Integral Ecological Conversion, UNIGRE, Rome, 07.03.18

Integral Ecological Conversion

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson

Pontifical Gregorian University



Your Eminence, My Lord Archbishops and Bishops, Most Rev. Patriarch Very Rev. Rector, Very Rev. Monsignors, Rev. Fathers, Distinguished Invited Guests, Dear Brothers and sisters:

I bring you the warm greetings of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human, and its and felicitations, especially for you, the Ambassadors of Georgia, Germany and the Netherlands to the Holy See for organizing with this University this Conference on Laudato sì. On behalf of our Dicastery, I wish it great success.

By way of introducing my keynote address, dear Friends, let me presume boldness to capture one of the key sentiments of Pope Francis in Laudato sì in the words:"There is Hope in change"

For, in Laudato sì, the Pope firstly present the dramatic social and ecological situation of our common home, saying: “… we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair” (LS, 61). But, at this disrepair, he neither yields  to the temptation of fruitless pessimism, nor to a naïve optimism. Rather, he relies on the capacity of human beings to change, both individually and communally. He says:  “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (LS, 13).

Pope Francis certainly believes that “hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems” (LS, 61), but the fact that  there are “signs that things are now reaching a breaking point” (LS, 61) was enough reason for him to urge a radical change in the "conduct of humanity" (cf LS, 4-5). So, despite the seriousness of the problem, there is hope, since the capacity to change (conversion) relies on God’s love: “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (LS, 13).  This hope in change, this hope in conversion is what I'd like to briefly trace out in Laudato sì,.  an Encyclical Letter original in its way of addressing such concepts as ecological conversion, and ecological sin, and their setting in its teaching on integral ecology. .


The Key Concepts:  

            Significantly, the concept of ecological sin appears relatively early in the encyclical. We find it already in paragraph 8 of the Preamble to the encyclical where Pope Francis acknowledges the significant contribution of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the area of creation care. The Pope retains as highly important the Patriarch’s teachings on the concept of ecological sin, namely that abuse of creation from the part of humanity is truly a sin against humanity and against the very Creator. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.  (8)

            On the other hand, Pope Francis speaks of ecological conversion towards the end of the encyclical. He refers to ecological conversion, of which Pope John Paul II had already spoken in 2001,  in paragraphs 216-221, in the context of ecological spirituality. He writes: “the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion … Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” (217)


            Besides, in Laudato si’, Pope Francis offers us a radically new and holistic understanding of ecological sin and ecological conversion.  He  reminds us that we need to understand both ecological sin and ecological conversion in terms of relationality and in  an integral way. Ecological sin is thus to be understood as a rupture of fundamental relationships within creation: between a human being and another human being, between the human person and the earth, and ultimately between the human person and God (Creator). Ecological conversion - our response to ecological sin, also has to have an equally  integral. character.


1.         The integral approach of Laudato si’


           One of the most remarkable features about Laudato Si’ is its integral approach. It is not mere environmentalism or fashionable green thinking, but “integral ecology”.  Already in the introduction to the encyclical, Pope Francis speaks of “the conviction that everything in the world is connected”. (16) He reminds us that the truth of the interdependence of all reality is a core of Christian belief.


As the Catechism teaches: ‘God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other’.  (86)


            The anthropological vision of Laudato Si’ is that we “human beings are not completely autonomous”. (105) The Pope points to the bonds of our cosmic, biological and human fellowship, enwrapped in God’s infinite love. “Everything is related, and we human beings are related to each other as brothers and sisters, on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (92) The truth of interrelatedness and interdependence among creatures requires that we treat every creature with respect. “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” (42)


            The truth of interrelatedness and interdependence is also the ultimate basis of all social life. It is the basis of our universal communion and of the universal destination of all goods. “As part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family.” (89) The integral approach adopted by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ necessitates that we widen the horizons of  ecological discourse. At times in the past, the ecological discourse ran the risk of being concerned mainly with the ‘environment’ outside, often dealing solely with issues like the protection of exotic species and the conservation of pristine ecosystems. The Pope reminds us that integral ecology essentially entails ‘human’ and ‘social’ dimensions. Pope Francis recalls a fundamental insight from Pope Benedict XVI in this regard, “that the world cannot be analysed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’,  and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth." (6)


