QUITO, Ecuador — Putting on his green hat once more, Pope Francis dedicated his last day in Ecuador mainly to the environment. He declared that greater protection of nature, including the nearby Amazon rainforest, is no longer a mere recommendation, but a requirement for survival.
The pontiff called for universities to teach about care for the earth and he insisted that civil society not destroy natural resources for short-term benefits.
Francis delivered two speeches on Tuesday afternoon, one at a local Catholic university and another at San Francisco Church in downtown Quito addressing representatives of the civil society.
In both cases, the backbone was protection of the environment.
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation,” he said at the university, quoting his recent encyclical letter, Laudato Si’.
Addressing representatives of culture, the economy, entrepreneurs, volunteers, sports figures, and Amazonian indigenous populations, Francis said the goods of the earth are meant for everyone.
However much someone may parade his wealth, the pope said, it comes with a “social mortgage,” echoing a term first used by St. John Paul II. In a 1987 encyclical, John Paul invoked the idea of a social mortgage to mean that the right to private property is not absolute, but rather comes with a responsibility for others.
In this way, Francis said, we move beyond purely economic justice, based on commerce, towards social justice, which upholds the fundamental human right to a dignified life.
Themes first used by John Paul II were prevalent during Tuesday’s talks. On the Polish pope’s visit to Ecuador in 1985, during which he met with members of the indigenous population, the late pontiff said that uncompromising respect for the environment can sometimes clash with issues such as resource exploitation.
“It is a conflict that poses a real challenge for many peoples, and to which we must find solutions that respect the needs of people above economic reasons alone,” John Paul said over 30 years ago.
Meeting with 5,000 representatives of schools and universities gathered at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador Tuesday, Francis said that “one thing is certain: we can’t turn our backs on reality, on our brothers and sisters, on mother earth.”
He added that it’s wrong to turn aside from the surrounding reality, ignoring “what’s happening around us, as if certain situations don’t exist or have nothing to do with our life.”
Addressing educators in particular, Francis asked them to teach students to have an open mind capable of caring for today’s world, encouraging them not to disregard the world around them, enabling and supporting a constructive debate which fosters dialogue in the pursuit of a more humane world.
Talking to families, schools and teachers, the Argentine-born pope asked for them to help students have a greater responsibility in the face of the many who can’t attend school for lack of resources. “How can we help make their education a mark of greater responsibility in the face of today’s problems?” Francis asked.
In improvised remarks, Francis said that in Rome during winter, it’s common for an old, homeless man to die near the Vatican of cold, and no media outlets report it.
“A poor man dies of cold and hunger and it isn’t news,” he said, echoing similar statements from his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. “But if the markets at one of the world’s capitals lose two or three points, we have an international scandal. I ask: ‘Where is your brother?’”
Talking to members of civil society later in the afternoon, the pontiff called for a special protection of the Amazonian rain forest, where some of the members of the indigenous communities that were present for the talk in San Francisco Church call home.
Turning back to Laudato Si’, Francis said that this rainforest requires greater protection because of its immense importance for the global ecosystem.
He noted that the Amazon possesses an enormously complex biodiversity that is almost impossible to appreciate fully. When such woodlands are burned down or leveled for purposes of cultivation within the space of a few years, he continued, countless species are lost and the areas frequently become arid wastelands.
His comments come mere months before international companies begin drilling for oil in the remote Yasuni National Park, part of the Amazon, a decision that has generated strong social revolt here. Protesters have called for the resignation of President Rafael Correa, who in 2008 modified the constitution precisely recognizing the “rights” of the Pachamama (Mother Earth).
“We received this world as an inheritance from past generations, but also as a loan from future generations, to whom we will have to return it!” Francis said.
Speaking about the challenges of migration, overcrowded cities, consumerism, and crisis in families, the pontiff called for laws, regulations, and social planning that aim at inclusion, though not repression.
“Hoping in a better future calls for offering real opportunities to people, especially young people, creating employment, and ensuring economic growth,” Francis said.
Again going off-script, Francis referred to youth unemployment, saying those who don’t work or study are only left with loneliness, depression, or suicide. Others, he said, end up “enrolling in projects of social craziness that at least present them with an ideal.”
Finally, the pontiff said, respect for others, “which we learn in the family,” finds social expression in subsidiarity. “To recognize that our choices are not necessarily the only legitimate ones is a healthy exercise in humility,” he said.
Individuals and groups have the right to go their own way, even though they may sometimes make mistakes, Francis said. In full respect for that freedom, he added, civil society is called to help each person and social organization to take up its specific role in contributing to the common good.
This is the first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America for Francis since his 2013 election, which continues on with a 48-hour visit to Bolivia followed by a stop in Paraguay, where he’s bound to feel at home, with more one million Argentinians expected to cross the border to see him.