The choice of the topic of Religions and the Environment for the current round of our Vaishnava-Catholic Dialogue is a timely one what with the appointment of questionable new leadership in our country’s Environmental Protection Agency.
What are the earth-honoring perspectives from the Christian side? I will take a broad approach in an effort to give an overall perspective of where Christians are coming from on this important question.
Care for creation and justice are at the center of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) work on climate change. Since the 1970s, the WCC has helped develop the concept of sustainable communities, and has been present at all United Nations (UN) climate change conferences since the UN Framework Convention on Climate change was adopted in 1992. Over the years, the WCC helped foster a movement for climate justice touching millions of people around the world.
The WCC has a long tradition of addressing the links between justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. Its work on eco-justice is implemented through the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) and work on climate justice and on poverty, wealth and ecology.
As an international network of churches and Christian organizations, the EWN strives to promote the preservation, responsible management and equitable distribution of water for all, based on the understanding that water is a gift from God and access to it a fundamental human right. EWN has, since 2008, been providing weekly reflections and other resources on water for the season of Lent. These “Seven Weeks for Water” are a way of raising awareness with regard to World Water Day on March 22. In 2012, the Seven Weeks for Water focused on the role of water in the emerging, and controversially debated, “Green Economy” concept, aimed at reconciling economic development and environmental and social well-being.
Acknowledging the inter-linkages between economic and environmental concerns, the WCC Central Committee issued a statement on eco-justice and ecological debt in September 2009. Ecological debt refers to damage caused over time to ecosystems, places and peoples, through production and consumption patterns, and the exploitation of ecosystems at the expense of the equitable rights of other countries, communities, or individuals. The statement calls on northern and southern governments, churches, institutions and corporations, to rectify the injustices to humanity and to the Earth through “drastic transformation at all levels in life and society.” 1
In the past two decades, the world has witnessed alarming environmental degradation – with climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the pollution of natural resources – and the widening gap between rich and poor, as well as increasing failure to implement environmental policies. During the same decade, one religious leader who discerned the signs of the times and called people's attention to this ecological and social situation is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
Bartholomew, who holds the leadership role among all Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs, has persistently proclaimed the primacy of spiritual values in determining environmental ethics and action. His endeavors have earned him the title "Green Patriarch" – coined and publicized by the media in 1996, while being formalized in the White House in 1997 by Al Gore, Vice President of the United States. In 2008, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World for "defining environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility."
A month after his election in 1991, Patriarch Bartholomew convened an ecological gathering in Crete entitled ‘Living in the Creation of the Lord'. That convention was opened by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and International Chairman of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In the following year, Patriarch Bartholomew called an unprecedented meeting of all Orthodox Patriarchs and Primates at the Phanar in Istanbul, submitting an historical expression of unity and inviting all Orthodox leaders to inform their churches about the critical significance of this issue for our times. The Primates endorsed September 1st as a day of pan-Orthodox prayer for the environment.
Some of the central Scriptural passages or events that comprise the foundation for the Ecumenical Patriarch's conviction about the sacred commission and obligation to protect the environment include the creation of the world by the loving Creator (Genesis 1.26), Genesis 2.15 (about the need to serve and preserve creation), Genesis 9.8-17 (about the covenant between God and the world), and Ezekiel 34.18-19 (about using and not abusing creation), as well as the Lord's Beatitudes (Matthew 5.2-12) and Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor (Mark 9.2-3).
For Patriarch Bartholomew, this is a matter of truthfulness to God, humanity and the created order. He condemns environmental abuse as nothing less than sin. At Santa Barbara in November 1997, he declared:
“To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For human beings to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or by destroying its wetlands; for human beings to injure other human beings with disease by contaminating the earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances – all of these are sins.”3
The environment is not only a political or a technological issue; it is, as Patriarch Bartholomew likes to underline, primarily a religious and spiritual issue. Patriarch Bartholomew invariably relates the environment to a familiar aspect of Orthodox spirituality, namely to the icons that decorate Orthodox churches. Symbols are important in Orthodox thought, worship and life. Creation itself is likened to an icon, just as the human person is created ‘in the image and likeness of God' (Gen. 1.26 and Col. 1.15). The Patriarch invites people to contemplate the Creator God through the icon of the created world (Col. 1.16-18). In the same vein, Patriarch Bartholomew refers to the human beings as endowed by God to serve as “priests”, underlining that personal responsibility for the physical world and the slightest action of even the feeblest among us can change the world for the better.
