While the fourth of July is most famously the American celebration of Independence Day, for the Catholic Church in Australia this year it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday. The day marks the beginning of NAIDOC Week, an annual opportunity to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme is “Heal Country”, in recognition of the various ways in which our country needs healing: environmentally, socially, and spiritually.

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis builds upon the teaching and reflections of previous pontiffs in order to help us reframe our approach to both Indigenous communities and our use of the earth. The reflections found there offer a genuinely Catholic way in which we can begin to engage in the work of “heal country”.

Previous Popes

In 1970, Pope Paul VI visited Australia and from Sydney addressed the nation as a whole, including its Indigenous inhabitants. To them he said:

We know that you have a lifestyle proper to your own ethnic genius or culture – a culture which the Church respects and which she does not in any way ask you to renounce.

Fundamental to recognising the catholicity of the Church, its universal quality, is respecting the many cultures that constitute her. That which is positive in a culture is never expected by the Church to be left at the door. On the contrary. Pope Paul VI went on with strong words:

… the common good never can be used legitimately as a pretext to harm the positive values of your way of life.

In other words, the beauty and the goodness of one’s culture should be drawn out, highlighted and celebrated. Any attempt on the part of the others to try and efface that in the name of the common good – in the name of anything, really – is wrong.

When Pope John Paul II visited Australia in 1986, he echoed the words of Paul VI but also pointed out some particularities of Indigenous culture that would later feed into Pope Francis’ reflections in Laudato Si’. This has to do with the relationship between people and the land.

Pope John-Paul II said this:

For thousands of years this culture of yours was free to grow without interference by people from other places. You lived your lives in spiritual closeness to the land, with its animals, birds, fishes, waterholes, rivers, hills and mountains. Through your closeness to the land you touched the sacredness of man’s relationship with God, for the land was the proof of a power in life greater than yourselves. You did not spoil the land, use it up, exhaust it, and then walk away from it. You realized that your land was related to the source of life (§4).

It is precisely this approach to the land that Pope Francis picks up in Laudato Si’, urging us to reframe our relationship to the earth using a basic principle of Catholic Social Teaching.

The Common Destination of Goods

Fundamental to Catholic Social Teaching is what it called the universal destination of goods – or the common destination of goods. In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II wrote that this principle was ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order’ (§19). What does this mean? It refers to a basic human right, ‘common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation’ (§14). The goods of this earth are meant for everyone. As such, the Church has always taught, for instance, that the right to private property is not absolute. While the Church does not support the abolition of private property (as advocated by certain political movements like Communism) it also recognises that property in and of itself should serve, rather than detract from, this right that is common to all.

In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II put it like this:

God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone. This is the foundation of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. The earth, by reason of its fruitfulness and its capacity to satisfy human needs, is God’s first gift for the sustenance of human life (§31).

This right to an equitable use of the earth’s goods for the development and well-being of human persons is one that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes as ‘natural’ and ‘innate’ – meaning that it does not change from century to century, circumstance to circumstance (§172). It is inherent to every human person.

What Pope Francis does in Laudato Si’ is apply this principle to our consideration of the various ecological problems that we face. After outlining this basic principle, he goes on to write:

The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all (§95).

Part of the problem that Pope Francis raises in the encyclical is that we don’t treat the earth as if it is a shared, universal inheritance. We don’t treat the goods of the earth as if, within the bounds of equity, they are to be considered as a human inheritance. Our approach to the earth has largely been a consumerist one that, with the power of technology, seeks to master and control reality. This is what Pope Francis refers to as the ‘technocratic paradigm’.

Principal Dialogue Partners

Greater reflection on what this principle of the universal destination of goods means for our relationship to the earth is one way of seeking to move beyond the approach of mere possession and consumption. It is a complex topic with no easy solutions, but it is vital that this principle be part of the foundation of our life and work in this area.

In fact, Pope Francis says to make our Indigenous brothers and sisters our ‘principal dialogue partners’ in this process, because they are not simply ‘one minority among others’:

For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values (§146).

Looking for ways to engage in this dialogue is one way of taking up an authentically Christian social ethic, and realising this year’s NAIDOC Week theme, “Heal Country”.

Visit the NATSICC website to download resources for this year’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday including: