Joseph Ratzinger, who recently stepped down as Pope Benedict XVI, was not as popular, let alone as saintly, as his predecessor John Paul II.
But he has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the “Green Pope,” making the Vatican the first carbon-neutral country in the world, putting thousands of solar panels on Vatican rooftops (a project that won the 2008 Euro Solar Prize), and committing the Vatican to having 20 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.
Ratzinger has always been an animal lover. He practices the church’s official teaching that we owe kindness to non-human animals and that it is morally wrong to inflict gratuitous suffering on them.
In an interview with a German journalist before he became pope, he said: “Animals, too, are God’s creatures. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
In his first sermon as pope, he returned to this theme: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. The earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”
The 40-day period of Lent in the liturgical calendar of the church is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter.
But, in practice, Lent often degenerates into meaningless acts of masochism (from “I’m giving up coffee or chocolate for Lent” to ritual self-laceration in “folk Catholicism”).
I’m often reminded of my Muslim neighbors, who fast scrupulously during the day during Ramadan only to feast sumptuously through the night.
If the purpose of fasting is to force us (well-to-do Christians) to be more attentive to the cries of the poor, to reflect on our self-indulgent lifestyles and to change direction, then, instead of giving up (say) coffee for 40 days, it would be better to use this period of Lent to study the conditions under which coffee is manufactured around the world, who gains and who loses out, and then, perhaps, to boycott gourmet coffee companies whose products we unthinkingly consume.
Indeed, food is a topic around which cluster numerous justice issues.
Simply pausing to ask ourselves: “Who makes the food on our table and at what cost to the rest of creation and to future generations?” opens up a plethora of disturbing moral challenges. Here is just a sample:
1. Cruelty to animals
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be appalled, like the pope, by the horrific conditions under which many animals are bred and killed to meet the demands of a consumer society.
Factory-farmed pigs, geese and ducks are treated as “commodities” (separated from mothers, artificially fattened and inseminated). Many of us in the church participate in such structural sin by our silence.
2. Intensive fishing and farming practices
The use of massive trawler nets in the North Sea has depleted fish stocks, and the same is happening in the Indian Ocean.
South Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen attack each other almost every day around the island’s coast.
The reason being that South Indian coastal waters have been denuded of fish by unsustainable fishing methods, forcing fishermen from Tamilnadu to poach in Sri Lankan waters.
According to the United Kingdom’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as much as half the food produced in the world ends up as waste each year.
They blame this on “unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with ‘poor engineering and agricultural practices’ and poor storage facilities in many developing countries.”
4. Climate change
Poor communities around the world suffer, increasingly, from severe climatic events and changing weather patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthier nations.
Desertification, crop failure and major flooding are growing at a rapid pace. Last year was the most arid in U.S history; while thousands of small farmers in India commit suicide every year because of failed monsoons, chronic indebtedness to loan sharks and dwindling arable land.
5. Trade Injustice
Huge government subsidies paid to farms and agribusinesses in the U.S. and European Union, combined with taxes on imported food, means that farmers in poor countries cannot compete and so give up agriculture altogether.
While the jury is still out on the toxic effects of genetically modified (GM) foods on humans and the environment, the question of who has access to GM seeds has a clear answer: only rich farmers who can afford to buy the seeds from giants like Monsanto.
An unfair, global system of patents worsens inequalities between and within nations.
The biblical prophets were scathing in their scorn at those who thought of fasting as a religious technique for getting God on their side:
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide from your own kin?
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.