Countdown to the Environment Encyclical: 9. Reading signs of the times

Floods in Bangladesh

Floods in Bangladesh

Pope Francis's forthcoming environment encyclical will be the first dedicated to ecological and planetary problems. However, his focus is not new in the Catholic world. The mission by some bishops' conferences and agencies to care for Creation has been growing since the 1980s, particularly after discerning what Populorum Progressio called in 1967 "the signs of the times".

In Britain, CAFOD's ground-breaking campaign in the mid-1980s - 'Renewing the Earth' - came out of a realisation that the human suffering of Ethiopia's famine was linked to environmental degradation and drought. Columban priest and eco-theologian Sean McDonagh was brought in as a consultant. I can remember the first time I met him, introduced by Brian Davies, the head of Development Education at CAFOD, who was keen to have theological underpinning of the new campaign. I read Sean's first book 'To Care for the Earth' that evening and immediately marked quotes to be used in the 'Renewing the Earth' study programme. Based on 20 years of working with tribal people in the Philippines and listening to their insights, along with observing the destruction of the natural world and livelihoods of poor communities on Mindanao Island, his challenges included the following:

"In the view of many fundamentalists the world is there solely to be used as a resource by human beings. Since the world is doomed to pass away in the very near future, it does not really matter that the natural world is being polluted and plundered to sustain the standard of living of a small segment of humanity. Religion, in this case, can actually act as a stimulus to those who are destroying the natural world. Because of the emphasis on immediate other-world salvation they are blind to the fact that what they are doing is destroying billions of years of God's creation and condemning every succeeding generation to poverty."

Sean was involved when the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines issued their pastoral letter, 'What is happening to our beautiful land?' in 1988. They reflected that, "the assault on creation is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith" and deplored the destruction of the Philippine forests, biodiversity and surrounding seas and coral reefs in the name of progress. They reflected that Jesus lived lightly on the earth and warned his disciples against hoarding material possessions and allowing their hearts to be enticed by the lure of wealth and power (Matt. 6:19-21; Lk. 9:1-6). "Our faith tells us that Christ is the centre point of human history and creation" (Eph. 1:9-10; Col 1:16-17), they said, "and the destruction of any part of creation, especially the extinction of species, defaces the image of Christ which is etched in creation".

Various bishops' conferences picked up the environment cause in the years following. The US Catholic bishops issued a statement in 2001: 'Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good' where they felt the level of scientific consensus on global warming obligated taking action to avert potential dangers.

In September 2006, New Zealand's Catholics were urged to adopt simpler lifestyles by the country's bishops who identified climate change as "one of the most urgent threats" facing Pacific peoples. Rising temperatures and sea levels, and the greater intensity of storms and natural disasters, they said, were already affecting the food and water supply for people on low-lying islands.

In Africa, Zambia's Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter in 2004 deploring that "we have not taken the best care for this environment on which we depend for our survival". The Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference worked on the issue of energy, being concerned that more than 70 per cent of total energy consumption in South Africa came from coal - a highly carbon-intensive fossil fuel. In 2002, the Australian Catholic bishops took a lead in the Catholic world and set up a new agency to focus specifically on environmental issues, called Catholic Earthcare Australia.

Global warming featured prominently in the Environmental Justice section of Caritas Internationalis' 2005 Report. "Climate change will impact food security - through diminished agricultural productivity and fishing - and could hasten the spread of waterborne diseases and accelerate desertification" it said. The Caritas network has tackled Climate Change over the decade since.

And what about missionary orders? The Columban missionaries have long described their mission as being in "solidarity with the poor and the exploited Earth". Columban clergy, religious and laity involved in Justice, Peace and Ecology gathered in Manila in September 2007 to examine climate change. From Latin America, for example, it was reported that Peru was experiencing a six fold increase in environmental disasters over the previous two decades.

Columbans in Chile reported that 87 percent of the glaciers were shrinking with implications for rivers and water provision, and big mining projects went ahead, despite local opposition, and taken a heavy toll on fresh water and glaciers. From Pakistan it was reported that flash floods in June 2007 displaced two million people after unusually heavy rain and severe weather. Columban missionaries undertook to address global warming by reviewing energy use, undertaking education work, and campaigning for carbon reduction and ethical investment. In a statement from Manila, its 25 Justice, Peace and Ecology workers said that "the endangered Earth demands a new prophetic way of being missionaries".

The Jesuits have an online communication platform called Ecojesuit which focuses primarily on concerns surrounding water, mining, food security, climate change, disaster resilience, energy and indigenous peoples. The Religious of the Assumption run regular 'Justice, Peace and Creation' events at Milleret House in Kensington. The Global Catholic Climate Movement - a network which includes organisations representing religious orders, church aid agencies, Catholic social justice advocates and others - met in Rome last month to prepare for the encyclical launch. The movement plans a prayer vigil in Washington the night before Pope Francis' 24 September address to Congress, where he is likely to touch on environmental protection.

Just last Friday, the Catholic Church in the Philippines voiced "strong opposition" to coal mining. Fr Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice, and Peace (NASSA)/Caritas Philippines, stressed that the Church strongly disapproves of the Philippine government planning 26 new coal plant projects by 2020. "In the guise of providing more efficient energy source, higher tax revenues and the so-called greater development, the state and the multinational coal companies are opening another door for the Philippines to becoming the major contributor to climate change," stressed Fr Edwin at the launch of a major petition against the plans. Fr Edwin is speaking at July's National Justice and Peace Network conference in Derbyshire - an important opportunity for Church people here to build solidarity with Church groups internationally building a more sustainable world.

I recently interviewed two church leaders who give me hope that Pope Francis will have allies within the Church when his mission to care for Creation is highlighted next week, but they are aware of the tensions surrounding an encyclical focusing on the environment for the first time. Cardinal Luis Tagle from the Philippines told me that, "even in my first diocese as a bishop 13 years ago I saw effects of environmental problems", he said, "but I also saw that concern for the environment and stewardship of creation are not well integrated into Christian discipleship".

Bishop Enemesio Angelo Lazzaris, of Balsas in northeast Brazil and President of the Brazilian Bishops' Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), told me that in his recent Lenten message he criticised the commodification of the natural world, specifically multinational corporations monopolising the trade of seeds and setting up large monocultures such as soybean, cotton, and sugar cane which use pesticides intensively, replacing the production of healthy and diverse foods. "This reality provokes outrage in those of us who witness it" he said.

Bishop Enemésio, whose diocese includes semi-desert and parts of Amazonia, knew personally Sr Dorothy Stang who was murdered ten years ago in Amazonia while working for the CPT and he felt that "environmental martyrs" like her should be recognised by the Church.

Tags: climate change, Columbans, Countdown to the Environment Encyclical, Ellen Teague, Fr Sean McDonagh, Reading signs of the times

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