Text: Mary Colwell on Reconciling and building bridges with creation

Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell

The following talk was given by Mary Colwell at the National Justice and Peace Network Conference 18-20 July 2014. She is the producer of Radio 4’s ‘Shared Planet’ and a Catholic in Clifton Diocese. The conference theme was 'Called to Life in All Its Fullness: accepting the responsibility of our baptism'.

A year or so ago a friend gave me a book to read – “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather.

In it she wrote, “From an atheist to a believer, tell me why I love this book?” It was written in 1927 and is about Bishop Latour and his friend Fr Vaillant who are sent out from Rome to New Mexico in the middle of the 19th Century to re-invigorate Catholicism there. It is a beautiful book, described as “economical and distilled as poetry.” A.N Wilson called in “Quite simply a masterpiece.”

Amongst the many memorable, haunting passages one stands out strongly. It describes the Bishop towards the end of his time in New Mexico – and of his life. This gentle, holy man who treated everyone with respect and was greatly liked and admired, suffered from what Mother Theresa described as, “an emptiness so great I look but do not see, I listen but do not hear.” One such troubled, cold night he lay in his bed unable to sleep and felt, much as Mother Theresa did, that he was alone. "There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead." God was nowhere tangible, and he was desolate about his mission, feeling he made no progress. The land seemed as heathen as when he arrived years earlier, “the Mexicans just play at their religion,” he said. In the dead of night he got up. It was very cold and the snow looked ghostly in the moonlight. He put on a thick, fur-lined cloak and went into the church to pray alone.

Everywhere was white with snow, and the church stood out sharply in the faint light from the moon. In the doorway of the sacristy he saw a crouching figure – a woman, and she was weeping bitterly. Her name was Sada, an old Mexican woman who was kept as a slave by an American family who were Protestants and hostile to her Catholic faith. They would not allow her to go to Mass, or to receive any visits from a priest. On this cold winter’s night when the family stayed in warm rooms they put her out into a wood shed. Unable to sleep for cold she had crept out unseen and ran to the Church to pray. When she found all the doors locked she sank down and wept. This is how the bishop found her. She had no socks on her feet, just old, worn out shoes. Her thin shawl was little protection against the cold over a thin, patched dress. She was shivering. He wrapped his cloak around her and took her into the church. There they prayed together and the bishop heard her confession. He gave her a holy medal and told her he would always pray for her. The bishop had never seen such pure goodness shine from a human face in the way it did from this poor, abused old woman. It is hard to think of another piece of writing that brings together the Christian understanding of how suffering and pain bind the poor to Christ and dignify it. This old woman’s pain was beyond anything the bishop could personally experience – he was rich and respected, she a peasant and slave. He was deeply moved by her piety and said that the Church was Sada’s house and he was but a servant in it. The name Sada by the way means Pure.

The end of this section tells of the Bishop looking at the trail of dark footprints that Sada had left in the snow as she hurried back to her captivity. Although offered she would not take his cloak for fear her owners would find it.

The plight of Sada struck a deep chord with me. Why didn’t the bishop do everything in his power to help her? He was a good and holy man. Why didn’t he demand her release or at that she be treated well? Why didn’t he take her into the protection of his household and refuse to let the family “own” her again? But he didn’t, even though many local women were asking the Church to step in. Why? Because, he said, “the time is not right.” The family who owned her could cause even more trouble in the town, they already led a group of militant Protestants who disrupted meetings and services and he didn’t think it was right to make matters worse in the community. So Sada remained a prisoner and slave, mistreated and abused.

I have read and re-read this passage because it works on so many levels. From a spiritual point of view it talks of lifelong commitment to God despite doubt and hardship. It highlights compassion for the poor that defines the heart of Catholicism. It talks of the beauty of the sacraments, which are a comfort and source of inspiration for many. It describes beautifully the presence of goodness in the most wretched of circumstances. But it also brings to the fore a more perplexing, and disturbing facet of Catholicism - fractures that have dogged the Church through time when obvious need is not met because “the time is not right.” The confused and ineffectual teachings on slavery, Nazism and votes for women are three obvious examples.

In this passage the injustice that goes unchallenged is the oppression of Sada. The book is set in the time of slavery and human bondage and was accepted as the way of society. It was largely accepted by the Church, which even at times supported it. But for me though this passage can be seen in another light. Sada represents the earth. In an unexpected way Cather has expressed how I feel about the Catholic Church’s attitude to nature. The animals and plants of this earth are abused and mistreated for selfish reasons, often for greed and avarice. They are used to fuel the making of money that most often does not contribute to the common good. They are treated wastefully and with a profound lack of respect. Often treated cruelly. Many of us feel compassion for their plight and wish it could be different. Officially however not much happens. The treatment of the natural world remains low on the list of priorities. “The time is not right.”

Why is it not right? Let’s try to understand this. It is important because in my opinion we are failing in our duty to be true to our baptism – the theme of this conference - if we fail to protect nature.

I want to highlight some examples of what I mean when I use this analogy from Death Comes for the Archbishop.

This last spring Chris Packham went to Malta to bring to the attention of the world what happens in the skies above a devout Catholic country. Malta.

By law 10,000 hunters can shoot 16,000 migrating birds. These birds fly to and from Europe to Africa – between their breeding and wintering grounds. The journeys are long and hazardous. They have to cope with storms, extremes of temperature, natural predators and long distances. They have to find enough food en route in a world that is shifting fast. The spread of urbanization, intensive agriculture and deforestation make that hard. They also run the gauntlet of men with guns. Many more than the allotted number are shot illegally, though figures are obviously hard to come by. And it isn’t just Malta, other countries that are largely Catholic such as Spain and Italy and France, all take their share too. They use horrific methods, tethering live song birds to poles with glue. Their calls attract others which are caged or shot. Small songbirds that would fit into the size of a child’s palm, or huge, impressive birds of prey, shot down all over the Mediterranean each spring.

John Muir, the founding father of conservation and of America’s National Parks, and a deeply spiritual man, deplored the similar traditional practice of hunting migrating song birds in America in the 19th Century.

“Not even genuine piety can make the robin-killer quite respectable. Saturday is the great slaughter day in the San Francisco bay region. Then the city pot-hunters, with a rag-tag of boys, go forth to kill, kept in countenance by a sprinkling of regular sportsmen arrayed in self-conscious majesty and leggins, leading dogs and carrying hammerless, breech-loading guns of famous makers. Over the fine landscapes the killing goes forward with shameful enthusiasm. After escaping countless dangers, thousands fall, big bagfuls are gathered, many are left wounded to die slowly, no Red Cross Society to help them. Next day, Sunday, the blood and leggins vanish from the most devout of the bird-butchers, who go to church, carrying gold-headed canes instead of guns. After hymns, prayers, and sermon they go home to feast, to put God's song birds to use, put them in their dinners instead of in their hearts, eat them, and suck the pitiful little drumsticks. It is only race living on race, to be sure, but Christians singing Divine Love need not be driven to such straits while wheat and apples grow and the shops are full of dead cattle. Song birds for food! Compared with this, making kindlings of pianos and violins would be pious economy.”

It is gross hypocrisy, suggested Muir, to preach a peaceful, love filled Kingdom of God while blasting innocent creatures from the sky. He had the same contempt for those who killed bison, passenger pigeons, polar bears, seals and so on. How can Christians kill for fun and still proclaim peace on earth?

Each year hunters go to the roof of St Julian’s parish church in Malta and fire blank rounds to commemorate St Julian, one of the patron saints for hunters in Malta, along with St Hubert. The guns are aimed at the sky – at passing birds.

There is no suggestion that the Catholic Church in Malta actively supports the shooting of birds as they migrate, but neither does it stand up strongly against it – not wanting to rock the boat of “traditional practices.” Birds, like Sada, are just not important enough to risk upsetting things too much. The time is not right.