Finally, the Ecumenical Patriarch is aware that environmental issues are intimately connected to and dependent on numerous other social issues of our times, including war and peace, justice and human rights, poverty and unemployment. It is not by chance that the term ‘eco-justice' has been used in religious circles to describe this interconnection between creation and creatures, between the world and its inhabitants. We have, in recent years, become increasingly aware of the effects of environmental degradation on people, and especially the poor.
In the last nearly 50 years, the international leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, have all addressed environmental issues in the light of the gospel. Here are a few brief examples: On May 14, 1971, Pope Paul VI released an open, apostolic letter entitled A Call to Action (Octogesima Veniens) to Cardinal Maurice Roy, president of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace. It focused on the role of individual Christians and local churches in responding to situations of injustices.
“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” (No. 21).4
Pope John Paul II, on the World Day of Peace, Jan 1, 1990, carried this further:
“An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others, and for the earth. This education cannot be rooted in mere sentiment or empty wishes. Its purpose cannot be ideological or political. It must not be based on a rejection of the modern world or a vague desire to return to some ‘paradise lost’. Instead, a true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behaviour. Churches and religious bodies, non-governmental and governmental organizations, indeed all members of society, have a precise role to play in such education. The first educator, however, is the family, where the child learns to respect his neighbour and to love nature.” (No. 13)
“The aesthetic value of creation cannot be overlooked. Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity. The Bible speaks again and again of the goodness and beauty of creation, which is called to glorify God (cf. Gen l:4ff; Ps 8:2; 104:1ff; Wis 13:3-5; Sir 39:16, 33; 43:1, 9).5
And Pope Benedict XVI picked up on these words from his predecessor when he himself spoke at the World Day of Peace, Jan 1, 2010:
“In 1990 John Paul II had spoken of an ‘ecological crisis’ and, in highlighting its primarily ethical character, pointed to the ‘urgent moral need for a new solidarity’. His appeal is all the more pressing today, in the face of signs of a growing crisis which it would be irresponsible not to take seriously. Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees”...? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources?” (No. 4).6
These drum beats came to orchestral development in Pope Francis’ nearly 200 page first Encyclical, Laudato Si.7 The Encyclical takes its name from the invocation of Saint Francis, “ Praise be to you, my Lord”, in his Canticle of the Creatures. It reminds us that the earth, our common home “is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (1). We have forgotten that “we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters” (2).
Now, this earth, mistreated and abused, is lamenting, and its groans join those of all the forsaken of the world. Pope Francis invites us to listen to them, urging each and every one – individuals, families, local communities, nations and the international community – to an “ecological conversion,” according to the expression of Saint John Paul II. We are invited to “change direction” by taking on the beauty and responsibility of the task of “caring for our common home”. At the same time, Pope Francis recognizes that “there is a growing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet” (19).
He acknowledges that “the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all [...] have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions” (7). He invites everyone to recognize “the rich contribution which the religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity” (62).
Pope Francis selects Biblical accounts, offering a comprehensive view that comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. With this he articulates the “tremendous responsibility” (90) of humankind for creation, the intimate connection among all creatures and the fact that “the natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” (95).
In the Bible, “the God who liberates and saves is the same God who created the universe, and these two divine ways of acting are intimately and inseparably connected” (73). The story of creation is central for reflecting on the relationship between human beings and other creatures and how sin breaks the equilibrium of all creation in its entirety: “These accounts suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin” (66).
For this, even if “we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures” (67). Human beings have the responsibility to ““till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15)” (67), knowing that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward, with us and through us, towards a common point of arrival, which is God” (83).
The 2nd chapter, entitled “The Gospel of Creation”, concludes with the heart of Christian revelation: “The earthly Jesus” with “his tangible and loving relationship with the world” is “risen and glorious, and is present throughout creation by his universal Lordship” (100).
