Saving the planet part of the faith

By 
  • March 10, 2008

{mosimage}Editor's note: Canada's Catholic bishops have waded into the national debate over global warming. On March 7, the social affairs commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released its new statement called Our Relationship with the Environment: The Need for Conversion. In this document, the bishops insist that Christians must lead a global effort to curb mass consumption and our governments must develop concrete plans to reduce pollution.

For the complete text of the statement can be downloaded in pdf format here. For our own report on the issue, read below.

 

Halfway through Lent Canada’s Catholic bishops have told Canadians to abandon sin and save the planet. Our Relationship with the Environment: The Need for Conversion is the second statement in five years from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops that demands Canadians pay attention to the environmental crisis.

Like all preachers on the subject of conversion, the bishops of the CCCB social affairs commission leave no doubt about our need for an examination of conscience.

In response to the bishops' call

CATHOLIC REGISTER STAFF

Prior to the release of the Canadian bishops’ The Need for Conversion, The Catholic Register sought reaction from theologians, politicians and environmental activists. Here’s some of what they had to say:
  • Dennis Patrick O’Hara, Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology: “They (the bishops) are calling for a political response to these structures of sin, and not just a political response of words but a political response of action.”

  • Cherise Burda, Pembina Institute: “They pointed out the situation is very dire. So we need to be (politically) stronger in the sense that the federal government is contributing to this peril.”

  • Dorothy McDougall, KAIROS: “It’s obviously grounded in Catholic theology. The fact that it comes from the bishops gets the attention of Catholics.”

  • Nathan Cullen, NDP Environment Critic: “To remain silent when an issue as great as climate change is being lied about and mishandled by governments — that’s unethical.”

  • Fr. Jim Profit, Jesuit Ecology Project: “It’s calling all of us — as they say, it’s an invitation — but calling all of us to adjust our lifestyles.”

  • Joe Gunn, Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, Congregation of Notre Dame: “The greatest environmental problem we have right now is climate change. They describe this as a rupture of harmony with nature, then go on in strong language to call it not only immoral but suicidal — which is about as tough as you can get.”

  • Prof. Stephen Scharper, University of Toronto: “The fact that they invoke structural sin is important. I do think it is a moment for a new understanding of what social sin means in an ecological context.”
“The current ecological problems are essentially witnesses for the prosecution, testifying that we have violated the laws of life,” write the bishops.

Among the four bishop-authors, Archbishop Bertrand Blanchet of Rimouski holds a PhD in forestry and studied biology as an undergraduate. Blanchet’s deference to scientific truth shows up throughout the six-page document with references to scientific findings of the International Panel on Climate Change.

“Scientists tell us we are heading toward a concrete wall, and the steps we are currently taking will only serve to diminish the force of the impact,” the bishops write.

While the bishops are respectful of the science of climate change, species extinction and ecological degradation, they are much less impressed by how Canada’s politicians have responded to the data. They accuse politicians of failing to live up to Canada’s signed commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and Canada’s own proposal that all rich nations contribute 0.7 per cent of gross national product to international development aid.

“We hope our elected representatives will remember first of all the heritage we are leaving our children when making important decisions,” said the bishops. “Because we love our children, what environment, what society do we wish to bequeath to them?”

The idea behind the document is to get Canadians “to see things in a new way,” said Kingston Archbishop Brendan O’Brien, one of the authors.

“This is something connected with our faith. It isn’t just something trendy,” O’Brien said. “There’s a spiritual foundation to this.”

The Need for Conversion calls our sins against the environment both collective and personal, but the bishops seem reluctant to propose specific political and policy directions to set things right, said Cherise Burda, the Pembina Institute’s Ontario policy director.

“I thought perhaps they could consider pushing a little bit more strongly on this — providing, for example, recommendations to the federal government,” Burda said.

Ecotheologian Stephen Scharper of the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion and the Centre for the Environment said the bishops’ strong call to conversion is hampered by outdated theology.

“Some of the major theological debates that have surrounded these issues are not engaged,” he said.

Too great an emphasis on humanity as the stewards of creation will leave the bishops open to criticism that a Christian presumption that people have the right to exploit nature is in fact at the root of the environmental crisis, said Scharper.

Dennis Patrick O’Hara, director of the Toronto-based Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, said the bishops’ human-centred view of creation is at odds with the facts of natural history.

“Planet Earth has had life, plants and animals for literally billions of years without us. So the idea that we were given this domain and we’re responsible for these other creatures, taking care of them — it suggests there is a neediness on the part of plants and animals that really doesn’t exist,” O’Hara said.

However, when the bishops identify our collective and individual greed as the sin at work in the environmental crisis they’ve hit the nail on the head, said O’Hara.

“We’ve arrived on the planet and we’re acting as if it all belongs to us,” he said.

By anchoring their reflection in biblical texts such as the parable of the prodigal son the bishops have produced a document that should move Catholics to action, said Fr. Jim Profit of the Jesuit Ecology Project in Guelph, Ont.

“It’s good to acknowledge that yes we are the problem and it is repentance (we need),” Profit said.

He is also encouraged by the emphasis on prayer and meditation.

“Our way forward is to re-establish relationships with creation, and we can do that through contemplation, by opening ourselves up to the experience of nature — which is a form of prayer,” Profit said.

The most important accomplishment of The Need for Conversion is that it gets the problem right, said Joe Gunn, co-ordinator of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation with the Congregation of Notre Dame.

“How do you take action as a society in the face of polluters, in the face of industry, in the face of government?” Gunn asked. “That’s what we should be looking for as the next steps from the (CCCB) social affairs commission.”

Canadians are ready for political leadership willing to take on the environment, said NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen. Cullen thinks the bishops were quite right to take politicians to task for failing to live up to commitments.

“I see those criticisms as accurate and imperative to make,” he said. “I don’t actually see them as political.”

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