It’s worth remembering that this year – in September - it is 100 years since the last passenger pigeon died in Cincinnati Zoo. Once it was the most numerous bird on the planet, billions of them were slaughtered by farmers and hunters who bludgeoned them from the trees – some for food, some to fee pigs, mostly for fun. The same goes for the bison on the plains. The church didn’t react then, would it today? Does it consider the poaching of animals like elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns or exotic parrots and primates such as chimps or monkeys for the pet trade activities that should be condemned? Perhaps these are viewed as political and social problems, not religious ones? I don’t know, I’ve never heard any opinion.

The Malta spring migration hunt is obviously not as extreme as the killing of passenger pigeons and bison, elephants or rhinos, but it highlights a reluctance of the Church to pitch into the movement to protect the earth. I don’t think it is out of fear, or even ignorance in many cases as there is a lot of information available – but caution. Often campaigns are seen as too political, or “anti- human” and there is difficulty in squaring the needs of people with protecting species. And for sure there are difficult questions to answer. What is more important, protecting a wetland or draining it to provide water for agriculture? Speaking out against deforestation or the rights of the poor to clear areas for farms? Planting palm oil for food stuffs or protecting rainforest? These are issues that are complex and deserve discussion. I can understand why joining one “side” is not the right thing to do – there are nuanced arguments to be had and political pressures are huge. What I cannot and won’t accept is silence. I look in vain for comments and contributions to difficult environmental issues, everything from overfishing to pollution to hunting to deforestation, to damming rivers to plastics in the oceans – and I only hear nothing but deep silence. I don’t expect an alliance with Greenpeace, I do expect a contribution that sheds light.

One issue that does get attention – and excellent work - is in the area of development and climate change. The threat from climate change is a huge – it is a dangerous, sometimes lethal, reality. It is a long-term threat that is creeping insidiously into our lives here in Britain - but is already being felt with great force in other parts of the world where a change in weather patterns spells crop failure, death of livestock and famine. Flooding, droughts, storms, extremes of temperature, are all too familiar problems that countries all round the world are dealing with. It is undoubtedly a hugely serious issue and I am glad that CAFOD is tackling it so well. They are superb at highlighting the effect of climate change on developing countries and the responsibilities the rich West has in living low carbon lives and contributing to the mitigation process. It is a demonstration that when the poor are impacted then the church steps in to help deal with the suffering. Marie Elena Arana can tell you about the new CAFOD initiative One World, One Climate, a 3 year campaign which is being launched in September. It has a very welcome message that underlies that we are all one people on one earth, interconnected and inter-related. There is no “us and them,” only us.

There are also some wonderful, inspirational individuals and local groups who are humbling in their commitment to the earth and its well-being. Eco Congregation, LiveSimply, Christian Ecology Link, Operation Noah, A Rocha, Catholic Concern for Animals and so on. Catholics and other Christians are joining emerging groups like Grandparents for a Safe Earth to campaign for climate change action – some of whom were recently arrested for demonstrating about the banks’ investments in fossil fuels where I live in Bristol. Many people here will be actively involved or working as individuals doing what they can.

But doing what we can to get to grips with climate change is not doing the environment, anymore than thinking curing cancer will solve all the health problems of humanity. Important as it is, climate change is just one issue the world faces, there are many, many more that are having impacts on people physically and spiritually, yet these are largely side-lined and I am at a loss to know why. For me the world is not just about people, but I wonder whether that is a minority view – increasingly so. Over fishing isn’t climate change, nor is misuse of fresh water, plastic pollution, destruction of habitats, extinction of species, the pollinator crisis and so on.

Let’s look at some of the statements that have been made over the last few years. Just last year when Pope Francis went to the Amazon, he called for: “respect and protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it be indiscriminately exploited but rather made into a garden.”