            With a profound insight, Pope Francis points out in the encyclical how the fundamental theological foundation for the interrelatedness of all reality, of all forms of life, and of all social structures, is the very Trinitarian communion, which has “left its mark on all creation”. (239) It is precisely in living out our existence as communitarian beings, as interrelated and interdependent that human beings find our true fulfilment, entering “into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures”. (240)


2.         Ecological sin as the rupture of relationships


The relational perspective offered by the integral approach of Laudato si’ challenges us to radically widen our understanding of the very concept of sin.  Traditionally, sin has been understood in a rather individualistic sense - as something limited to the personal sphere, concerning exclusively one’s relationship with God. In recent times, there has been a greater critical awareness regarding the societal structures of sin, and a condemnation of them in the teachings of the churches, including papal magisterium. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis invites us to broaden our understanding of sin within a planetary perspective.


            In line with the integral ecology that characterizes the encyclical throughout, Pope Francis understands sin as the rupture of fundamental relationships in life. He recalls in this regard the creation accounts in the book of Genesis which conceive human life as grounded in the closely intertwined relationships with God, with one’s fellow human beings and with the whole of creation. Sin is precisely the rupture of “these three vital relationships” outwardly and within us. We quote him:


The creation accounts in the book of Gen¬esis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human ex¬istence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. Accord¬ing to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. (66)


It is only within a relational view of reality, where everything is inter-related and inter-dependent, that the concept of ecological sin makes sense. Nothing in creation exists in isolation. There exists a physical and spiritual connectedness between all of Creation. Sin is precisely the distortion of this underlying and all-embracing relational unity. Sin is the rupture of relationships and of communion between created realities and with the Creator. As the orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis writes, the root of humanity’s original sin is “not a transgression against some invisible ‘principle’, but the rupture of the primal connection between ourselves, our world, and our God”.


Our devastation of our own common planetary home is a sin against God, humanity and the world. It ruptures the bonds of divine, human and cosmic fellowship.


Ecological sin is first and above all, the rupturing of the most important of all relationships, namely, the bond with the Creator. This truth is supremely evident in the original sin of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve had originally walked with God in the garden, enjoying God’s friendship and the goodness of creation. With sin, there creeps in a profound alienation between God and humanity, between the creatures and the Creator. As Pope Francis notes in Laudato Si’, “the harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations”. (66)


            In second place, the ecological crisis is a sin against our fellow human beings. The ecological crisis reveals, above all, how we have betrayed the ‘eucharistic’ vocation of human communities, namely to ‘share’ the gifts of creation with all the members of our common household in a spirit of communion (koinonia), like the one bread broken and shared at the table of the Lord. The natural environment is a collective good and to appropriate more of one’s due share of it is clearly a sin. Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’, citing an appropriate passage from a statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of New Zealand.


The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the re¬sponsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.  (95)


            Thirdly, the ecological sin is, an offence against creation itself. When humans devastate our home planet, it is sin, in as much as it constitutes a disobedience to the divine command to care for the rest of creation, to ‘guard’ and ‘cultivate’ the terrestrial garden (cf. Gen 2:15). We may recall here the words of the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew whom Pope Francis quotes in the encyclical: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”.  (8) Pope Francis reminds us that we have an obligation to respect the laws of nature and the relationships that exist among creatures. This is so because “the laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among in-dividuals but also with other living beings.” (68)



3.         Ecological conversion within a relational perspective


If ecological sin has resulted from our controvertere (turning away) from fundamental relationships that sustain the web of life, what we need today is convertere (turn back) towards the Creator, our fellow human beings and the rest of creation. The needed “genuine conversion in ways of thought and behaviour”,  to use an expression of Pope John Paul II in his 1990 Message, is about learning to co-dwell in our common home of the Earth, with God the Creator, and with our fellow creatures, including humans.


            First of all, ecological conversion calls for a return to the Creator. Faith traditions have always emphasized how in order to live in harmony with the natural world, one must be in harmony and equilibrium with Heaven, and ultimately with the Source and Origin of all things.   Pope Benedict XVI speaks poignantly in this regard:


Is it not true that an irresponsible use of creation begins precisely where God is marginalized or even denied?  If the relationship between human creatures and the Creator is forgotten, matter is reduced to a selfish possession, man becomes the ‘last word’, and the purpose of human existence is reduced to a scramble for the maximum number of possessions possible.


