The Church and the Environment – Leaders or Laggards?
10th July 2012 - by Ellen Teague
The following is a talk given by Ellen Teague to the Newman Association – Manchester and North Cheshire Circle – on 2nd July at Handforth, Cheshire.
For more than two decades, the Vatican has framed the environmental crisis, particularly Climate Change, as a moral issue involving the future of God’s creation. For World Peace Day on 1 January 1990, Pope John Paul II warned that peace was threatened not only by arms, conflict, and injustice, but by “a lack of due respect for nature”. In his words, “a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives”. He spoke shortly before the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990, which warned of the danger of “anthropogenic climate change”.
Yet regional bishops’ conferences had been active on environmental issues even before this. In 1986 the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Pacific condemned the pollution of the ocean from nuclear and other contamination and criticised large-scale development projects which “take no account of the present and future risks to our environment”. In 1988 the Bishops of the Philippines produced a statement ‘What has happened to our beautiful land?’ In a country, where rainforest cover had within a few decades been reduced from nearly 90% to 10%, they said, “the assault on creation is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith”. In the late 1980s CAFOD, an agency of our own Catholic bishops, ran an education campaign, ‘Renewing the Earth’ on the links between development and environment, spurred by the Brundtland Report ‘Our Common Future’ and the recent experience of famine across Sahelian Africa where the environment was so dry and degraded that it couldn’t support subsistence farming and livestock. Remember, this was at a time when Development and Environment were seen as completely separate issues.
Since Pope John Paul’s peace message of 1990, we’ve seen the US Bishop’s 2001statement ‘Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good’, which is now linked into a Climate Covenant which many religious orders and US dioceses are signed up to. Here, the Bishops of England and Wales produced ‘The Call of Creation’ in 1992 for Rio+10 which called for us to read “the signs of the times”, to develop simpler lifestyles and to educate ourselves towards ecological responsibility. The Livesimply programme developed out of this and more recently the Livesimply parish award. I am soon to be an assessor for a parish in Reading which is among the first two parishes in England and Wales to apply for the award. The Newman Association has been a catalyst for action. I attended your conference ‘Faith and the Environmental Imperative: Responding to the Call of Creation’ in 2004. ‘Sound of Many Waters’ was a ground-breaking year-long programme in Clifton Diocese – initiated by Mary Colwell – which included an early morning gathering in Bishop Declan Lang’s garden to hear the dawn chorus of the birds. I understand he provided breakfast as well! Catholic leaders joined other Christian leaders at ‘The Wave’ in December 2009, as 60,000 people walked London streets to demand climate action at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, and if you look at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales website today there is an extensive section on the environment. The new website on Catholic Social Teaching includes a downloadable study programme on Climate Change and the Church’s Social Teaching called Between the Flood and the Rainbow.
Some bishops’ conferences though have made a very big commitment of resources towards environmental justice, bringing the issue firmly into their mission. We’ve just passed the tenth anniversary of the Australian Bishops’ Conference founding of Catholic Earthcare Australia, a new bishops’ agency inspired by Pope John Paul II’s call to “stimulate and sustain the ecological conversion” throughout Australia’s Catholic Church. It provides educational materials, and encourages a reverence for creation, a responsible stewardship of Earth’s natural resources and ecosystems, and provides a voice for the victims of environmental disasters. In 2007 the Archdiocese of Manila held a climate conference with more than 2,000 participants, including clergy and bishops, to plan for the future flooding expected in one third of Manila parishes which are situated just barely above sea-level. The Columbans were holding a Climate Conference the same week and Columban and eco-theologian Sean McDonagh spoke at both. Every Manila parish has worked since then to prepare for widespread flooding – and it has happened several times in recent years – and have an environmental coordinator in place who links into an office at diocesan level.
The Missionary Society of St. Columban says in its mission statement that it is “in solidarity with the poor and the exploited Earth”. Columbans in Korea these past months have protested destruction of the environment on the pristine island of Jeju for a military base, and those here attended a demonstration at the Korean embassy in May, along with other religious groups and Pax Christi. The Jesuits, Salesians and many other religious groups have involved themselves in caring for creation.
Pope Benedict XVI has carried forward the Catholic Church’s message in numerous speeches and writings, and more than 2,700 solar panels cover the roof of the weekly audience auditorium. This past January, he advocated for progress at June’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, known and Rio+20. It aimed to take forward environmental protection measures put in place at the first Earth Summit in 1992. There were awareness raising events throughout Britain organised by SCIAF and CAFOD. In Rio the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro organised a special Mass at the city’s Cathedral to welcome participants of the Summit and the simultaneous Peoples’ Summit. The Mass was concelebrated by clergy from Brazil and around the world. Afterwards, the Brazilian Bishops hosted a press conference in the Cathedral where Catholic development organisations, launched a statement signed by over 50 international church and civil society leaders, called ‘Time to rethink and regain control over the future of the human family’. Bishop John Arnold, auxiliary in Westminster and Chair of CAFOD, and Chris Bain, President of CIDSE and Director of CAFOD were two of the signatories urging world leaders to “make lasting changes to foster sustainable development and eradicate poverty”. Catholic organisations like Caritas were prominent in the lobbying of world leaders.
