that has grown to 2,040 individuals and 436 institutions from 43 countries representing $2.6 trillion in assets. Some churches and Catholic and other colleges and universities are divesting from investments in fossil fuels. Do you recommend that all Catholic organizations around the world divest from investments in fossil fuels?

I can speak, for example, of our experience in the Philippines. That’s what I said a while ago [in the interview], prudential judgment is a valid approach, there are moments when prophetic judgments are called for. In the Philippines some of the churches, dioceses, and other organizations have made that choice [of divesting] because of causes related to climate, to human labor, related to the preservation of the integrity of creation, and related to the integrity of human lives and actions they thought they should be doing now. They have transferred their investments from one company to another company, away from corporations that they think are not supportive of their causes. So I’ve seen this happening already in the Philippines. Again, I don’t want to impose it. We have experienced it [divestment] in the Philippines.

In the midst of Pope Francis’ talks in Washington and New York on the need for urgent steps to be taken to address climate change, the presidents of the two biggest emitters, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced additional commitments on climate change Friday, along with a “common vision for an ambitious global climate agreement.” What’s your reaction to these new developments?

I have heard about it, but I was not available to follow the speeches because of my schedule, but if there are some agreements to have a common vision for an ambitious, global climate agreement, then we will welcome any path towards it, especially coming from Asia, I would be very happy if China would be part of it. Just the City of Beijing is suffering from pollution, from smog. It’s not healthy anymore for human lives. The Chinese Government is also getting alarmed. They saw for themselves in advance of the celebration of the end of World War II, they prohibited cars from coming into the city so that the air would be cleared for their show and extravaganza and so they saw how the number of cars once reduced could clear the air. They saw that themselves.

But we hope that china’s steps on climate change will not be disconnected to what we call the “consistent ethic of solidarity.” We hope this will be a good beginning to a wider vision of human ecology, respect for the human being.

U.S. billionaire visionary, businessman, Elon Musk, said in a speech this week in Berlin that climate change will spark a refugee crisis of catastrophic proportions if no action is taken. He said, “Today, the challenge [of helping refugees] is in terms of millions of people, but in the future, based on what the scientific consensus is, the problem will be in the hundreds of millions and much more severe.” Do you agree with Mr. Musk’s view on the potential scope of climate change refugees might reach hundreds of millions of people?

I believe him, yes. For example, in the Philippines, after every major typhoon wipes out whole villages, even established towns. We experience internal displacement. So we have refugees move from one island to another and most often they move to big metropolitan areas. It is not only a human catastrophe, but also you see the implications like big cities that are already crowded and now how do you accommodate these people with respect to he question of land, education, food, and etcetera. So we see in our country refugees who are not driven away not only by conflict, battles or lack of employment, but by climate catastrophes. We see that.

In his U.N. speech, Pope Francis said that it’s not enough to make a list of goals, but that there needs to be verification of implementation. In this context and in the context of the Holy Father’s encyclical, Laudato Sí, what does success look like following the 2015 Paris Climate Conference?

Success would like first that politicians, the heads of governments, that hopefully in cooperation with business leaders, would have political will to implement policies that would mitigate the affects of climate change, not just find words or rhetoric, but the political will to implement all of those things.

The other thing is the mechanism for reviewing and monitoring. Here for me success would also [be] getting the grassroots, the local communities to achieve a level of conversion of heart, a change of lifestyle, and for them to monitor at the grassroots level what is implemented in terms of the Paris Conference’s direction. Without the involvement of the grassroots, I don’t think there will be real success. All of these things would have to permeate the consciousness of peoples and change will happen there and they will be involved in reviewing economic policies and political policies and say, “Hey, your policies might not be good for us.” So models of development proposed by businesses, world monetary organizations and even by governments would be critiqued by the people who are affected by the models of development. They should be involved in proposing models and monitoring them.

Do you think the Holy Father will continue to speak about this consistent ethic of solidarity in Philadelphia today and tomorrow while attending the World Meeting on Families?

I think so. While the focus will be on the family, the Holy Father has this gift of weaving in all of these things. In Philadelphia, the theme of migration will also come up, the theme of the family fully alive and what the deters some people from getting married and raising a family and I’m sure poverty and caring for creation will somehow be included.

*Speakers participating in the evening’s event include Nicolas Hulot, Special Envoy of the French President for the Protection of the Planet; Pa Ousman Jarju, Minister of Environment of the Gambia; H.E. Taukelina Finikaso, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tuvalu; Marie-Christine Marghem, Minister of Environment, Belgium; Simone Filippini, CIDSE board member and CEO of Cordaid; Samuel Zan Akologo, Executive Secretary of Caritas Ghana; Carolyn Woo, President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services; Álvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri, Bishop of Huehuetenango, Guatemala; Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Holy See Secretary for the Relations with States; Bernd Nilles, Secretary General of CIDSE; and Michel Roy, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to NCR and writer of the Mission Management column.]

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