Some years back, I recall reading an article that spoke of the then recent ‘Whanganui settlement’, signed in 2014 and enacted into law in New Zealand. This settlement established two guardians who were appointed to act on behalf of the Whanganui River. The settlement provided financial compensation to the Whanganui iwi (people/ nation) and established a legal framework which recognised the legal rights of the river. A year later India’s Uttarakhand high court, in citing the Whanganui decision, afforded the Ganges and Yamuna rivers legal protection.

The effect of both of these decisions was that the rivers were given the legal status of a person. At the time I thought – ‘What a ridiculous notion – who can represent a river, or define a river’s damages to a court?’

These decisions of course, merely seek to formally recognise what indigenous peoples have long believed, that the earth and all its contents (land and water), have a sacredness to them. This sacredness is linked to our humanity.

My mind has changed since then. If companies and corporations are afforded rights as separate legal entities, why not a mountain or river? I’ve probably mellowed a bit I suppose. Perhaps I’ve envisaged a broader God. A God that isn’t limited to humanity.

If I consider the “Cosmic-Christ” (as the philosopher Fr. Teilhand de Chardin re-coined the term, and now used by Pope Francis), in that “Cosmic-Christ”, I need to see God in all aspects of Creation. Humans, flora and fauna have to be afforded dignity and respect as a matter of justice. If we are to understand and truly marvel at a God that creates all things in this universe, why shouldn’t a river or a mountain be afforded legal rights and protections?

As Pope Francis has written in his 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si’- On Care For Our Common Home’:
“The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.” (LS #83)

Fr Tom

Rev Fr Tom Stevens