We could have a whole talk on that sentence alone, but it is, in my opinion, a step backwards. Pope Francis is a beacon of hope for a beleaguered church, but on this his words are unfortunate. The earth is not a garden for our use, as this implies. I can’t imagine anything worse than the whole earth being turned into a garden, not matter how beautifully constructed. A garden by definition is human made and human designed. The earth is primeval, anarchic, beats to its own rhythm. It has a purpose and a path above and beyond our control. It is wild, rambunctious, diverse, inconvenient, dangerous, exquisite, terrifying, glorious, ugly, mundane, thrilling. It is all these things but it is not a garden, and nor should it be. Some of this planet must be used by us for our needs, but that does not make it a garden. I await with interest the encyclical on the environment from Pope Francis.

The pope who seemed to have the most thoughtful approach was John Paul 11:

“The seriousness of ecological degradation lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis…Simplicity, moderation and discipline as well as sacrifice must become part of everyday life.”

“Around the world, we can see the results of exploitation which destroys much without taking future generations into account.”

“We must therefore encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading.  Man is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward’, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss.”   

I don’t agree with everything that Pope John Paul 11 said by any means, but for these statements I am truly grateful. It seems to me though that his vision is disintegrating. We are going backwards at the moment, focussing more and more on one issue alone, and losing sight of the earth as a joyful manifestation of wonder in its own right, of which we are just a part. Our relationship with the earth now equals dealing with climate change and little else gets even a mention.

So let’s have some practical suggestions then, rather than general talk. What can we do when faced with such huge issues? Let me make one radical suggestion. And I am delighted, truly delighted, that this conference is one step ahead of me. To be true to our baptism we should carefully consider eating meat more than once or twice a week. Just that one commitment makes a whole array of statements about what it is to be Christian fully and completely alive on an earth that is increasingly stressed. Why do I say that?

• In terms of fresh water, 1 kg needs 15,000 litres of water whereas cabbage and eggs around 200.
• In terms of CO2, a meaty diet produces twice as much CO2 in terms of producing the meat as a vegetarian one, half that again for vegans.
• Grazing occupies 26% of the earth's ice-free terrestrial surface, and feed crop production uses about one third of all arable land – food that could be grown for people.
• 1.3 billion tons of grain are produced each year just to feed to livestock.
• Cruelty, antibiotics, disease transmission are other increasingly worrying factors.

Let’s look at what we are eating when we eat meat. If we were transported to another planet and plonked down and asked to decide what creatures on Planet Zog we would eat, many would like to apply some ethical ground rules.

Does the alien in front of us feel fear? Does it feel pain? Does it form emotional bonds? Does it have a high level of intelligence? Does it form social relationships and affliliations? Does it form inter-species relationships? We can apply our own levels to this test, but I imagine for those Planet Zog blobs that do pass all these tests at some level we would insist they are killed humanely and treated with respect, reducing stress and fear and pain as much as possible. Do we apply these rules to our own creatures here an earth? Not always.

The way most farm animals are kept, transported and killed is far from meeting these standards. Hens form real and tender bonds with their chicks, even when they are still in the egg. Cows and calves are deeply bonded, so are pigs and piglets, lambs and ewes. All feel pain and fear, all relate to their own and other species. They deserve our respect and I don’t believe we should expect to eat them everyday, mass-producing them as though we are processing inanimate objects.

And meat eating is increasing year on year.

There is increasing evidence that fish too feel real pain, they certainly have intelligence and form social bonds. Fish are not honorary vegetables and treating them as lesser protein, as we were urged to do on Fridays recently, just demonstrates a lack of understanding of the state of the oceans and of fish. An arrogance in my opinion. Making Friday meat free would have been a far more effective statement.


The seas are overfished by a huge margin using technology and advanced equipment that hoovers up millions of tons of fish, 1/3 of which is thrown back dead.

