Pope Francis spoke out against the destruction of the rainforest this past weekend, calling deforestation a “sin” and asking his fellow Catholics to respect God’s Creation.
Speaking at the University of Molise on Saturday, July 5, before an audience that included struggling farmers, Francis decried the destruction of South America’s rainforests such as the Amazon, which contains an estimated 390 billion individual trees but had the highest deforestation rate in the world as of 2005.
“This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation,” the pope said in unprepared remarks. “When I look at America, also my own homeland (South America), so many forests, all cut, that have become land … that can longer give life (sic). This is our sin, exploiting the Earth and not allowing her to her (sic) give us what she has within her.”
Francis, who hails from Argentina, is developing something of a reputation as a faith-based environmentalist. In addition to mentioning climate change in his inaugural papal mass, he told a massive crowd in Rome earlier this year that “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us,” and is also working on a formal papal encyclical about the environment. And this isn’t the first time the pontiff has spoken up on behalf of the Amazon. When visiting Brazil in July of last year, Francis told a group of Brazilian bishops that the Amazon — which resides almost entirely within nations where Catholicism is the dominant religion — should not be “indiscriminately exploited, but rather made into a garden.”
“The Church’s presence in the Amazon Basin is not that of someone with bags packed and ready to leave after having exploited everything possible,” Francis told the bishops. “The Church has been present in the Amazon Basin from the beginning, in her missionaries, religious congregations, priests, laity and Bishops and she is still present and critical to the area’s future.”
The pope’s message is part of a rich history of Catholic activism to protect South American rainforests. Sister Dorothy Stang, a Catholic nun who is sometimes called the “Angel” or “Martyr” of the Amazon, spent more than 40 years advocating against the deforestation of the rainforest and calling attention to the plight of the region’s indigenous people. Tragically, her activism was effective enough to make enemies among ranchers and illegal loggers: Stang was reportedly approached by hired assassins while walking to a meeting with parishioners in February 2005. When asked if she had a weapon, she pulled out her Bible and extended blessings to the two gunmen before they shot her six times, killing her.
Similarly, when prominent business owners and loggers tried to revamp Brazil’s “Forest Code” to allow for increased deforestation of the Amazon in 2011, the Brazilian Catholic Church lobbied president Dilma Rousseff to veto the bill, and circulated a petition among its 12,000 parishes opposing the reforms. Two other institutions of the church — the Pastoral Land Commission and Catholic “base” communities — have also long been the champions of the Amazon’s indigenous people, whose lives and land are often violently exploited by wealthy ranchers and land speculators. The church groups work to provide locals with lawyers to represent them and frequently report to the government whenever violence is used to forcibly stifle their voice.