North America, as viewed from space. Four years after the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’, taking care of our common home has become all the more critical, driving the political, social and religious agendas around the world. Photo from NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring

Climate concern must translate into action

  • July 25, 2019

In June, for the first time ever, Canadians told pollsters their number one concern is the environment. This puts Canadians on the same page with Pope Francis, who has called on everybody — Catholic, Christian, non-Christian, even atheist — to face up to the reality of human-caused climate change in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’.

From the pages of Laudato Si’

Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on “care for our common home” was published in June 2015. Here are some excerpts:

    • “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.”
    • “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”
    • “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.“
    • “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”
    • “If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.”
  • “Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.”

Faith, hope and charity will certainly be necessary in the context of a climate emergency, but so is politics. Moral conviction without political conviction is not going to cut it on Oct. 21, when Canadians go to the polls. 

So there is a Laudato Si’ political agenda. There are Catholics lobbying governments and politicians, making moral arguments for an immediate shift away from the fossil-fuel economy. But questions remain about whether politicians are listening and whether voters have faith their vote can lead to a cleaner and cooler planet.

Redemptorist Fr. Paul Hansen, former chair of Kairos and member of the Ontario assembly of bishops’ justice and peace commission, has watched a divided Catholic community tackle many social and political issues over more than a generation. He knows the skepticism Catholics bring to Catholic social teaching.

“They tell me, ‘You’re speaking poetry and I’m living prose,’ ” Hansen said.

The short-term, cost-benefit mindset of modern capitalism so dominates our culture that we can no longer think morally or religiously, said Hansen. A real religious mindset has to place hope somewhere beyond the limits of our personal and immediate gratification.

“Whether we want to admit it or not, in conversation we’ll say climate, climate, climate. But we will vote economics, economics, economics,” he said.

In June the Ontario bishops’ justice and peace commission asked the bishops to lobby governments to declare a climate emergency. The request was passed up the ladder to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, but Hansen doubts the CCCB will act.

“It doesn’t get anywhere,” he said.

Hansen doesn’t dispute that Catholics care about the planet. They care when they see floods swallowing up towns in Quebec and Manitoba, when they see massive forest fires reduce homes and communities to charred ruins, when they know we are losing hundreds of species of wildlife. He just thinks we don’t know how to translate our concern into action.

“It’s been in our conversation, but I don’t think it has much of any political punch,” he said.

But politicians say they’re ready to listen to religious lobbying on behalf of the environment.

"Laudato Si' is one of the most important pieces of writing for our civilization in decades."

- Elizabeth May, Green Party Leader

“Laudato Si’ is one of the most important pieces of writing for our civilization in decades,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May, an Anglican who has studied theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

May’s party is currently polling at over 10 per cent nationwide. The poll tracking site projects the Greens could win between three and six seats — up from the current two, and perhaps a significant block in a minority government situation. 

This federal election is essential if Canada is really going to live up to its Paris Agreement commitments, May said.

“We won’t get a second chance,” she told The Catholic Register. “We need 60-per-cent reductions in greenhouse gases by 2030, so that we can get to zero by 2050.”

May is mystified by Catholic politicians who reflect their faith on abortion and religious freedom, but ignore Pope Francis on the fate of the planet.

“When the Pope speaks to the profound moral question of whether this generation has the right to deprive the next generation essentially of a livable planet, that’s not a moral question with them,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, May wants as many religious voices as possible to contribute to Canada’s environmental policy debate.

“Most people will agree that God did not create this Earth and put us on it so that we could destroy it,” she said. 

“I welcome input from religious communities,” said Conservative environment critic Ed Fast, MP for Abbotsford, B.C. “They all inform the positions that I take in Parliament, and the positions I share with my party.”

But Fast, a Mennonite, has not read Laudato Si’.

“Did you really expect me to have read it?” he asked The Catholic Register.

But Fast insists he sees Canada’s climate policies through a moral lens.

“I have yet to run into one person who would suggest that climate change is strictly an economic issue,” he said. “This is an issue about our stewardship of the world. As  a person of faith myself, I take very seriously the importance of stewarding the environment in which we’ve been placed and which sustains us. I don’t think it’s at all wrong to place a moral compass on the debate.”

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has called religious leaders to her office to discuss climate change, has spoken often about Laudato Si’ and has met with Pope Francis.

“I’m so pleased the Pope wrote this, because we now have an opportunity to have a broader conversation,” McKenna said as part of a panel discussing climate policy at Ottawa’s St. Georges Parish in February of 2017. “Caring about the environment is about the social justice calling. It’s about looking at the choices we make every day and how it impacts on the most vulnerable, how it impacts on future generations, how it impacts on species.”

But McKenna is also part of a government that bought a pipeline to ship bitumen in a slurry to Vancouver.

People have to get over the notion that religion has to be politically neutral, said Basilian Fr. Bob Holmes, director of social justice concerns for his order.

“Absolutely, we should be political. We should,” he said.

Using moral instincts embedded in religious conviction to choose a policy, a program or a party is something Catholics have always done.

“This crisis is real. So for us not to come out and say so — and as a Church really speak to our people — this is the time in terms of voting,” he said. “This is what we have to do. We’ve got to make sure our government listens.”

Religious orders have been beating the environmental drum for a long time and recently the Canadian Religious Conference formed JEM, or Joint Ecological Ministry, so that religious communities could collaborate and share their work on climate and ecology. But the religious aren’t finding it easy to frame their concerns politically.

“We certainly need to do more,” said Loretto Sr. Evanne Hunter. “There’s no question. And there’s no question that religious congregations generally are committed to this. But in terms of advocacy, I don’t think we’ve done all that much.”

Experience tells Development and Peace’s Luke Stocking that Catholics will take up the Laudato Si’ agenda this fall. When Canada’s Catholic development agency launched it’s “Create a Climate of Change” campaign right after Laudato Si’ was first printed in 2015, there was more parish participation in that campaign than Development and Peace had experienced in years. This fall, Development and Peace will go back to the well with a new climate and environment campaign designed to dovetail with the October Synod on the Amazon.

“I would expect and hope that that level of engagement at a parish level and a school level will continue to pick up,” Stocking said.

Catholic concern for climate change has to be urgent, bold and committed to the longer term — “Not just the outcomes of elections, but the policy that follows,” he said.

Stocking is realistic about uniting Canada’s Catholics on this or any issue.

“Since even the time of (the 1891 encyclical) Rerum Novarum, those who have really taken on the social teaching of the Church and wanted to make it front and centre of the Church’s engagement in the world — there’s always been a degree of marginalization. It’s nothing new,” he said. 

“You just have to be faithful. You have to be hopeful. There are signs on this issue, particularly as the climate crisis becomes more and more acute. It will become easier and easier for that core group of activists to bring more people along — to bring more votes along.

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