In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis also points how various convictions of our Christian faith can help to enrich and deepen our ecological conversion.


These include the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is inti¬mately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light. Then too, there is the recognition that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore. (221)


            In second place, ecological conversion calls for a ‘turning’ to the creation itself. As Pope Francis points out in Laudato Si’, recalling the example of St Francis of Assisi, “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion”. (218) A penitent and humble return to the Earth is at the core of a genuine ecological conversion.


Until you return to the earth.  For from her you were taken.  Throughout the centuries, the “back to earth” of Gen. 3:19 has been almost exclusively remembered at the tombs of the dead. Its challenge to Christian life practices was seldom heard. But the text very explicitly talks about a change of direction, for the Hebrew word for return implies also the theological dimension of repentance, turning back to God.


            Thirdly, ecological conversion is also a penitent return to our fellow human beings, recognizing and accepting them as brothers and sisters, as members of the common household that inhabit one common home. Ecological conversion is above all at the personal level. Pope Francis recalls in this regard the edifying story of Noah in the Old Testament, whose personal righteousness saved not only himself and his kin from the destructive flood waters, but in a representative manner the rest of the biotic community. The Pope writes: “All it takes is one good per¬son to restore hope!” (71) However, Pope Francis is quick to note that a collective or communitarian ecological conversion is also equally important. We quote:


Nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world to¬ day. Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds. … The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion. (219)


            At the deepest level, integral ecological conversion is about re-establishing peace within ourselves. The crisis of our common home is, in fact, only an externalization of a deeper inner malaise. As Pope Benedict XVI had pointed out in the homily at the inaugural mass of his pontificate in 2005, “the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.  Pope Francis recalls this affirmation (217) and mentions right at the beginning of his encyclical: “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life”. (2)


4.         Conclusion: Models and areas of integral ecological conversion


I would like to conclude my paper by proposing two models that can help us to walk in the path of integral ecological conversion, taking a cue from Laudato si’, and four areas of consideration:


            The first would be a “personal” model. As you would have probably guessed, I refer here to the example of St Francis of Assisi. The conversion of young Francis was indeed a triple conversion: to the whole of creation, to the poor and ultimately to the very Creator. In the encyclical, Pope Francis proposes Saint Francis of Assisi as the model of integral ecology, for his love for creation, love for the poor, and love for the Creator, the triple loves merged into a sublime unity.


I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. … He shows us how just inseparable the bond is better concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. (10)


A second model that I would like to propose is “communitarian”. I refer to the “indigenous communities” around the world. Pope Francis speaks of them in Laudato si’ and invites us to learn from their harmonious relationships with creation, with Creator and their communitarian care for the land.


In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. … For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. (146)

May these models inspire us to walk courageously and joyfully on the path of ecological conversion.


And we may apply these, especially, to four common areas, politics, education, economics and our relationships, for Laudato sì highlights the importance of communal change in politics, education, and economics.

•          In politics, we need to convert from short-termism, cowardice, corruption, elitism and lack of fruitful dialogues, and promote the participation of all, especially of the poor.  Love is also social, and political, since we are social and political beings, and even cosmic (cf LS, 231; 236) .

•          In education, we need to convert from conceiving education merely as a way to transmit scientific information or raise awareness, and walk towards an education model that can discover new ways of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature.  We need to find an education that can take us towards a new covenant between humanity and the environment, and that can promote a cultural revolution of care and universal solidarity (cf LS, 202 ss).

•          In economics, we need to convert from an economy that dominates and kills, and recover an economy that serves and promote wellbeing.

•          The concept of “integral ecology” can help to promote these changes, because it is introduced as a paradigm able to articulate the fundamental relationships of the person: with ‘God’, with ‘oneself’, with ‘other human beings’, and with ‘creation’. It also stresses the need to acknowledge the interconnectedness between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, between economics, politics, and ecology; between our daily life and our culture; between the dignity of each human being and the common good; and between intra- and inter-generational justice. Conversion, therefore, means to walk away from the paths that disintegrate the web of life, and transit the paths of integral ecology.


21 June 2018