Seán McDonagh on COP15, 2/3
3. What do you think religions can contribute at this moment? How can they give support or challenge today’s political leaders and our societies?
If climate change is the most serious problem facing humanity and the planet at this point in time, then it must be the most serious issue for religions. This is particularly true for Christianity – an incarnate religion. The message of Jesus is for the Life of the World. In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” You cannot have life to the full on an impoverished planet, shorn of one third of its species, all happening in a period of less than one hundred years.
Religions need to understand the magnitude and urgency of climate change. That means taking good, independent science on board. Then religions need to discern how they present God’s creation in their teaching and clarify the place of humans within creation. In Catholicism we have an ambivalence attitude towards creation. In the pre-Vatican II Prayer after Communion for the Sundays of Advent we prayed: God to teach us to despise the things of Earth and love the things of Heaven. This is a long way from the vision of the Book of Proverbs where God is seen playing with and rejoicing with all Creation.
When we get our ‘God-talk’ right, we need to look at our ethical teaching. Once again, in the Catholic tradition, ethics has been God-centred and human-centred. In 40 years of hearing Confessions, I have never heard anyone confess that they did something to mar the beauty of the planet or destroyed any aspect of its fruitfulness. Yet, the imprint of sin is so prevalent in the world around us, when we survey the damage which climate change is causing, not just to humans but to other species as well. We now need to include creation in our ethical framework.
The heart of every religion is celebration. We need to include creation in our liturgies – thanking God for its beauty and fruitfulness; confessing our arrogance towards other creatures, how our lifestyle wounds and destroys creation, imploring God to give us the courage to seek new, sustainable relationships with the planet. The Catholic Church should include a Season of Creation in its liturgical calendar. The Season of Creation runs for the four or five Sundays in September before the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Each Sunday focuses on a different theme – Rivers, Oceans, Mountains. Naturally, local environments would be celebrated. There is a website where relevant texts and songs can be accessed.
Finally, all religions promote relevant ascetical practices to help believers live in an authentic way. We are encouraged to fast and do penance. Often, in the past, the link between a particular ascetical act and the motivation for it performance was not always clear. It is today. For example, scientists tell us that if all of humanity ate meat like people did, traditionally, in Asia, then the Earth could support a population of 7 or 8 billion. If, however, everyone on the planet ate meat like North Americans or Europeans, then the Earth will only be able to support about 1.5 billion. Faced with this reality, local Churches, or even the Universal Church, might wish to introduce a number of meat-free days each week. The same might be said for the way we use water or fossil fuel. The underlying urge of modern economics is to promote consumerism as much as possible. This is what leads to economic growth – which is a Holy Grail for many politicians and economists. However, it is this spiraling consumerism which is destroying the planet. Religions need to challenge this and promote lifestyles where people are happy with ENOUGH.
4. The facts we are confronted with are very threatening. How does one speak about hope in such context?
Hear again religions have much to offer. I was the chair of the Board of Greenpeace Ireland when I returned to Ireland in the mid-1990s. What people want from Church people is that they, first and foremost, be truth-tellers. In other words we do not minimize the challenges and dangers. To date, Catholic Social Teaching, which has been admirable in many area of human life, such as a just wage and respect for others, has been poor on our relationship with God’s Earth. This is very clear in the Compendium on the Social Teachings of the Church. The chapter on the Environment is very poor both in terms of theology and understanding of ecological issues. Though published in 2004, there is only one paragraph on Climate Change and one paragraph on the destruction of Biodiversity. For a Church which claims to be Pro-Life and which has access to researchers in hundreds of Universities, this is simply irresponsible at this crucial period in the Earth’s history.
One of the great needs for those who are working for change in the area of social justice or the environment is hope. In the Christian tradition, hope is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but it is also a task for Christians to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit today to literally, Renew the Face of the Earth.