Care for Creation – Are Catholics bothered?
Being a big Michael Jackson fan, I was one of the first to see ‘This is it’, the film produced to record his final rehearsals for his London show in autumn 2009. The section that struck me most was his famous ‘Earth Song’ and his words that the degradation of the environment ‘really bothers me”. A video produced for the song showed a child appreciating the biodiversity and beauty of a rainforest and then lamenting the loss of those trees through logging and burning of the wood. And Jackson was not alone. Other celebrities – such as Bianca Jagger and Michael Palin – have involved themselves in recent campaigns to protect indigenous peoples and rainforests.
But what of the faith communities, particularly the Catholic community? Do environmental problems bother us? Is the Christian community so focused on other-worldly realities and activities within church doors that earthly realities are ignored? Whilst it is true that the anthropocentric focus of much of church activity has blinded us in the past to the welfare of the rest of the living world, the resounding answer, in my view, is ‘No’.
The Good News of Jesus is inspiring Catholics to address the most crucial issue of early 21st century, the rampant and, often irreversible destruction of God’s creation. There is the witness of Sr Dorothy Stang who became one of the world’s first environmental martyrs during 2005 in Brazil for defending rainforest and the livelihoods of rainforest communities. The gentle US nun was murdered in a contract killing ordered by illegal loggers and ranchers in the Amazon rainforest state of Para, and died with her Bible open in her hand.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has challenged the destructive approach of large foreign mining companies which pollute water sources and destroy forests. The CBCP has produced two pastoral statements on the Philippine environment.
At the Rome Food Summit in November 2009, Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa told the gathering that “Africans do not need genetically modified organisms, but water”. And there are plenty more examples of Catholics – individuals, groups and institution – caring for the environment.
But what is inspiring them? Firstly, the attitude of respect which Jesus displayed towards the natural world. In the New Testament the disciples of Jesus are called upon to live lightly on the earth – ‘take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics’ (Luke 9:1-6). Jesus constantly warned about the dangers of attachment to wealth, possessions, or power. The forces which are impoverishing hundreds of millions of people in the Third World, and at the same time destroying the planet, very often spring from greed. ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:23; Luke 16:19-31); cf.Matt 19:23-24; Luke 18:18-23). Jesus displayed an appreciative and contemplative attitude towards creation which was rooted in his Father’s love for all creation. It was during his sojourn in the desert with the wild animals that Jesus came to accept and appreciate the messianic ministry he was about to embrace (Mark 1:13). His life and ministry had a cosmic dimension. Paul tells us that Jesus is the centre of all creation (Col. 1:15-8).
Inspiration comes not only from environmental martyrs and witnesses and from scripture, since care for creation is a key dimension of Catholic Social Teaching. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken of the need for “ecological conversion”. The first took as his theme for World Peace Day in 1990: Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation. This Pope who loved to walk in the mountains, stated that, “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 condemned the squandering of finite resources while millions live in poverty, describing the ecological crisis as “a moral issue”. In the 1991 document Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year”, the Pope insisted that the state has the task of providing “for the defence and preservation of common good such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces”.
Pope Benedict XVI reflected in his 2008 World Peace Day message that “respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man, but, rather, it means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests”. In July 2008, he opened his first visit to Australia and to the World Youth Day events there by reminding everyone of the need to protect the environment. “With many thousands of young people visiting Australia at this time, it is appropriate to reflect upon the kind of world we are handing on to future generations,” said the Pope. “God’s creation is one and it is good; the concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity”.
Catholic Social Teaching documents back up this concern from the Vatican, underlining Church teaching that respect for human life extends to respect for all creation and Catholics must re-engage with the life systems of the planet and accept environmental responsibility. The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales produced a document in 2002, called The Call of Creation, which urged us to see ourselves as stewards of God’s creation and to safeguard natural resources for future generations. The threat of climate change is addressed specifically in the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which says, in paragraph 470, that the relationship between human activity and global warming must be constantly monitored for “the climate is a good that must be protected”. There is a link with the ‘Option for the Poor’ element of Catholic Social Teaching since vulnerable communities in the Global South are the first to suffer during water shortage, drought and extreme weather.
Sacramentum Caritatis - ‘The Sacrament of Charity’, Pope Benedict’s 2007 Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, particularly paragraph 92, said that the Eucharist “powerfully illuminates human history and the whole cosmos”. It suggests that when, during the presentation of the gifts, the priest raises to God a prayer of blessing and petition over the bread and wine, “fruit of the earth,” “fruit of the vine” and “work of human hands,” the rite “not only includes in our offering to God all human efforts and activity, but also leads us to see the world as God’s creation, which brings forth everything we need for our sustenance”. In his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate - “Charity in Truth”, issued in 2009, Chapter 4 addresses environmental concerns. He says that, “the environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole”. He calls for a review of consumerist lifestyles and calls on world leaders, “to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognised with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations”.
The Church’s Social Teaching theme of ‘Valuing God’s Creation’ has been picked up the world over by Catholic bishops’ conferences, agencies, dioceses, parishes and schools. The Catholic development agencies in Europe, including Cafod and Progressio have run campaigns on climate change, extractive industries. water and sustainable agriculture. They have offered a concept of authentic development, which gives a direction for progress that respects human dignity and the limits of materiel growth.
Many Catholic parishes and schools are joining the Eco-congregation and Eco-schools initiatives, recognising that the environment is not just an ‘out there’ issue, it is all around them – the context of their lives and source of nourishment. Some are witnessing to more sustainable lifestyles by placing solar panels on their buildings, growing food on their land and encouraging the community to walk more.
As people of faith we should be considering our response to the following words of Pope Benedict XVI:
“Encouraged by the growing recognition of the need to preserve the environment, I invite all of you to join me in praying and working for greater respect for the wonders of God’s creation!”
Bishops Conference of the Philippines, 2008 Pastoral letter on the Environment
Bishops Conference of the Philippines, 1998 Pastoral Letter: “What is happening to our beautiful land?’
Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa tells Food Summit: ‘Africa needs water, not GM crops’, 2009
World Peace Day Message 1990, ‘Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation’
World Peace Day Message 2010, ‘If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation’
‘The Call of Creation’ 2002, Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales