Have you heard of 'The Call of Creation: God's Invitation and the Human Response'? It was a booklet produced in 2002 by the International Department of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) on the eve of the Johannesburg environment summit. I'll pay tribute here to Sr Denise Calder RSCJ, who died earlier this year. She worked for the Department at the time and pushed for the document to be produced, liaising with Barbara Wood, an active Catholic in a West London parish and the daughter of Fritz Schumacher. Several years later, CAFOD's campaign produced liturgy resources around the text.
The very first paragraph said, "a way of life that disregards and damages God's creation, forces the poor into greater poverty, and threatens the right of future generations to a healthy environment and to their fair share of the earth's wealth and resources, is contrary to the vision of the Gospel". The document underlined the concept of the common good and warned that Earth's life-sustaining processes were being undermined:
"The natural world is made up of many different delicate and intricately interconnected cycles that have nurtured and sustained life for millions of years, giving fertile soil, clean water and a pure atmosphere. Now these life-sustaining mechanisms are breaking down through pollution and abuse. In many places fresh water once teeming with life is dead, beautiful coasts have been turned into sewers, fertile soil lies barren or has turned into desert. Forests, often described as the lungs of the earth, are reduced to wasteland, and cities are choked with smog. Emissions of 'greenhouse gases' continue to affect the atmosphere in ways that threaten the balance of life on the planet. The resulting climate change could severely disrupt the lives of all of humankind."
This was a ground-breaking document from our bishops' conference and two years later the National Board of Catholic Women was amongst interested groups delighted to participate in a London seminar looking at developing the Catholic Church's response to the environment. St Louis Sister Louisa Poole and myself sat on the environment working group of the Board and not only attended but prepared a document for consideration. We suggested the bishops set up a new agency of the CBCEW for environmental justice as the Australian bishops had done with Catholic Earthcare Australia. We suggested an Environmental Justice Sunday with educational and fund-raising aspects. CAFOD does some excellent work on the environment but huge areas do not fall under its brief - oceans, ice caps, and biodiversity for instance. Clergy formation on creation-centred theology and a bishops' pastoral letter on the environment were amongst ideas put forward in the Board document. Well, things went quiet.
For two years from October 2009 there was a national level Catholic Environmental Justice Group - chaired by a bishop and including Mary Colwell (the BBC producer who had run 'Sound of many Waters' in her diocese of Clifton), Mark Dowd (Operation Noah) Fr Martin Poulsom (Chair of the Livesimply Network), eco-theologian Celia Deane-Drummond, and other Catholics with a track record on creation care and two senior CAFOD staff. The last meeting convened was in October 2011. This demise of the group was surprising since in September 2010 a joint communiqué was issued by the Holy See and the British Government during the visit to Britain of Pope Benedict indicating that both parties shared "a conviction of the urgent need for action to address the challenge of climate change" and that "action is needed at every level from the governmental to the individual if we are to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to set in motion the transition to a global low-carbon economy, and to assist poor and vulnerable countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change that are already inevitable". CAFOD has taken this forward to some extent, and it is an agency of the bishops' conference, but what about the Church as a whole - such as the seminaries and colleges, diocesan publications, and missionary societies.
Yet, grass-roots initiatives on environment have increased, with Livesimply parishes and eco-schools growing in number and affirmed by local clergy and bishops. Also, initiatives outside the parish model, such as Catholic People's Weeks, focusing on creation care. Practically every talk I've been invited to give in recent years has been on climate change - to Newman Association Groups, ecumenical One World Week groups, CAFOD groups and diocesan Justice and Peace commissions and groups. The July 2015 National Justice and Peace Network conference will have a workshop on 'Conflict and Climate Change' run by myself and two others from the NJPN Environment Working Group. I ran a similar workshop in May at the Pax Christi International Assembly in Bethlehem where ecological issues featured throughout.
The Environment Encyclical will add to the clamour for the CBCEW and all bishops' conferences around the world to do more - to really instill love of creation, to educate on the creation care aspect of Catholic Social Teaching, and to stimulate action to protect our beautiful Planet Earth from literally being worn out by human society. Fundamental is that the Catholic Church in England and Wales sets up adequate structures for creation care. Let's open up the discussion once more. Two things I'd like to see is the building up again of the network of diocesan Justice and Peace workers, perhaps even additional environmental specialists, as well as clear policy and action by the CBCEW regarding ethical investment, particularly divestment from fossil fuels.
In the thirteenth century St Thomas Aquinas argued that the diversity of the extraordinary array of creatures roaming the earth revealed the richness of the nature of God. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it used to occur at a natural "background" rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. Perhaps one day we will see our Catholic churches in England and Wales truly repent of humanity's wasteful destruction of God's creation, celebrate biodiversity in our liturgies, join with others to protect green and wild places locally, and offer broad-based support to advocacy on climate change.
"The Call of Creation" reminded us in 2002: "In the Eucharist we, the priestly people, the Church, are empowered to transform and use what we have been given. This act of transformation is a sacred act. But it is for all, to nourish all, for the life and salvation of all."
The Call of Creation
Between the Flood and the Rainbow
Study Programme on Climate Change and the Church's Social Teaching
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