WASHINGTON, June 18, 2015 – Pope Francis, in an encyclical letter that appeals to the world’s leaders to take steps to heal the environmental damage caused by human activity and alleviate the likely impacts of climate change, says “it is right to rejoice” in scientific advances such as robotics and biotechnology but asserts that they must be applied for the common good.
Released today on the Vatican website, the official English translation runs 72 pages plus footnotes, but up to 200 pages in some fonts and formats.
The leader of the world’s Roman Catholics seeks “dialogue with all people about our common home,” adopts the consensus view that climate change is due largely to human activity, and builds on decades of church teaching that protection of the planet is a moral obligation.
He cites his predecessor Pope John Paul II’s assertion that “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.” John Paul “made it clear that the church values the benefits which result from the study and applications of molecular biology, supplemented by other disciplines such as genetics, and its technological application in agriculture and industry,” Francis says, adding his own comment, “Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings.”
The encyclical shows “a deep respect for the role of science,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said at a briefing Thursday morning at the National Press Club in Washington. Francis is saying that “technology can tell us what we can do but we need moral voices to tell us what we ought to do,” Kurtz said. The pope’s “use of empirical data shows his and the church’s deep respect for science, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, said at the same briefing.
Echoing the mainstream scientific approach to agricultural biotechnology, Pope Francis suggests that each discovery be considered on a case-by-case basis and that the end result, not the process itself, should be taken into account.
“It is difficult to make a general judgment about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations,” Francis writes. “The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application.
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Francis agrees that “no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth which has helped to resolve problems.” But he cautions that “there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated.”
The pope cites a document produced by bishops in his native Argentina that found, “In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to ‘the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production’” with vulnerable rural workers displaced into urban areas.
Francis also finds a disadvantage in modern agricultural technology. “The expansion of these crops has the effect of destroying the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing the diversity of production and affecting regional economies, now and in the future,” he says. “In various countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for the production of cereals and other products needed for their cultivation.” Although so-called “terminator” technology has not been deployed, he warns, “This dependency would be aggravated were the production of infertile seeds to be considered; the effect would be to force farmers to purchase them from larger producers.”
He worries also that small-scale farmers are threatened by technological change. “Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops,” Francis says. “Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.”
The encyclical, entitled Laudato Si (translated as “Be Praised”), also warns about the dire effect of climate change on agriculture. “Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use,” Francis says. “Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken.” The pope also appeals for less food waste. “Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and ‘whenever food is thrown out, it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.”
Biotechnology and other technological advances “have given us tremendous power,” he says. “While human intervention on plants and animals is permissible when it pertains to the necessities of human life,” Francis cites long-standing Catholic teaching that experimentation on animals “must contribute to caring for or saving human lives.” It is “contrary to human dignity,” the church teaches, “to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” Such use and experimentation “requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation,” he says.