However, I’m aware that I’ve been cherry picking nuggets of positive news on the Catholic Church and the environment. I can’t say hand on heart that the Catholic Church as an institution has been cutting edge, despite its prophets such as Hildegarde of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Teillhard de Chardin, and Sr Dorothy Stang. There are sometimes understandable reasons. I remember an official of the Sudan Bishops’ Conference telling me that they are just too busy dealing with day to day violence and humanitarian emergencies to have the luxury of focusing on sustainable development. But let’s look at England and Wales. How many people in the average parish think environmental concerns are relevant to their faith? When have you heard clergy give a sermon about care for creation? Did you hear of any Catholic dioceses providing prayers for the success of the recent Earth Summit? Have you heard of Creation Time, which is supposed to be celebrated by Christian churches in September and ending with the Feast of St. Francis on 4 October? I was co-chairing a Catholic People’s Week on faith and environment last month and when we asked participants the question, “What has your church taught you about humanity’s place in creation?” the response across the room was “Absolutely nothing!”. In fact several reported feeling until recently that earthly matters distracted from the key focus of Christians which is getting into heaven. In March, I gave a talk on ‘Environment and Faith’ to head teachers of Catholic schools in the Southend Deanery of Brentwood Diocese during their annual retreat day. They felt the issue was vitally important but received little information about it through Catholic structures such as the Catholic Education Service.
In my experience, sustained leadership on engaging with the environment has largely been given outside of the parish model. I pay warm tribute to Christian Ecology Link, which has pushed these concerns through Christian networks for more than 30 years, and I urge you to join them and receive their magazine Green Christian. At their recent conference in Bristol keynote speaker Jonathon Porritt congratulated those active in the faith community on the environment but felt the structural church had been lacking in commitment. I also pay tribute to Operation Noah, the churches climate change campaign and a membership organisation, which launched the excellent Ash Wednesday Declaration back in February. The Declaration challenged the churches to realise that care for God’s creation – and concern about climate change – is foundational to the Christian gospel and central to the church’s mission. Catholics have played key roles in both organisations. Neither organisation has received serious attention or promotion from our bishops and hence most Catholics have never heard of them. Of course they are both ecumenical and lay led!
The National Justice and Peace Network has been the key Catholic organisation picking up on environmental justice over the last decade. Two annual NJPN conferences focusing on Environment (2005) and Food (2010) and involving around 350 participants each have been ground-breaking in linking faith, environment and action for sustainable development. NJPN’s key contacts spent a day studying Creation Theology last year. In this diocese of Shrewsbury your J&P Commission worker Joan Sharples followed up with study days. In April last year I attended a day at St Thomas More Catholic High School in Crewe. Titled ‘Enough is Enough: A Christian Challenge to our Current Lifestyle’, around 80 people attended and committed themselves to live more simply. Yet in March this year Joan was suddenly made redundant by the diocese. I am completely bemused. On the national scene, chronic under-resourcing of J&P is only overcome by the dedicated lay people committed to the cause and those missionary groups that support them.
Can it be that work on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation still has to make a case for itself in some places, despite the Church tradition of Care for Creation in Catholic Social Teaching and a clear sign of the times that our planet’s life systems are under extreme pressure. Lets spell it out… humanity itself is under threat if the material bases of our lives – such as water, soil, air – can no longer being taken for granted, and poor communities in the global south feel the worst impacts first. As theologian Sean McDonagh puts it, “Environmental crisis, especially Climate Change, is the most important issue facing the planet and humanity at this current time, therefore it should be the most important issue for all religions”.
You know myself and others here went to Westminster Hall last October to hear Australia’s Cardinal George Pell give a speech on behalf of a leading climate sceptic group. I congratulate myself in getting him to admit during question time that he was not speaking for the Catholic Church but was sharing his own opinion. But perhaps the most worrying comment he made was asking us to give him credit for paying attention to the issue. He reported that in all the meeting of cardinals he attended regularly he has never heard Climate Change discussed. It’s not a ‘hot’ issue for them. Now that I found shocking! You can get the impression that with documents such as last May’s document from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, ‘Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene’ that the men at the top are working towards an ecological conversion. The use of that word ‘anthropocene’ is significant – it is a term that marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. The document spelt out the consequences for those dependent on melt water from mountain glaciers for their water…. that’s four billion people! Yet, senior hierarchy don’t seem to have heard of it.
We can excuse the Catholic community partly by saying that that it is part of a human society that largely disregards the natural world. Perhaps we’re too greedy, too enamoured of technical advances, too distanced from the rest of creation by our urban lives, too anthropocentric, too selfish to care that future generations will struggle more than we have had to to meet their needs. I am full of admiration for that dedicated community of environmental activists who have tremendous sensitivity to the natural world but don’t appear to have affiliation to any Christian church. I’ve been at cross-agency meetings with such people who wouldn’t consider owning a car, eating meat or taking an overseas holiday that involved flying. I’ve witnessed more deep engagement about sustainable development, the role of banks, the corporate world’s destruction of the world’s natural resources at the Occupy London camp at St. Paul’s than I have ever seen at any Catholic gathering. Three of my Columban colleagues joined a protest at St. Paul’s two weeks ago highlighting the destruction in the global south caused by mining companies and financial institutions in the City of London. Occupy London was delighted to welcome church people – all three of them!
