The call for climate action is one that Catholics are hearing, led by Pope Francis. A new poll shows Catholics are more concerned about climate change than Protestants, though that comes as a surprise to theologian Dennis Patrick O’Hara. CNS photo

Catholics waking up to perils of climate change

  • November 22, 2015

Pope Francis has been getting ready for Paris for more than a year. In May of 2014 the Patriarch of Rome sat down in Jerusalem with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and issued a joint declaration as a challenge to the world’s Christians.

“Together, we pledge our commitment to raising awareness about the stewardship of creation,” they wrote. “We appeal to all people of goodwill to consider ways of living less wastefully and more frugally, manifesting less greed and more generosity for the protection of God’s world and the benefit of His people.”

As they signed the declaration, the spiritual heads of more than one billion Catholics and more than 300 million Orthodox Christians were already thinking about COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference coming up Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris. Work was then already underway at the Vatican to prepare a major statement on the environment. That statement turned out to be Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.

So the Pope is ready — ready for 196 world leaders to get down to work on meaningful, measurable action to limit global warming to less than two degrees by mid-century. But are Catholics ready? Is the world ready?

A Pew Research Centre study of popular opinion in over 40 countries shows Catholic and world opinion catching up with the Pope.

Across all nations a global median of 54 per cent of us believe climate change is a very serious problem. Canadians fall a little short of the world standard with 51 per cent claiming the problem is very serious, but another 33 per cent grant it is somewhat serious. Canadians however, are more concerned than Americans. Only 45 per cent of U.S. residents believe climate change is very serious, with another 29 per cent saying it’s somewhat serious.

The real concern over climate change is in Latin America, where 74 per cent call the problem “very serious,” and Africa, where on average 61 per cent of Africans told Pew researchers the problem is “very serious.”

Religiously, Catholics seem to have more personal concern about climate change. Among Canadian Catholics, 26 per cent said they were “very concerned that climate change will harm me personally.” That compares to just 16 per cent of Canadian Protestants. But Catholics still lag behind the religiously unaffiliated in this country. Thirty per cent of religiously unaffiliated Canadians expressed grave concern about how climate change will harm them personally.

On that personal sense of foreboding, Canadian Catholics trail their American co-religionists. Thirty-nine per cent of American Catholics (half of them Hispanic with ties to Latin America) claim to be very concerned with how climate change will affect them personally, compared with 27 per cent of the religiously unaffiliated Americans and 26 per cent of Protestants.

Results showing Canadian Catholics more concerned about climate change than Protestants were surprising to Dennis Patrick O’Hara, a theologian at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College.

“The Protestants have been doing a lot of work on climate change. It’s not as if they’ve been bystanders in all of this,” said O’Hara, the director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology. “What could be the difference? The only thing I could come up with is Pope Francis. And it’s not just Laudato Si’, because he’s been pushing this since as soon as his pontificate began.”

The Canadian bishops have spoken up on the environment frequently, beginning with a 2003 pastoral letter on “The Christian Ecological Imperative” and most recently signing on to a September statement organized by the Canadian Council of Churches “On Promoting Climate Justice and Ending Poverty in Canada.”

But the CCCB and the CCC will never have the clout or rhetorical oomph of a Pope who last November said, “This is what we do — destroy creation, destroy lives, destroy cultures, destroy values, destroy hope. How greatly we need the Lord’s strength to seal us with His love and His power to stop this mad race of destruction! Destroying what He has given us, the most beautiful things that He has done for us, so that we may carry them forward, nurture them to bear fruit.”

The Pope has not been satisfied to pontificate on climate change and the environment. He encouraged the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to organize a Vatican workshop for global leaders in April. The workshop, titled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity,” concluded with a statement that, “In the face of the emergencies of human-induced climate change, social exclusion and extreme poverty, we join together to declare that human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”

As an observer state at the United Nations, the Vatican will send an official delegation to the Paris meetings, but the cardinals and Vatican officials in the official delegation won’t be alone. Catholic development organizations, including the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, will have representatives out on the Paris streets and in the convention halls urging world leaders to do better than they have so far.

