by Ashley Ralston and Ellen Teague
Recently Ashley’s granddaughter asked him, “what are you doing to help the environment?” Reflecting on this, and on the 50th meeting of the National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) Environment Group, which we have both chaired, we reflected on how much the group has achieved since its inception in 2005.
The working group was set up at the NJPN’s annual conference in July 2005, which had an environmental theme and urged that this issue be given attention at all levels of Justice and Peace work. So, around eight people from half a dozen dioceses, missionary groups and agency partners have been meeting three to four times annually for 13 years.
One of our first tasks back then was to produce a draft of an NJPN leaflet, ‘Greening our Parish’ which was circulated by our members to local deaneries and parishes. We wrote to the bishops of England and Wales at that time to say that “we feel an increasing urgency for the Catholic Church in England and Wales to respond further to the increasingly dire scientific assessments on climate change and other environmental concerns”. We offered to support follow up to the Bishops’ Environmental Justice Consultation of 12 October 2004. At this meeting Sir John Houghton, former head of the Met office, and Fr Sean McDonagh, a Columban eco-theologian and writer both stressed the urgency of the Christian churches addressing, in particular, Climate Change, Water and Biodiversity. NJPN’s input on that day included offering itself as a network willing to be in partnership with the bishops’ conference in this area.
Between us, the members of the group have over the years been closely involved with CAFOD’s Extractives Campaign, Progressio’s Environment Desk, Columban JPIC, Christian Ecology Link, Operation Noah, Eco-Congregation, the Environmental Issues Network of CTBI, and with relevant programmes of other Christian denominations, particularly the Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers. People do not like to be told crushing news about environmental disasters, but we felt that, as Christians, we had a duty to truthfully read the signs of the times so that future generations can have something to cherish. We also wanted to highlight Catholic Social Teaching on Creation Care and Creation-centred theology. From this last perspective all religious communities need to see themselves in the context of creation and to play a role in preserving the environment.
Seven years ago, the group led a half day on creation-centred theology at one of the Network quarterly meetings. Among the quotes discussed was this from Rosemary Radford Ruether in her article ‘Eco-Justice at the centre of the Church’s mission’: “Many traditional Christians feel a deep suspicion toward the ecology movement, particularly when it lays claim to theological and religious meaning. They see this as the rise of a new ‘nature worship’ to be regarded as totally contrary to ‘Biblical faith’. What I wish to show in this talk is that the Church’s mission of redemption of the world cannot be divorced from justice in society and the healing of the wounds of nature wrought by an exploitative human industrial system. Furthermore that this holistic perspective is central to the Biblical vision of redemption. It is a Christianity that divorces individual salvation from society and society from creation that is unbiblical.” And then Pope Francis said something very similar in Laudato Si in 2015, which underlined the need for “ecological conversion”.
We have highlighted the injustices and potential disastrous consequences of climate change. We are proclaiming, but often to those already acutely aware of the problem. We need to reach and motivate those who are ambivalent, by education work, resources and advocacy. There is a constant challenge to be creative and stay positive. The news last week from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have 12 years only to work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions so as to reduce warming to 1.5 degrees seemed to be a one-day wonder. And this vital planetary news didn’t seem to be mentioned in many churches.
The group’s decision to push dioceses towards having their own environmental policies has proved to be challenging and initial outcomes were disappointing; however, resubmission of the process has seen that some dioceses are slowly coming on board. At present three have policies and at least five others are well into the process. Members of the group regularly give Laudato Si presentations at diocesan and parish level, and there is an increasing trend of meetings being inter-faith, which Columbans would say mirrors the interfaith petition of nearly two million signatures presented at the Paris Climate talks. Our group has supported the Live Simply outreach of CAFOD, through advertising and assessing, and more than 40 parishes have now received the award.
However, despite being hugely impressed by efforts to conserve energy, create parish gardens, plant commemorative trees for First Holy Communion and Confirmation occasions, and to promote study of Laudato Si’ it is true that something more fundamental is needed. The structural issues of injustice and ecological devastation highlighted in Laudato Si’ present a fundamental challenge to our way of life and, certainly, our way of being Church. The NJPN Environment Group aims to stimulate this reflection, and we welcome both the installation of a new environment worker at the Bishops’ Conference and the bishops’ ‘Global Healing’ initiative which is recommended for study during Advent. And meanwhile, let’s celebrate Church moves to disinvest from fossil fuels, tackle destructive extractive industries and challenge militarism, since military activity is a massive source of pollution and waste of resources. The Day of Prayer for Care of Creation on 1 September and Creation Time until 4 October are supported by Pope Francis, and have been picked up by many church bodies.
Have we been prophets? Have we read the sign of the times? Over the last 20 to 25 years many environmental NGOs have joined United Nations bodies in leading the way to seeing that the fate of our planet has firmly been put into our own hands, particularly challenging the sustainability of the prevailing global development and our dependence on fossil fuels. Climatic instability and disasters are growing apace. We need to listen and take stock, then proclaim what is happening to God’s Creation – that is our prophetic role.
We see our presence in the NJPN network as yeast in a dough of many-faceted justice and peace initiatives. We campaign, support the annual NJPN conference and persist in trying to dialogue with the Church hierarchy. Fantastic solidarity is given by Pope Francis, and it was great to see a ‘Walk for the Climate’ setting of from St Peter’s Square on 4 October, organised by the Global Catholic Climate Network.
Yes, despite the overwhelming evidence, many are still unaware or indeed don’t really care about the environmental consequences of their actions. Being a witness to the need for a more sustainable future for our common home means that our group will continue its mission well into the future.