The heart of what the Encyclical proposes in chapter 4 is Integral Ecology as a new paradigm of justice; an ecology “which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings” (15). In fact, “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live” (139)
Chapter 5, on Lines of Approach and Action, addresses the question of what we can and must do. Analyses are not enough: we need proposals “for dialogue and action which would involve each of us individually no less than international policy” (15). They will “help us to escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us” (163). For Pope Francis it is imperative that the developing of real approaches is not done in an ideological, superficial or reductionist way. For this, dialogue is essential, a term present in the title of every section of this chapter. What is needed are forms and instruments for global governance, the development of honest and transparent decision- making processes, in order to “discern” which policies and business initiatives can bring about “genuine integral development” (185).
The final chapter 6 focuses on Ecological Education and Spirituality. Education and training are the key challenges: “change is impossible without motivation and a process of education”. All educational sectors are involved, primarily “at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere” (213).
The starting point is “to aim for a new lifestyle” (203‐208), which also opens the possibility of “bringing healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power” (206). This is what happens when consumer choices are able to “change the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production” (206).
The importance of environmental education cannot be underestimated. It is able to affect actions and daily habits, the reduction of water consumption, the sorting out of waste and even “turning off unnecessary lights” (211). Everything will be easier starting with a contemplative outlook that comes from faith: “as believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us with all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm” (220).
After Laudato Si’, the regular practice of an examination of conscience—the means that the Church has always recommended to orient one’s life in light of the relationship with the Lord—should include a new dimension, considering not only how one has lived communion with God, with others and with oneself, but also with all creatures and with nature.
The saints accompany us on this journey. Saint Francis of Assisi, cited several times, is “the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically” (10). He is the model of “the inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (10). The Encyclical also mentions Saint Benedict, Saint Teresa di Lisieux and Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
Appropriately, Francis’ Encyclical ends with an emphasis on the importance of practice. Along these lines, several church organizations have prepared very concrete and practical guides for use, the most recent example of which is the Eco-Parish Guide produced by the Global Catholic Climate Movement.8 This Guide has been written for Catholic parish priests, pastors and staff, pastoral councils and Care for Creation Teams, and any parishioner who would like to help.
The Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM) and its 285 partner organizations are united by their Catholic faith and by the moral imperative of responding to and raising awareness about climate change. Founded in 2015, GCCM helps organize prayers, pilgrimages, and civic marches. The GCCM noted a need for practical advice on bringing Laudato Si’ to life at many Catholic parishes. Mindful of the limitations of human and financial resources at many parishes, the GCCM’s Guide focuses on actions that can be led by parish volunteers with no special expertise and at little or no cost to the parish.
The 45-page guide, which draws from more than a dozen countries and cultures, offers practical ways to care for creation and respond to the pope’s call to action. The Eco-Parish Guide: Bringing Laudato Si’ to Life is a tool parishes can use to combat climate change — what Pope Francis refers to as “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
It is divided into three main sections: initiatives to help parishes reduce emissions; suggestions for how to inspire and engage parishioners about environmental issues; and ways to practice solidarity and advocacy to serve the neediest and build up the common good.
It encourages parishes to form a Care for Creation Team to spearhead projects, to provide recommended resources, and to monitor a climate-action checklist. It also has a section on benchmarking — comparing energy performance of a church to buildings of comparable size and location.
As the Guide clearly states, parishes have an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions because as a Church we operate more than 220,000 parishes globally, which accounts for many times more churches, rectories, offices, other parish buildings, and vehicles that, in using conventional fossil fuels for energy, contribute directly to climate change. Energy savings of as much as ten percent can be achieved in a parish simply through conscious and continuous efforts to use less energy. With some modifications or upgrades to facilities, parishes have enjoyed savings of twenty to thirty percent, and even more in some cases.
Often the people who can help a parish with such efforts are in the pews, waiting to be asked or given direction. Forming a Care for Creation Team (more generally known as a Green Team) is a good way to start. Towards that end, you are encouraged to use this Guide, which provides practical steps and case studies from parishes around the world that are reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and much more.
The notion that we must care for God’s creation has inspired Catholics for millennia. From the accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis to the profound respect for nature signified by the Incarnation, as well as in the sacramental life of the Church—from the writings of the earliest Christians to the life of St. Francis of Assisi and to Catholic writers today, including the Bishops of Rome—the natural world inspires wonder, liturgy, prayer, chant, song, and art.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us of these realities. He also spoke of the urgent need to address the combined crises of environmental degradation and poverty. Laudato Si’ is a call to reflection and action, to encourage or renew a care for our common home, to abandon the emptiness of throwaway cultures and consumerist lifestyles that are harming the Earth and its peoples, and to care for all of God’s creatures, most particularly each other.