While the Development and Peace delegation will be a small, self-financed group of just eight to 10, the European CIDSE group of agencies will have large contingents of their members who can make it to Paris by bus or train.

Those Catholic development agencies will run a Dec. 9 to 13 program in Paris that promises to re-orient and concentrate Catholic development efforts on behalf of poor people in Africa, Latin America and Asia based on the principles of Laudato Si’.

Jesuit Father John McCarthy doesn’t underestimate the effect of Pope Francis speaking clearly, plainly and forcefully. But the scientist, author of Do Monkeys Go to Heaven? and winner of the Canadian Environment Award Gold Prize for his work on boreal forest conservation from the Royal Geographic Society of Canada, believes it goes deeper than one Pope’s pronouncements.

“There’s definitely no doubt that Laudato Si’ has really captured people’s imaginations, moreso than any other Catholic encyclical that I can remember,” he said.

But there’s more to it. Catholics, with their sacramental understanding of the incarnation, have a religious instinct that tells them creation is sacred, McCarthy said.

“I’ve focused a lot on the creed that we profess each Sunday,” he said. “Just the idea of God as creator of all that is seen and unseen — so there’s the whole world. And then Jesus Christ in and through whom all things were made. And then the Spirit, the giver of life. For me, that’s all life.”

McCarthy will be presenting his view of how Laudato Si’ and the sacraments fit together in a Nov. 18 talk at Guelph’s Holy Rosary parish. He will have another go at the subject as part of a four-part series of popular theology talks at Regis College in Toronto on Wednesday evenings March 23 to April 13. Laudato Si’s subtitle, “On Care for Our Common Home” provides the theme that ties together these four talks by Scripture scholar Fr. Scott Lewis, moral theologian Sr. Mary Rowell, McCarthy and systematic theologian Fr. Gordon Rixon.

The Scarboro Missions have also caught the fever. “Caring for Our Common Home” is a “signature workshop series” the Scarboros are presenting by request at parishes and schools all over southern Ontario. Using Laudato Si’ as the key, the Scarboro team is willing to travel to any parish or Catholic school that thinks it could benefit from a deeper understanding of Church teaching, using the encyclical as a kind of key to understanding the Catholic tradition of engagement in the world.

Catholics will also be a big part of the 100% Possible marches across Canada planned for the eve of the COP21 meetings in Paris. Some 20,000 are expected on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, including a Development and Peace delegation. Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast and Gatineau Archbishop Paul André Durocher are expected in the Ottawa crowd urging Canada’s new government to do more at the Paris showdown. In Toronto, Development and Peace is concentrating on the local march at Queen’s Park.

The UN conferences on climate change have been bubbling along every year since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a framework which eventually produced the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. COP, as in COP21, stands for Conference of the Parties — meaning the parties which participated in the 1992 framework. Paris will be the 21st such meeting.

In Canada, COP conventions were big news when Kyoto was signed and again when Canada withdrew from Kyoto in 2011. But this time the news is even bigger.

For the first time ever, the Canadian prime minister will be accompanied at an international conference by all the provincial premiers. Added to the premiers will be federal opposition leaders. If the new Liberal government is signaling a new and deeper commitment on the issue, they too are just catching up with Pope Francis.

“Our time cannot ignore the issue of ecology,” Pope Francis told us last November. “Which is vital to man’s survival. Nor (can we) reduce it to merely a political question. Indeed, it has a moral dimension that affects everyone, such that no one can ignore it. As disciples of Christ, we have a further reason to join with all men and women of good will to protect and defend nature and the environment. Creation is, in fact, a gift entrusted to us from the hands of the Creator. All of nature that surrounds us is created like us, created together with us. And in a common destiny it tends to find its fulfilment and ultimate end in God Himself. The Bible says ‘new heavens and a new earth.’ This doctrine of our faith is an even stronger stimulus for us to have a responsible and respectful relationship with Creation. In inanimate nature, in plants and in animals, we recognize the imprint of the Creator, and in our fellow kind, His very image.”

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