Plough’s Peter Mommsen spoke with Cardinal Peter Turkson, at the time head of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, in November 2021 in Rome. In April 2022, Cardinal Turkson was named chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
Peter Mommsen: You’ve played a leading role at the Vatican in calling for action to respond to climate change, pointing out the harms it brings to the world’s most vulnerable people. Yet many respond to this reality with indifference or a feeling of resignation. What would you say to them?
Cardinal Peter Turkson: I would say that a more commendable attitude is to learn about and understand what climate change is, and how some of its consequences are already distressingly apparent. There’s no question that it’s essentially anthropogenic, caused by human conduct and attitude toward creation: Extreme temperatures negatively affect biodiversity and habitat. Unpredictable rainfall disrupts long-standing rhythms of sowing and harvesting, creating and exacerbating hunger. Drought and dwindling icecaps create water insecurity and crisis. Melting ice and rising sea levels threaten island states and coastal settlements. But instead of despair and resignation or indifference, one should be filled with remorse and compunction at how abusively and irresponsibly one treats creation. Isaiah tells us how the earth can languish from sin, and Saint Paul, in chapter 8 of Romans, links the fate of creation with that of its inhabitants. Thus, the proper attitude to adopt in the face of climate change, as Pope Francis observes, is “to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”
I can of course understand how some may despair at the enormity and complexity of the phenomenon, and the apparent impossibility of a solution. But indifference in the face of climate change is simply suicidal!
Climate change may be a modern problem, but it’s a symptom of an ancient human condition.
It is. While some of its causes are relatively modern – for example, the industrial revolution and the subsequent dependence on greenhouse-gas producing energy sources – the underlying human condition is ancient. It goes back to the experience which scripture describes as the Fall.
In the biblical account of creation, the human person is a relational being, meant to live in ordered and harmonious relationships with God, the creator; with the earth as a garden-home to till and to keep; and with its kind. Climate change could be understood as a symptom of the disordered and exploitative human conduct the scriptures attribute to sin in human life, after the original disobedience to God. The orderly relationship which corresponds to the biblical mandate “to till and to keep” is replaced by activities with little or no regard for the interrelatedness of parts needed to maintain a wholesome balance within creation.
I wonder if you could reflect on the Catholic social teaching of the universal destination of goods; you have called at times for a more communal way of life. Is there anything like this, or other parts of the Christian tradition, that might be brought to bear on such problems as deep poverty and climate change?
Recently, Pope Francis wrote an encyclical letter, Fratelli tutti, in which he revisits Saint Francis of Assisi’s teaching about how a fraternal bond binds together everything that exists. The friars of Saint Francis were “a band of brothers”; to them, the sun was a brother and the moon a sister. The crucial characteristic of brothers and sisters is that, coming from the same source, they are equal in dignity. Thus the reference to the human family as “brothers all” in the letter’s title is a powerful way of affirming the unity and equal dignity of all human beings. Accordingly, the goods of the earth that are meant to safeguard people’s dignity and well-being, the “common good,” must be destined for all. Vatican Council II puts it this way: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity.”
A powerful synonym of “common good” is what recent popes (Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) have called “integral human development,” the goal or responsibility of a community to ensure the conditions that guarantee the personal, familial, and associative good of its members, so that they may live dignified lives and realize their full integral and personal development.
These sentiments are discernible in the Jubilee Year prescriptions in the Old Testament, and are lived, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, by the early Christian communities, as described in Acts 2 and 4. The Church Fathers promoted them as expressions of the charity of Christ; Saint Justin includes the taking of collections for the poor in his rite of worship; and Clement of Rome taught that whatever we have is given us by God to be used for building up the body of Christ. The rich should care for the poor in the Church, while the poor should thank God for giving them brothers and sisters able to be generous. But Church teaching also envisages “states and civil institutions that that are primarily concerned with individuals and the common good.”
For completeness, we need to mention that the teachings of common good and the universal destination of the goods of the earth are not opposed to private property, business, and the use of capital.
Some economists have responded to this crisis by actually calling for de-growth.
In economic terms, “growth” is a positive: it designates progress and enterprise, for example in the cases of Indigenous communities. In these cases, de-growth would be a negative experience. But when the expression was used by economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in the 1970s, and discussed by the Club of Rome in its 1972 report The Limits to Growth, it was intended as a general reminder of the finite nature of the world and its resources, and, particularly, to ask whether some areas could reduce their consumption of resources to enable weaker and poorer nations to advance.
A reminder of the finite supply of everything created is positive and healthy, though it calls on tough ethical muscles to make effective changes. And it suggests solutions to the current search for sustainable development models, for ecological justice and equitable development. Growth that leaves others behind would be against the thrust of sustainable development and calls for some measure of de-growth.
Growth in the sense of progress is something that we strive for. But growth that tends to leave others behind is the beginning of our problem.
You played a key role in the creation of two major recent encyclicals by Pope Francis: Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti. Some people charge them with an internal contradiction: they condemn globalized technocracy, while at the same time calling for paths forward that would seem to require even more global technocracy.
