Catholic bishops green with energy

By  Fr. John Mccarthy, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • April 18, 2008

{mosimage}Why doesn’t the church say something about ecology and the environment? Why doesn’t the church get with the program? Such questions never fail to surface after I give a talk on Christianity and ecology. 

Now, maybe I fail to communicate well. Maybe I presume too much about my audience. Or maybe, heaven forbid, they are not even listening. Whatever the reason, many people assume that the church has said nothing or very little about the ecological crisis.

Surely, I think, people must have read John Paul II’s 1990 World Day of Peace message entitled “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation,” the first papal document dedicated solely to ecology. Surely, they must have heard of at least one of the more than 50 pastoral letters on ecology issued by Catholic bishops around the world. Most surely, they would have read what the Canadian bishops have written on ecology. However, I have been known to be wrong. This time is no exception. 

Bishops’ statements generally fall from episcopal tables and land with a loud clunk, never to be heard of again. Starved for attention, they wither away. No one reads them. That is too bad  — especially when it comes to what the Canadian bishops have said about ecology.  

The Canadian bishops have published not one, but two pastoral letters on ecology. The first one appeared on Oct. 4, 2003, on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. The second letter was released just last month. The 2003 letter focused on water. Quite appropriate, given the fact that the year 2003 was proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Year of Fresh Water. In the 2008 pastoral letter, the bishops continue their reflections in the light of climate change and the United Nations designation of 2008 as the International Year of Planet Earth.  

Despite the beauty of what the bishops have written, do not look to them for pat answers or practical solutions. That is not their task. Like everyone else, the bishops are still groping along somewhere in the dark. That is not a bad place to be. Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, a path is being carved out in the darkness. 

Their 2008 letter calls for a conversion. True to the constant witness of the church, the bishops emphasize the spiritual and moral dimensions of the ecological crisis. Relationships have been ruptured, relationships with each other, with all creation and with God. Sin and death ensue. All creation suffers. We do as well. The only way forward is a conversion of heart, a change in our vision. 

Scientific, technical and legislative developments are essential to this change of heart, but they provide only partial solutions. It is the human heart that needs mending. Our longing for truth and beauty will guide us — if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear. 

I write this travelling from Deer Lake, Nfld., north to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador. They call Labrador the Big Land. I can see why.  Vast tracts of frozen taiga stretch out to the receding horizon. The human footprint is nowhere to be seen. Until recently, the human impact on the Labrador landscape has been minimal. However, I wonder how long before this will change. Plans are underway that, if carried out, will profoundly alter the face of the Labrador landscape — the Lower Churchill hydro development, uranium mining, commercial forestry, the Trans-Labrador highway. Slowly, but surely, the Big Land is being transformed. 

The bishops invite us to take a different look at the natural world. For Christians, nature is not simply “out there” devoid of meaning or significance. Rather, nature is an expression of the boundless fecundity, goodness and beauty of God. Nature is the self-expression of God, a pouring forth of created love. Nature is a sacrament of the Trinitarian mutuality and ecstasy — of God the Father, creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen, of God the Son, through whom all things were made, of God the Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. This mutual, indwelling love inherent to the Trinity cannot remain within itself, but explodes into the ever-dynamic, emerging and evolving diversity of creation to produce what Charles Darwin termed “endless forms most beautiful.” 

Like Darwin, the Canadian bishops invite us to ponder and contemplate this pulse of divine life. In that sense, the 2008 letter is radical. It eschews the ideology that dismisses the contemplative view of nature as hopelessly naïve, subjective and airy-fairy. It challenges the attitude that views nature as primarily a storehouse of resources, the exploitation of which is dependent solely on our financial and technological flexibility. This prevailing economic view fails to see the Spirit of God, or the incarnate Word, beating in the heart of all creation — the  incarnate Word in whom “all things came into being” and without whom “not one thing came into being" (John 1:3). 

The bishops recognize that our own desire for unlimited economic growth or salvation through science and technology restricts our imagination of the world. Instead, they offer us an opportunity to expand our image of nature with the use of religious, theological and spiritual language. Which brings us back to the central point made by the bishops — that the ecological crisis is not a scientific, economic or technological crisis — even if science, economy and technology are essential requirements. The latter are but a partial solution, not a sufficient solution. 

The Greek Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas has said that what we need is “not an ethic, but an ethos. Not a program, but an attitude and a mentality. Not a legislation, but a culture.” In other words, we need a different way of looking at the world of nature than the destructive one that currently dominates our thoughts and actions.   

The bishops, in their own small, but important way, contribute to this life-giving ethos and culture. They root their hope in Christian conversion. Other ways are possible, I imagine. However, for Christians, conversion in the loving heart of Jesus Christ opens up the possibility of our own ecological conversion. 

I encourage you to read the bishops’ latest green missive.  It is available online as a PDF document at If you wish a beautifully printed six-page hard copy, e-mail the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops at or better still, call (613) 241-9461. To top it off, the published letter is printed with vegetable-based ink on Rolland Enviro 100 Print that contains 100-per-cent post-consumer fibre, is Environmental Choice, processed chlorine free as well as FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Recycled certified and manufactured in Canada by Cascades using biogas energy. That will make anyone sleep soundly at night.  

(John McCarthy chairs the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council, which advises the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador on the establishment and management of wilderness and ecological reserves. He tries to spend most of his time in the forests and wilds of Newfoundland and Labrador.)

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