ON TUESDAY we kept the annual Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. This observance on 1 September was established by Pope Francis five years ago, following the example of the Orthodox Churches and his ground-breaking encyclical of May of that year, known by its Italian title Laudato Si’. The special day now begins an ecumenical Season of Creation, lasting from the beginning of September until the feast of St Francis of Assisi, 4 October. You can access special resources for this season from pages on the website of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, https://www.cbcew.org.uk/home/our-work/environment/season-of-creation/. One good thing which has come out of the pandemic through which we are still living is that we have grown in our ability to learn through modern technology and social media of the teachings of the Holy Father and the bishops, together with insights of Catholic theologians and other good sources. The Season of Creation is an opportunity for all of us to learn more about what the Church teaches about the care of Creation and to integrate this into our prayer and worship, even in these challenging times.
When Pope Francis published his encyclical in 2015 we did a fair amount to make ourselves aware of his teaching – we had a study evening in the parish and in our parish primary school the children, using material prepared by CAFOD, also reflected and worked on how environmental issues are important and central to our Christian faith. Since then the Church worldwide has led, along with others, urgent calls to take climate change, pollution and other issues seriously. What we teach about care for creation is part of what we call Catholic Social Teaching – it’s simply part of the ordinary moral teaching of the Catholic Church. For this reason it’s not optional or the preserve of specialists or enthusiasts. We’re not free to dissent from what Pope Francis taught; we’re not free to be ‘climate change deniers.’
For most Catholics this might seem blindingly obvious, but what we are saying about how we care for the world is not ‘plain sailing.’ Pope Francis was not innovating: what he teaches in Laudato Si’ simply builds on what the Church had been saying for some time – particularly Pope Benedict XVI in his last encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (‘Love in Truth’) from 2009. If we see the world as God’s creation, this means that it is special and sacred, because he created it; moreover while we have been given responsibility for it, we are stewards of it and don’t have absolute rights over it. Early on in his letter Pope Francis reminds us, drawing on St Francis, that the earth is like a sister and a mother, and ‘this sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. This violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…’ (section 2; the whole document can be found HERE). How we treat the world speaks volumes about what we believe about God.
The problem was critical and urgent five years ago; it is even more so now, as the Holy Father has repeatedly said during the current pandemic: we have an opportunity, because of all that’s happened, to take vigorous action as a world community. However looking back to the summer of 2015 I don’t think many of us anticipated some of the problems which have arisen.
First of all, while the pope’s letter offers great hope and encouragement to most Catholics, renewing our faith, there has been vigorous opposition to his teachings and disturbing indifference; opposition to the pope’s insights has been particularly strong in the United States, linked to a more general campaign against him. Secondly, and linked to this, no one foresaw the rise of figures like Trump or Bolsinaro who have undermined international efforts to combat climate change and save the planet. They have done this in the name of populist nationalism – anything we might do to carry forward the Church’s vision has to be based on international co-operation and solidarity, resisting competition and conflict. The issues addressed by Pope Francis, and reflected in this season of Creation, are linked to everything else which we teach about how nations should work together. We cannot stress too much the importance of this issue for our faith – and the importance of this issue for our children and grandchildren, and the world which God has made.