Christian living today
The Vatican has taken its time in going green, says Sean McDonagh in the latest article of our series on church teaching.
IT IS a fact of recent history that the Catholic church has been slow to recognise the gravity of the ecological problems facing the earth. She has not been alone. Most of the institutions of society schools, governments, the media, industrial and financial corporations — have also turned a blind eye to the damage which humans, especially through our modern industrial processes, have done to earth — the garden planet of the universe.
It appears that the majority of westerners, including our political, industrial and religious leaders, have been lulled into a false sense of security by some of the successes of modern technology. Among these achievements are the benefits of modern medicine and the many comforts which people who are lucky enough to live in industrialised countries enjoy.
Consequently, our leaders have not been attentive to the magnitude of the destruction which has taken place in modern times. The air in many countries has been polluted through industrial emissions; oceans, lakes and rivers have been poisoned with toxic substances; forests in the tropics and temperate zones have been laid waste, causing one of the most extensive levels of extinction in the history of life on planet earth; the life-giving nature of sunlight has itself been inhibited through ozone depleting gases and "green-house" effect is causing extensive climate changes.
All of these taken individually and especially collectively involve changes of a geological order of magnitude. They entail meddling with physical, chemical and biological processes which have been in operation for hundreds of millions of years. Yet the church in its teaching and, particularly in its practice, has hardly noticed what is happening.
Unless we wake up soon and initiate extensive programmes to halt the encircling chain of death, then human beings and the other creatures which are our companions on this planet will be forced to live amid the ruins of the natural world.
Since the middle of the 1980s the church has gradually begun to wake up to the magnitude of the problem. The bishops of Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and New Guinea have in recent years published pastoral letters on the destruction of the environment in their area. Environmental destruction figures prominently in the 1988 encyclical of Pope John Paul II Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns).
Then on January 1, 1990, the Pope published Peace With God the Creator, Peace with all Creation. It needs to be said that this was the first document in the Catholic church devoted exclusively to the environmental crisis.
Some Catholics find it difficult to accept the church could have been so inattentive to an issue of such importance. They claim that the church has always taught that humans must respect creation. The church has affirmed our belief "in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth", but this has not motivated her to stand in the vanguard with modern prophets like Racel Carson, Barry Commoner and Fritz Schumacher whose voices were raised against environmental destruction twenty or thirty years ago. Claiming credit for something she has not done neither serves the interest of truth nor helps the Catholic church to face the issue squarely and honestly now.
A brief survey of some key documents will show that environmental destruction was more or less overlooked in recent church teaching. Though the doctrine of creation is mentioned in a number of documents from Vatican II Lumen Gentium (The pogmatic Constitution of the Church), no 36 and Dei Verbum (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) no. 3, — the Council subscribes to what is called a "domination" theology. The natural world is there for mankind's exclusive use. "Meanwhile the conviction grows that humanity can and should consolidate its control over creation, but even more, that it devolves on humanity to establish a political, social and economic order which will to an ever better extent serve man." (Gaudium et Spes no. 9).
This call for sensitive human institutions designed to promote equity is admirable, but it is not accompanied by a recognition of the fact that humans were already defacing creation and destroying its fruitfulness. The bishops of the Council could hardly plead ignorance of what was happening; Racel Carson's Silent Spring was published in April 1962, before the' Vatican Council began.
Human impact on the rest of creation is also forgotten in Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), which, I hasten to add, is one of the finest documents to come from the magisterium in recent decades. It quotes the Genesis command to "fill the Earth and subdue it" (No 22) with no caution that this "subduing" might be irreversibly and extensively destroying the living world, instead of (as the document sees it) "developing and perfecting" it.
In his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Humanity), Pope John Paul II refers to environmental problems on a number of occasions (No 8, 15, 16). Still, concern for the environment has not been central to the Pope's pastoral ministry.
Environmental degradation and its consequence for humans and the whole earth does not feature regularly among the topics which Pope John Paul's speaks about during his pastoral visits. Happily this is beginning to change. He addressed the issue in a talk at the United Nations Centre for the Environment (UNEP) in Nairobi in August 1985 and again, more recently, during his visit to Madagascar in May 1988.
It is understandable that Catholics who are concerned about environmental devastation were delighted with the January 1990 World Day of Peace Message of the Pope. Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all creation is an excellent document. It is written in a lively style; its coverage of environmental, justice and peace issues is comprehensive; its analysis of the root causes of these problems is thorough and incisive and finally it strikes a note of urgency.
Unfortunately, it does not spell out any programme of action. The Philippine bishops, for example, in their pastoral, What is happening to our Beautiful Land? recommend setting up a "Care of the Earth Ministry at every level of church organisation".
Luckily such an instrument exists in the World Council of Churches' (WCC), Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) initiative. This programme emerged from the WCC's assembly in Vancouver in 1983. It called on Christians to identify concrete lifeaffirming actions and then encouraged them to enter into covenants to promote justice, peace and the integrity of creation in their personal life and local community.
Since 1983 the JPIC process, as if is called, has included many meeting which address technical questions like the "greenhouse" effect and also assemblies where Christians have met to pray, reflect and plan appropriate action on these issues. One very successful meeting took place in Basle in May 1989. This was the first time since the Great Schism that Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians from all over Europe met together in a single assembly.
Unfortunately, the Holy See refused the invitation of the World Council of Churches to be co-inviters of the World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation which took place in Seoul, Korea in March 1990. The Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr Emilio Castro , and many Catholics expressed regret at this decision.
It is very difficult to see what theological problems might have prevented the Holy See from supporting the JP1C process, since it appears to form the backbone of the Pope's January 1990 message Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all creation. In fact, many Catholic feel that the JPIC process provides a golden opportunity (or Christians from all denominations to pool their resources in a common programme designed to address the most crucial problems of our era — how to build a world where justice, peace and the integrity of creation might reign.
Lay people, many of whom have children and wish not to hand on a blighted and rundown world to their children, should communicate their interest in the JPIC process to their priests and join hands in effective action with their fellow Christians.
Fr Sean McDonagh discusses the Catholic Church's teaching on the environment more extensively in his book The Greening of the Church, published next month by Geoffrey Chapman.