Climate Change Campaigning in the Catholic Church

Pope Paul VI

Concern about Climate Change is not new for the Catholic Church.

The story of Creation in Genesis tells us repeatedly “God saw that it was good”.

We often see when it isn’t good.

Science is telling us the heavens and the earth are devastated – on so many distinct levels and in so many ways. It is very close to being irrecoverable – Action is needed immediately. Otherwise it will be too late for the heavens, the earth and all who dwell on the land, in the sea and in the air.

As long ago as fifty years, when there was extraordinarily little awareness or insight about the effects of climate change, Pope Paul VI addressed the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in November 1970. Prior to this, Pope John XXXIII spoke about the need to care for the earth.

Pope Paul VI identified concerns that are readily discussed today. Politicians, spin doctors, experts, specialists, protestors etc.. all want to have their say. But really, the danger signs were evident 50 years ago. Paul VI declared the “deterioration of the environment risks provoking a veritable ecological catastrophe. Already we see the pollution of the air we breathe, the water we drink. We see the pollution of rivers, lakes, even oceans — to the point of inspiring fear of a true biological death in the near future, if energetic measures are not immediately and courageously taken and rigorously put into practice.” (Full text of address available here).

Following this a year later, in an apostolic letter marking the 80th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum” encyclical (Full text available here), he stated in paragraph 21: “While the horizon of man is thus being modified according to the images that are chosen for him, another transformation is making itself felt, one which is the dramatic and unexpected consequence of human activity. Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace – pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity – but the human framework is no longer under man’s control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family. The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.

Pope John Paul II

Throughout the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, the issues surrounding Climate Change have shared centre stage with associated social justice issues. They cannot really be divorced.

In 1979, shortly after election to the Papacy, Pope John Paul II laid out his ecology agenda, committing to care for the earth. He proclaimed St Francis of Assisi as the Patron Saint of Ecology (Text available here).

In 1990, he foresaw ecological tragedy in his message on World Day of Peace. (Full text available here). He saw it as a moral problem, with a lack of respect for life “evident in many patterns of environmental pollution.”

With a sense of foreboding, he continued to urge the “entire human community – individuals, States and international bodies – take seriously the responsibility that is theirs.” He clearly articulated “a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. … Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past.

He illustrated “the gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ had now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs” was caused in part by environmentally and atmospherically harmful “industrial waste, burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands. While in some cases the damage already done may well be irreversible, in many other cases it can still be halted.

Despite general scepticism about climate change at the time, and limited general climate change knowledge, he highlighted concerns several decades before it was fashionable. He stressed the way forward must be with the underlying ethics of respect for life, and dignity of the human person as the guiding principles to enable scientific, technological or economical progress. A new solidarity was needed, with the focus on the global common good, including the redress of multiple social injustices such as structural poverty (ie from deforestation), war, disease, etc

Science and faith began to speak the same language – and expressed the same, grave concerns.

Pope Benedict

The “Green” Pope – who referred to the need for greater care for creation across the globe on multiple occasions. He was able to implement measures within the Vatican City to achieve status as the world’s first carbon neutral country. Under his stewardship, a forest was planted to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from the Vatican. He had solar panels installed at the Vatican – and placed a target that 20% of electricity used in the Vatican would be renewable by 2020. He used an electric Popemobile. In 2009, he addressed world leaders to “promote a joint development based on human dignity and for the common good.”

In addition to several sermons where he urged all people, but particularly Catholics, to become more committed to our environment, he called us all to become “guardians of nature” and follow in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of ecology. The Sermon on 1st Jan 2010 was entitled “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation”. (Full text of World Day of Peace 2010 available here). He linked human development to the relationship we have with the natural environment – and each one of us has a responsibility for it’s stewardship.

Prior to announcing his resignation, he spoke to a large group of Italian students, stating “Today more than ever, it has become clear that respect for the environment cannot forget the recognition of the value of the human person and its inviolability at every stage and in every condition of life. Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one, but both can grow and find their right measure if we respect in the human being and in nature the Creator and his creation. On this, dear young people, I believe to find allies in you, true “guardians of life and creation.” (Guardian 12th Feb 2013).

For Pope Benedict, climate change was only one of many “modern” complicated issues affecting society. It was during his papacy the Vatican declared pollution among the newer seven modern “social sins” impacting the modern world. None of these can be easily separated from each other.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis may be the “greenest” pope to date”. He holds a MSc in Chemistry, and is a Jesuit by religious training so it is likely environmental issues have been close to his heart and mind for many decades. His encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015) would suggest this. Full Text of Laudato Si’ encyclical available here.

It is a papal encyclical, meaning it has a particular gravitas in its publication. He is the leader of the Roman Catholic world. But Laudato Si’ is for everyone. It isn’t just for Catholics.

In it Pope Francis draws together the issues and concerns raised through apostolic letters/addresses from his predecessors surrounding the environment – and states the case for urgent action to care for our common home. The scientific knowledge available now allows his encyclical to examine, summarise and propose a new way of thinking and doing. But it has be collaborative. And it requires everyone, at every level of society.

He revisits the “example par excellence” in St Francis of Assisi. “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.” He calls for a new dialogue. He has been calling for this since he was elected Pope. He has and is prepared to again provide the voice of conscience to world leaders to respond to the “Cry of the Earth” and the “Cry of the Poor”. “I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Thought for the Day – Radio 4

Listen to His Holiness reflect on climate change and the environment on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on 29th October ahead of the COP26 UN Climate Change Summit.

Prayer for COP26 31st Oct – 12th Nov

Loving God, we praise your name with all you have created. You are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of creatures. We acknowledge the responsibilities you have placed upon us as stewards of your creation. May the Holy Spirit inspire all political leaders at COP26 as they seek to embrace the changes needed to foster a more sustainable society. Instil in them the courage and gentleness to implement fairer solutions for the poorest and most vulnerable and commit their nations to the care of Our Common Home. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

A Christian Prayer in union with creation

Father, we praise you with all your creatures.
They came forth from your all-powerful hand;
they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.
Praise be to you!

Son of God, Jesus,
through you all things were made.
You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,
you became part of this earth,
and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.
Today you are alive in every creature
in your risen glory.
Praise be to you!

Holy Spirit, by your light
you guide this world towards the Father’s love
and accompany creation as it groans in travail.
You also dwell in our hearts
and you inspire us to do what is good.
Praise be to you!

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
teach us to contemplate you
in the beauty of the universe,
for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is.

God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!