As Amazon Fires Burn, Pope Convenes Meeting on the Rainforests and Moral Obligation to Protect Them

Two of the most powerful forces in Brazil, the president and the pope, are pulling in opposite directions on an issue critical to climate change.

A farmer walks through a recently burned area of Brazilian Amazon rainforest in August 2019. Credit: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

A farmer walks through a recently burned area of Brazilian Amazon rainforest in August 2019. More than 30,000 fires were burning in the Amazon that month, most of them believed to have been set by people clearing old-growth forest for agriculture or livestock. Credit: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Updated Oct. 6 with Pope Francis's comments as Synod begins.

Pope Francis convened nearly 200 bishops, climate experts and indigenous people from the Amazon on Sunday for an unprecedented meeting in Rome to discuss the fate of the Amazonian rainforests and the world's moral obligation to protect them.

The meeting, or Synod, is the first of its kind to address an ecosystem, rather than a particular region or theme. It comes as fires continue to consume the Amazon rainforest, destroying a critical tool for stabilizing the climate, threatening the homes and health of indigenous people and drawing global concern.

"When peoples and cultures are devoured without love and without respect, it is not God's fire but that of the world," Pope Francis said in his opening Mass for the Synod. 

God's fire "is fed by sharing, not by profits," he said.

The three-week Synod presents an opportunity for the pope to listen to representatives of the nine countries in the Amazon region who will inform his thinking and church teaching, and it has drawn the ire of the Brazilian government, which has essentially told the Vatican and worried countries to stay out of its affairs.

Critics have blamed the spike in fires this year and deforestation on the easing of environmental rules by Brazil's right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, who openly criticized plans for the Synod and the Vatican. 

Brazil has the largest population of Catholics in the world, and Brazilian media have reported that the Bolsonaro administration is concerned about the Vatican's "leftist agenda" and is monitoring Synod documents.

The Synod, which the pope called for two years ago, represents his latest effort to urge Catholics and people of all faiths to take meaningful steps to forestall climate change. Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has emerged as a leading global figure on climate change, making environmentally focused appeals in an attempt to move the Catholic Church—and its 1.2 billion members—into an understanding of "integral ecology," the idea that humans and nature are interconnected.

"We're at a very, very important moment," said Father Peter Hughes, a Catholic missionary in Latin America who works with the Pan-Amazonia Ecclesial Network (REPAM), speaking ahead of the meeting. "Just like Greta Thunberg, we need to start a movement."

Pope Has Made Climate Risks a Top Concern

While Catholic leaders, including the pope's predecessor, have said that climate change poses a threat to humanity, Francis is the first to make climate change a central issue of his papacy.

In 2015, he became the first pope to focus an entire encyclical—an authoritative papal document—on the environment. That encyclical, called Laudato Si' or "On Care for Our Common Home," was released shortly before the Paris climate negotiations and addressed the climate crisis in detail.

"The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all," it read. "Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life. ... Let us mention, for example, those richly biodiverse lungs of our planet which are the Amazon and the Congo basins, or the great aquifers and glaciers."

The encyclical explained that preventing the destruction of the natural world should be a religious and moral obligation.

"The encyclical was groundbreaking," said Bill Bradlee, a director with Interfaith Power and Light, a group that organizes congregations of all faiths  to work on climate change. "The Synod is groundbreaking. This kind of focus on biodiversity, on indigenous cultures, by the pope—it's huge that that's happening. It's very significant and impactful around the world."

Pope Francis. Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis's 2015 encyclical explained that preventing the destruction of the natural world should be a religious and moral obligation. Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

At a meeting with top executives from the world's biggest oil companies earlier this year, Pope Francis declared a "climate emergency" and reiterated the warnings of scientists: Time is running out, he said. He has publicly discussed the targets enshrined in the Paris climate agreement and potential strategies for meeting them, including cap-and-trade systems and carbon taxes.

Documents released by the Vatican in preparation for the Synod called the Amazon rainforest a region that is "wounded, its beauty deformed, a place of pain" where "violence, chaos and corruption are rampant."

"The pope is speaking from an informed perspective on climate change, and he relates that to a Biblical responsibility toward God and toward creation," said Fred Van Dyke, executive director of the Au Sable Institute, a Michigan-based non-profit that works with Christian colleges on environmental education.

Critics: Worry about Souls, 'Not Saving Trees'

Pope Francis, who is from Argentina and the first pope from South America, has met with criticism from conservative leaders within the church.

The organizing document, which serves as a guide to the Synod, says the Synod will discuss some controversial topics, including the ordination of married priests in the Amazon and giving more official church responsibilities to women. Some conservative leaders within the church have also criticized the pope for incorporating indigenous spiritual concepts into his statements, saying those go against the theology of the Catholic Church. 

Some have also said his climate-focused pronouncements stray into church doctrine and government policy. That's a position shared by the Bolsonaro administration.

"When the church adopts this environmentalist attitude, it's really adopting the leftist agenda," Ricardo da Costa, a history professor at the Federal University of Espírito Santo who advises Bolsonaro's education agency, told the Religion News Service. "The clergy should worry about saving people's souls, not saving trees."

The Catholic Church has worked in the Amazon region for decades and has a long history of working with indigenous people to protect the rainforest. 

"The Catholic Church has a very good environmental record in Brazil," Van Dyke said. He noted that priests and nuns have been assassinated for working on land reform issues in the rainforest. "The church can quite literally say it's given its blood for the poor and land reform."

Its relationship with indigenous tribes is particularly important to the church as it loses members to Pentecostal and other Christian faith groups. The pope has called for a church with an "Amazonian face."

"The church is getting more deeply involved in protection indigenous people," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, who called them the "key players in the global struggle against climate change." "There's a growing body of evidence that indigenous people are the best guardians of the land," she said.

'Almost a Recognition of the Rights of Nature'

While many major world religions and religious groups have made pronouncements on climate change, calling for their members to embrace policies and positions that address the climate crisis, some notable ones have not. 

The most recent climate-related statement by the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the United States, contains a number of climate denial talking points, including stressing a lack of scientific consensus—even though the consensus among publishing climate scientists that human activities are causing climate change is near 100 percent.

The pope's voice on climate change has influenced U.S. Catholics. Bradlee said that after the 2015 encyclical, Interfaith Power and Light saw more interest from Catholic groups and congregations.

"It's almost a recognition of the rights of nature," he said. "It feels like this recognition of non-human life and the importance of nature intrinsically and a recognition of how interconnected we are."

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