Some of the Eco-Parish Guide’s proposals for how parishes can engage their congregations in ecological citizenship:
The natural environment and climate change are topics of interest to many, particularly among young people. Engagement of these issues, if done well, the Guide notes, can give parishioners a heightened sense of connection to the parish, to God's creation, and the global community.
To date the GCCM has collected signatures of over 900,000 Catholics worldwide who signed the GCCM petition, which asked world leaders “to drastically cut carbon emissions to keep global temperature rise below the dangerous 1.5 °C threshold and to aid the world’s poorest in coping with climate change impacts.”
At the 2015 Conference Of Parties on Climate Change in Paris, the GCCM presented these signatures to representatives of those very leaders. Catholic aid organizations like Caritas, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Association for Overseas Development, and Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace are on the ground agencies, helping people in need. They are present at times of environmental crisis and during the long process of recovery.
There are also some regional Catholic/Christian Climate organizations that have drawn some attention: The Archdiocese of Chicago, IL made national news in September 2015 by announcing its intention to use energy more efficiently in its 2,700 buildings.
Nationally, in 2012, the Church of England launched its energy tracking program for its 16,000 buildings in the United Kingdom. And in 2013, Catholic Earthcare Australia launched the National Energy Efficiency Network to provide community organizations with the information, inspiration, and support to become more energy efficient.
The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops issued a Pastoral Statement in which it said:
“Our mistreatment of the natural world diminishes our own dignity and sacredness, not only because we are destroying resources that future generations of humans need, but because we are engaging in actions that contradict what it means to be human. Our tradition calls us to protect the life and dignity of the human person, and it is increasingly clear that this task cannot be separated from the care and defense of all of creation.”9
The Catholic Climate Covenant, supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has encouraged Catholics to join the People’s Climate Movement march next weekend. Those coming to Washington a day ahead have been invited to learn about talking with members of Congress about climate change and protecting the environment.
The Franciscan Action Network is urging Catholics around the country, to have some type of event on that day - a small prayer service, rosary gathering, or discussion. Activities by individuals, parishes, schools and organizations are to include the celebration of Mass encompassing environmental themes, prayer and action for the environment, discussions of the pontiff’s encyclical Laudato Si’, “On Care for Our Common Home,” and workshops to offer practical steps on reducing energy consumption and promote recycling.
As a lead-in to the march, the Global Catholic Climate Movement has led a campaign to organize events for what it is calling #Mercy2Earth Weekend. Encompassing Earth Day, April 22, and Divine Mercy Sunday, April 23, the weekend has been planned to celebrate Pope Francis’s call to make care for creation a Christian act of mercy.
In the Catholic catechism there is a listing of the 7 Corporal Works of Mercy10 and the 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy11. But now, Catholics around the globe will be engaging in what Francis is calling the “8th work of mercy: having mercy on our common home” by joining local climate marches, helping our communities adopt renewable practices, educating others on Laudato Si, and praying for creation.
Thomas Ryan, CSP
April 21, 2017
St. Anselm’s Abbey, Washington, DC
1. A Faith That Does Justice, World Council of Churches General Assembly, Bhusan, South Korea (WCC, 2013), pp. 44-45.
2. John Chryssavgis, "The Green Patriarch: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Protection of the Environment” https://www.apostolicpilgrimage.org/the-green-patriarch
3. Chryssavgis, "The Green Patriarch,” https://www.apostolicpilgrimage.org/the-green-patriarch
9. “Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching, A Pastoral Statement of the United States Catholic Conference, November 14, 1991.
10. Corporal Works of Mercy: Feed the hungry; Give drink to the thirsty; cloth the naked; harbor the haborless; visit the sick; ransom the captive; bury the dead.
11. Spiritual Works of Mercy: Instruct the ignorant; Counsel the doubtful; Admonish sinners; Bear wrongs patiently; Forgive offences willingly; Comfort the Afflicted; Pray for the living and the dead.************************************
This talk was given at the Catholic-Vaishnava (Hindu) National Dialogue’s 20th Anniversary meeting devoted to the topic of the environment. It was published in Ecumenical Trends, Vol 46 No 7, July/August 2017.