Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon has made climate change a pastoral priority in his diocese. Photo by Michael Swan

Bishops’ silence on climate change baffles nuns

By 
  • January 15, 2012

Canadian religious leaders and interfaith coalitions banded together before the Nov. 28 to Dec. 9 United Nations climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, to urge Ottawa to take substantial steps toward a new international agreement to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocols. Almost alone among Canada’s major church and faith bodies, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to sign the “Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change.”

The Congregation of St. Joseph signed, along with many other Catholic religious orders and a broad swath of Canada’s Christian bodies. Major Muslim, Hindu and interfaith coalitions also signed onto the two-page statement.

“For high-income nations such as Canada, justice demands that our government shoulder a greater share of the economic burden of adaptation and mitigation — first and foremost, because of access to greater means, but also because of an historic role in contributing to its causes. We have a moral imperative to act,” said the interfaith leaders. “We call for leadership to put the long-term interest of humanity and the planet ahead of short-term economic and national concerns.”

“I don’t know why the silence, to be honest,” said Sr. Mary Rowell, a lecturer in moral theology at Toronto’s Regis College and the University of St. Michael’s College. “Other bishops in the world are really taking on the climate change initiative.”

“It’s really unfortunate that they didn’t sign. My concern would be that it leaves a message with Canadian Catholics that this is not a critical ethical issue. And yet we know that it is,” said Sr. Sue Wilson, a CSJ delegate to Rio+20 United Nations conference on sustainable development.

The CCCB is working on a reflection paper “which focuses on theological and ethical principles to assist Catholics in responding to the questions and challenges of climate change,” said CCCB spokesman René Laprise in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. 

“The CCCB fully agrees that climate change is a major ethical and social question. The CCCB continues to be involved in reflections and collaboration with other organizations, including other churches and ecclesial communities.”

A list of 10 principles governs whether the CCCB executive committee will sign a joint statement on climate change, said Laprise.

“For the CCCB to be a signatory to a statement on the environment or climate change, the proposed text should give a clear presentation of the Gospel and theological principles involved,” is one principle Laprise outlined.

That would seem to rule out any interfaith co-operation on the issue, said Wilson.

“I think that is a problem,” she said. “We need to be able to work with other constituencies, especially other faith constituencies, to highlight it as the ethical issue that it is.”

Joint statements on climate change should also “recognize that the environment and climate change are questions that affect all society and which demand a balancing of difficult ethical choices — the right of all people to the goods of the Earth, the need for meaningful employment and concern for the impact on the environment,” said the CCCB list of principles.

Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon said it is difficult for the conference to speak for every bishop on just about any issue without a vote from all the bishops at a plenary meeting. In his own diocese, climate change has become a pastoral priority. Gordon has acted on climate change by building a new residence with a reduced and sustainable energy footprint. He has set a long-term goal of a carbon-neutral diocese in terms of the Church’s buildings.

“You’ve got to make decisions now that are going to take you into the future. And I think it’s very possible,” he said.

Approaching the issue on the political plane makes Gordon uncomfortable as a bishop.

“You have to be careful with the political side of this, because there are other agendas,” he said. “You can be drawn into a political minefield pretty quickly.”

In Gordon’s view the first step to seeing climate change in its moral dimension is for individual Catholics to examine their level of consumption.

“Let’s look at this in terms of what each individual person is doing in terms of their own conversion — lessening their consumption, sustainable living,” Gordon said.

Even though Canada is home to the biggest energy engineering project in history in the Athabasca oil sands, the Canadian bishops don’t have a special duty to speak out on climate change, said Dan Misleh, Catholic Coalition on Climate Change executive director. The Washington-based, American lobby group is just as concerned about grass-roots Catholic action on climate change as it is with statements from bishops.

“The bishops have a lot on their plates — internal Church matters, representing the Church to the world — there’s a big agenda there,” he said.

Catholics should be guided by “prudence, poverty and the common good” when thinking about climate change, he said.

Catholics can’t be afraid of ruffling political feathers when they speak out on behalf of the planet, said Wilson.

“When we make statements as faith communities, one of the things we’re doing is reaching out to all Canadians and especially to Canadians of faith,” she said.

Wilson wants to hear from Canada’s bishops before the Rio+20 conference.

“It’s a very timely place for them to insert a strong Catholic voice,” she said.

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