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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn

02/11/2015
Tom Ryan, CSP
How can we bring about a religious climate change?

The priest from Newfoundland was the most honest.

Our agency had provided worship guides and hymns on creation themes for use in services last September on the same weekend when more than 300,000 people marched in New York City, calling for action on climate change. But the Newfoundland pastor reported, “I’ll use the Prayers of the Faithful you sent, but I don’t feel comfortable preaching about climate change. You know, we just never talked about that in seminary.”

True. And this is something Pope Francis wants to change.

According to the bishop chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis hopes to influence the crucial UN climate negotiations scheduled for the end of this year in Paris. The pope plans to do this in two ways: penning the first-ever encyclical letter on the environment, and addressing the UN General Assembly in New York in September, where it is rumoured he will also convene a meeting of similarly concerned world religious leaders.

The environmental encyclical will not arrive too soon: last year was the hottest on record.

I’ve been amazed at the number of articles already written on what Francis’ message is likely to be. Right-wing commentators and climate deniers, especially in the U.S., are already denouncing him.
Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,000 years, will surely focus on mercy and justice for the global poor in his environmental epistle. More than 7,300 people were left dead or missing, and more than 4 million people displaced, after November 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan. During January’s emotional pastoral visit to storm-ravaged Tacloban in the Philippines, the pope lunched with survivors. It would be surprising if he did not speak for those suffering most from climate disruptions.

More importantly, however: how will we in Canada respond to this long-awaited encyclical?
At the official level, one wonders if the Catholic Church in Canada is prepared. Although the bishops have written three pastoral letters since 2003 on environmental concerns, unlike other churches, the CCCB has expressed no concern about pipeline projects or developed a position on climate change.

A search of the CCCB website reveals only two references to climate issues. Their 2008 pastoral letter, Our Relationship with the Environment: The Need for Conversion, correctly alleges that despite making important commitments at international summits, Canada represents “an extreme case” of non-compliance in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A 2009 letter signed by the presidents of episcopal conferences of G8 countries mentioned how climate change hurt the poor. That letter was signed by Winnipeg’s Archbishop emeritus Jim Weisgerber, now retired and living in Regina. After that, silence has reigned. The bishops’ conference refused to join more than 60 faith communities who signed the October 2011 Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change.

Nonetheless, parishioners can organize now in anticipation of Francis’ environmental missive.

The daylong Environmental Action as Christian Action ecumenical workshop in the Diocese of Saskatoon was a good example of how faithful steps can be taken toward reflecting on the scientific, moral and spiritual lessons the climate crisis poses to us and future generations.

Why not organize small study sessions to read the upcoming encyclical, and prepare for this by using the reflections, prayers and action suggestions in Living Ecological Justice, CPJ’s guide to developing a biblical response to the environmental crisis? Let’s plan now to “green” our prayer lives, our facilities and our practices, and address creation advocacy efforts toward policy-makers in government and business.

In April, Citizens for Public Justice and the Canadian Council of Churches will invite all people of good faith to participate in Justice Tour 2015, designed to serve as a catalyst to discuss the key concerns of poverty in Canada and our response to climate change. Church leaders will cross the land, listening to local concerns and developing concerted responses in light of an expected federal election as well as the Paris climate summit.

Eco-theologian Heather Eaton told me that the biggest challenge of Francis’ upcoming encyclical is to offer hope. Hope that our efforts really can make a difference for creation — as well as have a relevant impact on our religious practices.

Thomas Aquinas once remarked that, “a mistake about creation will lead to a mistake about God.” The first-ever encyclical on the environment promises to be an opportunity to deepen the religious impulse toward ecological justice and more fully respond to the Creator of all life.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical organization that promotes justice, peace and the integrity of creation.