Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Church's Teaching on Ecology Still Light Green

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Church's Teaching on Ecology Still Light Green

Article excerpt

In my 1990 book, The Greening of the Church, I argued that concern for God's creation was low on the list of Catholic priorities. In the intervening years, concerns for the planet have increased at the level of papal teaching and in local churches. The most notable documents are: "Peace with God the Creator. Peace with All of Creation" (1990), Chapter 10 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), Caritas in Veritate (July 2009), "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation" (2010) and Pope Benedict XVI's address to the Vatican diplomatic corps Jan. 11. 2010.

Even so, the gains have been minimal enough that I disagree with those who claim that the Catholic church began to take environmental problems seriously during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Take for instance the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The weakest chapter is number 10, devoted to "Safeguarding the Environment." The most serious problem facing planet Earth today, and therefore humanity, is the wanton destruction of biodiversity. We are living through the sixth largest extinction of life since life began on Earth 3.8 billion years ago. Through the destruction of land, sea and air habitats, humans could wipe out between one-third and one-half of all the species on the planet within this century. Yet the rampant destruction of biodiversity only merits one paragraph--this from a church that claims to be pro-life!

Similarly, we are now more aware that extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, which devastated Haiti, New Jersey and New York in October, and Typhoon Bopha, which killed or left missing almost 2,000 people on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines in early December, are at least in part a result of climate change. Yet, to date the average rise in global temperature has only been 0.8 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times. Even the failed Copenhagen Accord in December 2009 warned that if the average global temperature rose more than 2 degrees Celsius, it would lead to "dangerous anthropogenic interference."

Figures released from the Global Carbon Project in December 2012 show that global emissions have been increasing at an average of 3 percent per annum since 2000. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Norwich, England, says that keeping global warming below "2 degrees C is beyond our grasp and 4 degrees C is challenging" without seriously curbing greenhouse gas emissions. "Each year you don't do anything the challenge grows greater," he adds.

A rise of 4 degrees Celsius would transform the species-rich tropical forest in the Amazon into savanna within a century. Many currently habited areas of the planet would become uninhabitable. These are not the rantings of delusional prophets, but are based on sophisticated computer modeling and yet action on climate change is not at the top of political or religious agendas. The compendium devotes a single paragraph to climate change.

At a practical level, Benedict had photovoltaic cells installed at the Vatican. In 2011, he was given an electric car with a 44-kilowatt electric motor and lithium-ion battery. While I welcome the initiatives, they are not earth-shattering.

In "Peace with God the Creator. Peace with All of Creation," John Paul H wrote: "Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. ... Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few." Even so, Catholic teaching on ecology is still in its infancy for the following reasons.

First, none of the above documents gives any overall sense of the magnitude of the current ecological crisis. Without an accurate appraisal of the true magnitude of the Earth's ecological challenges, one cannot claim to understand the current ecological crisis. …

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