But homing in on our faith – are there elements in it that actually undermine sensitivity to environmental problems? The Creation theologian Thomas Berry has suggested that existing religious traditions are inadequate to the task ahead of us, that we have no ‘functional cosmology’ with which to engage with the environmental crises of our times. Why is this? He suggests we focus almost entirely on seeing humans as having a destiny beyond other members of the earth community, we negate the natural world as a meeting place between the divine and human, and we have no Christian moral code that can deal with Biocide or Geocide. In addition, we are largely ignorant of how the human story links into the universe story. You know if the story of the universe was compacted into a single day, humans would be around for only the last few seconds. Shouldn’t that make us even slightly humble?
The US theologian, Sr Elizabeth Johnson, writes wonderfully about new understandings of God based on liberation, feminist, interreligious, and ecological theologies. She says that contemporary scientific discoveries concerning the age, size, dynamism and interconnectedness of the universe are prompting Christians to see creation not merely as “an instrument to serve human needs” but rather as a reality enjoying “its own intrinsic value”. She invites religious orders to “contemporise our vows in light of eco-spirituality and response to climate change”. But how has her work been valued by Church authorities in the States? Last year, this professor of systematic theology at Fordham University was forced to take a sabbatical. Her latest book, ‘Quest for the Living God’, was challenged by the Committee on Doctrine of the US Bishops’ Conference, saying it reached many conclusions which are “theologically unacceptable”. Of course, this immediately increased the circulation of the book!
Speaking at a Christian Ecology Link gathering a few years ago, theologian Mary Grey commented that even people engaged with Justice and Peace need to develop the liberation ethics that focuses on vulnerable people into a focus on vulnerable life-forms, and indeed the life of the planet itself. She suggested that prophetic communities don’t sink their hope merely in obvious, technological solutions– in short term solutions like carbon trading, carbon offsetting – but in becoming transformed communities, in changing our desires, our patterns of consumption and lifestyles. The signs of the times mean that we cannot just tinker with the issues, we have to engage fully. I feel myself that when I look into the eyes of my three children and contemplate the world they will be dealing with when they are my age and possibly have children of their own, I can do nothing less than commit myself to environmental activism. Of course, our clergy cannot do this.
I suppose I’m saying that the Church, like every one of us, is a leader and a laggard. I support every advocacy action going – to protect rainforests, oceans and small farmers, but I drive everywhere and eat more meat than I should. I’m a ‘work in progress’ to make that personal transition to a lower carbon way of life and to respect all life on our unique and wonderful planet – “the only planet that sings” as Mary Colwell puts it.
Could I prompt the Church here to join me in trying that bit harder. Several important initiatives here over the past decade have not been followed through – for example, the Bishops’ Conference Symposium on the Environment in 2004 where Sir John Houghton and Sean McDonagh were speakers; Bishops’ Conference participation in the international Faiths and Environment Conference at Windsor in 2009 with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon; and the national level Catholic Environmental Justice Group which has not been convened since last October and anyway was failing to feed in to the Bishops’ Conference agenda.
I would urge our bishops to promote the LiveSimply parish award so that the ten parishes currently participating mushroom into hundreds; they push for more focus on Creation Theology to be incorporated into formation programmes and in-service training of clergy and others; advertise this Autumn’s Creation Time in their diocesan bulletins; encourage Catholic schools to become eco-schools and promote ethical investment. And what about following up on the agreement between the British government and the Vatican – made during the papal visit – to collaborate over Climate Change? I’d like to see our bishops fully support and resource Justice and Peace Commissions which include environmental action in their mission, and respond to requests from bishops’ conferences in the south who seek solidarity over environmental problems. A pastoral letter on the environment would be great too.
Longer term, what about considering setting up a new environmental agency of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales which can ensure that environmental concerns move in from the fringe. Perhaps it could be resourced by an Environment Sunday. There would clearly here need to be a close collaboration with CAFOD – which has run campaigns on Water, Climate Change, Extractive Industries and Food – acknowledging that other issues such as Acidifying Oceans, Loss of Biodiversity and Energy issues are generally outside of its brief.
Yet, the responsibility for leadership in the Church on the Environment lies with all of us who are its members. The Newman, the National Board of Catholic Women, the National Justice and Peace Network, the missionary societies, the Catholic schools which are eco-schools, and others must continue to be seeds of hope within the Church and with partners outside of it too.
There signs of raised awareness everywhere, but its time to engage more deeply and more urgently.
“Thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven”.
Ellen Teague is a freelance Catholic journalist specialising in Justice, Peace and Environment, and is also a member of the London-based Columban JPIC team.