For example, a paper out just now shows that the amount of white fish – cod, haddock etc, in the early 20th C formed 50% of the catch in the N Sea, now it forms just 4%. Just this week the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and Aquiculture Science (CEFAS) produced a report demonstrating the dramatic decline in seabass and calling for an 80% reduction in catch. In 2010, 15,000 tonnes of breeding seabass was found in our seas, that is expected to fall to 10,000 next year. That is dramatic in 5 years. Seabass have been increasing in our waters as our seas warm due to climate change and already we are exploiting them to dangerous levels. By promoting fish on Fridays just exacerbates a problem and highlights how little the church is engaged with what is happening in the world around us.

So just by doing something simple, cutting down on meat and fish, will make a big difference. By saying why you are doing it tells the world we care.
And by doing it with a good heart, not resentful or grumpy. Sharing the earth with all other life might mean sacrificing to some degree, but sacrifice is a positive, giving experience in a religious sense. A self-emptying.

There is a lot of confusion however out there, a confusion which arises from not understanding the natural world. Last night we heard amusing examples of the ludicrous ideas about sex. Well it’s not just between the sheets that confusion reigns. What are these creatures?


The natural historians among you might think they are a snail and a bird – a guillemot. In fact you are wrong, the Catholic Church viewed them as fish which could be eaten on a Friday. The snail is cold bloodied, so not likely to give you heated passions, the guillemot, and puffin, fly underwater better than in the air – so lets call them fish.

This is not the time to point out all the environmental problems of the earth, it is a talk about being true to our baptism, to live full, holy, intelligent, meaning-filled lives. In my opinion that is not possible if we stay dumb when the earth suffers. Faith has a lot to say about so many of these issues. It can cut through the hype of campaigns and bring a depth and sense of humanity and understanding to issues. It can bring a long view, a sense of time unfolding, a joyful insight. But I look around and see no outstanding spokesperson from the official ranks. Is see no deep desire to contribute to the national and global conversation about our relationship with the earth – outside the frame of reference of climate change. But can a flourishing person thrive in a degraded world?

We need a time of reflection and to look into our hearts. We need to read Job again. This little quoted by superb commentary on the role of humanity on earth should be read every day. God tells Job to find the answers he is seeking in the world around him. “Ask the animals and they will teach you. Or the birds in the sky and they will tell you. Or speak to the earth and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.” They can’t teach us if we destroy them.

We think we know so much, have mastery and dominion, we don’t. We need more humility. If those who feel superior to the other creatures we share our planet with read Job 40-42, I wonder if they would still feel so good.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Do you know how its dimensions were determined and who did the surveying? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? Who defined the boundaries of the sea as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and thick darkness?”

All the environmental problems of the earth are complex issues with many interacting parts. People are bound up with the fate of this earth. We do not float above it like angels we are part of the grit and weave of the planet. To remove our spirituality from the discussions about the environment is a dereliction of duty.

I thought this talk was about looking for a hero – that figure who could pull it all together and inspire the Christian world to turn its formidable energy and compassion into protecting the natural world. I think I’m wrong. Perhaps the organic growth of the different groups that are self-assembling is the way forward – grass roots power that will eventually grow and thrive everywhere. To spread the word that Gemma talked about last night – to be a priesthood that reconciles and builds bridges with creation, that turns it from a resource into a manifestation of God. That makes the earth a sacred space, not separate from, but part of humanity itself. All is holy and all is one she said – how true. When we separate out holiness from the ordinary and put them into different spaces we are in trouble – how very true.

Everyone in this room is here because they care about who and what we are. I know I am preaching to the converted when I say it is being true to our baptism to care for the life and landscapes that make up planet earth. Let’s all keep talking about it, work for it, love it, enthuse people about it, write letters of complaint when things are wrong, write letters of praise when organisations or governments or church leaders act. Thomas Berry said we have broken “the great conversation with the earth” – we must start talking again, and listening.






Tags: Mary Colwell, National Justice and Peace Network Conference, Willa Cather.

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