Technology is an expression of the talent and creativity of the human mind; and transforming power is what makes us co-creators with God: God created trees, but human technology transforms them into houses and furniture. The industrial and post-industrial ages have been characterized by technological developments which have improved and transformed human life. But the same technology is also poised to dominate, to manipulate, even to destroy the human person. In the words of Laudato si’: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.” Think about its use for medical, economic, and military ends, or about artificial intelligence.
Technocracy suggests that every problem can be solved by technology. This leads to an absolutism that implies that whatever cannot be “fixed” should be discarded, which has clear implications for our understanding of the human person.
As an expression of human creativity, technology serves the well-being of the person, and need not become technocratic. As an exercise of power, technology becomes technocratic, and subjects the person to its rules and interests. Both Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti are engaged with this important distinction.
You grew up in Ghana. How is your passion on these issues linked to how you grew up?
I was born and grew up in Nsuta Wassaw, a small village where my father worked as a carpenter at the manganese mine. I witnessed how surface-mining methods denude virgin forests of their timber and disembowel the earth with dynamite for the ore that local trains hauled to the Atlantic harbor, Takoradi, about fifty miles away. As children, we blocked our ears with our fingers when the dynamite exploded, and depending on how the wind blew, we would cover our eyes and noses.
Our stream was dammed to form a lake to wash the ore before shipment. To continue to swim in the stream and to fish in it, we had to move upstream, unwittingly invading the ecology of the headwaters.
Within a few miles were gold-mining towns. They had their share of deforestation and gaping holes and caverns from shaft-mining. There was a section of one town everyone called “Cyanide,” a sandy part of the town where children played without any sense of what cyanide meant, or of their constant exposure to poison.
Later, as a priest and bishop, I visited several of these mining settlements and villages. Some have become ghost towns; all they have to show are empty, overgrown shafts hidden by weeds and piles of rubble. When a company agent was asked why the shafts are not filled up with the piles of rocks and stones, he responded, “It is not economically feasible.” He thought, however, that the gaping holes, contaminated with mercury and other chemicals, could be used as fishponds!
The New York Times recently had an article on the phenomenon of young people saying they don’t want to have kids because of climate change, or only one …
You did ask about de-growth a short while ago, right? The flip side of de-growth is another current of thought, “human ecology,” which studies the relations between human beings and their environment. Some exponents of human ecology claim that population increase adversely affects the earth and its resources, and accordingly they advocate for population control to safeguard the well-being of creation. The young people who do not wish to have babies probably consider an increase in population bad news for the earth and the environment.
It is also possible that those who dread the cataclysmic consequences of climate change, instead of committing to promoting eco-friendly lifestyles and habits, are deciding to spare their offspring disaster. I pray that these are not pretexts for irresponsible and liberal ethics about human sexuality and birth. In fact, almost all Western countries are seeing sinking birthrates which threaten the sustainability of their national populations. Governments cannot replace the labor force to support pension schemes. Japan is languishing under anti-birth policies. China has rescinded its one-child policy. And the Western world needs to think about extending its sustainability concerns to population.
It’s worth adding that the expression “human ecology” has a completely different application in Catholic social thought and its discourse about the environment. When Catholic social thought speaks about natural ecology, it refers to environmental conditions which are conducive to growth. When it talks about human ecology, it means that humanity also requires a set of conditions (moral, philosophical, economic, health, labor) to be in place for its thriving and successful growth. To paraphrase Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus annus, for example: Yes, damage to the natural environment is serious, but destruction of the human environment is more serious. We see people concerned about the balance of nature and worried about the natural habitats of various animal species threatened with extinction. But meanwhile, too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.
Integral human ecology as you’ve just described it doesn’t really have political force behind it anywhere in the world. In the United States, for example, you’ll have one set of people who are very concerned about the unborn, but fight tooth and nail to prevent environmental regulation – and vice versa.
Disagreements are bound to exist. But it’s important that we have principles to guide even our disagreements, to ensure that we are consistent in our beliefs and actions. Pope Benedict XVI illustrates the point: “It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.” We must insist on the dignity of all persons as images of God and their vocation to brotherhood and sisterhood.
These divides of course are also deep within Christianity itself. But on the positive side, as you were saying, this focus on humans being made in the image of God brings people together. Our meeting is an example: a Catholic and an Anabaptist. The truth we share draws us together.
In his opening discourse of Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII said he wanted the windows of the Church to be thrown open, so that the Church can see the reality of the world outside, and the world see into the Church. One reality of the world is its brokenness, as well as the divisions of its churches. As a result, Vatican Council II concluded proceedings with a resolution to establish dialogues with Christian and non-Christian communities.
In humility, we should recognize what happens
when we apply human minds to the Word of God. Our interpretations of the Gospels always require the purging of the Spirit. The Lord gave us his gospel and it’s meant to go out to the ends of the earth and be put it into practice. Trusting in the presence of the Holy Spirit and submitting to his power to lead us back together, we should confess the Lord and God of our faith in dialogue and in constant friendship.
This interview was conducted on November 23, 2021; Cardinal Turkson was afterward invited to expand on his remarks in writing. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.