Celebrating Earth Day the Catholic Way – Connect & Flourish

Regarded by ma440672445_69ed634b34ny as the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day began exactly 45 years ago today.  On 22 April 1970, millions of Americans took to the streets in response to a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Mobilised by Senator Gaylord Nelson and inspired by the student anti-war movement, those early environmental pioneers sought to infuse protest energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution to force environmental protection up the national political agenda.

And it worked!  The Earth Day Movement continues.

Around the globe today, thousands of environmental activities are taking place.  My own organisation, the London Mining Network is assisting in a lively protest to expose and oppose burning biomass and coal in the UK.

But what, if any, might a specific Catholic contribution be to Earth Day?

Well, first and foremost we can join in the activities with great gusto confident we have Church support.

Pope Francis’s eagerly awaited ecology encyclical will probably stress our Christian duty to be proactive stewards and advocates for the natural world.  It will outline how environmental action is to be seen as a virtue, with ecological degradation as its corresponding vice.  As with the early days of the Earth Day movement, there will be a call for Catholics to mobilize and take a lead on promoting care for creation. And it’s happening already. In the past few months we’ve seen instances of the Catholic Church heading up various environmental initiatives. Three important examples spring to mind. Firstly, Pope Francis’s personal involvement in the Lima Climate Change talks, which in the face of a distinct absence of political leadership, was welcomed by NGOs and charities. Secondly, there is the concerted action taken by Catholic bishops on the issue of conflict minerals. Third, this year has seen the setting up of The Pan-Amazonian Church Network to tackle specific issues facing planet and people (particularly indigenous communities) in South America.


Slippery slope to neo paganism? Not really

Perhaps another area Catholics can make a unique contribution to environmental action is on the whole issue of motivation.  Why should we value the natural world? It’s fair to say that in the early days of Earth Day’s existence, the Catholic hierarchy was by and large suspicious of environmentalism, viewing it as a form of new age neo-paganism.  Of course there are vestiges of such a view among some quarters of the church such as Cardinal Pell or the influential Fr. Robert Sirico of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.  But thanks to insights on the environment provided by John Paul II, Green Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and of course Pope Francis, such attitudes now represent a minority view.

A phrase Pope Francis is rather fond of is “Mother Earth”.  Speaking to Italy’s National Federation of Farmers in January 2015, the Pope invited farmers, to love the land as Mother earth in the spirit of St Francis, making an alliance with it, so that it can continue to be the source of life for the entire human family. Similarly in a speech to business leaders on 7 February 2015, he reminded his audience that our planet is “a mother for all of us”, which we must “hand it on to our children, cared for and improved, because it’s a loan they make to us”.  In another remarkable statement, Francis said, “God sometimes forgives, but when mistreated (mother) nature never forgives.”

These references to “Mother Earth” can be interpreted on a number of levels which have a profound relevance to people of faith and good will, alike. Most immediately, he is making the basic point that we depend on Mother Earth for sustenance. Without a healthy environment, we simply cannot survive.  Secondly Francis’s approach constitutes a deathblow to an understanding of our “dominion” over the earth as domination.  Language indicating that the environment is on loan to us means that our “dominion” can only ever be construed in terms of stewardship.

Moreover and perhaps most significantly, there’s a deeper theological point at play.  In characterising the planet as a “mother”, the Pope is following St Francis in saying that because the one Father creates all things, other elements of creation are “brothers” and “sisters” in a real sense.  Thus we arrive at a more “horizontal” rather than hierarchical view of the world. As the Australian theologian Clive Hamilton observes, the Pope’s theology is subtly doing away with the notion that the divine order moves down from God on high to man to ever more lowly creatures. Instead there is complete interconnectedness between ourselves and the non-human natural world.

I believe there’s a real opportunity for enriching environmental thinking here.  Secular environmentalism is generally based on a purely physicalist (i.e. materialist) premise, which I think struggles to convey concepts of value, or provide motivation for environmental protection.  A Catholic position on the other hand presents the natural world as something we are part of, as something we are called to protect (and even improve), and crucially, as something invested with a teleological purpose, essential for God’s plan for humanity.

Happy Earth Day!


Shiny things with a dark history


Could the things in your phone be fuelling conflicts?

The inextricable link between protection of the natural environment and promoting human dignity is definitely something the forthcoming ecology encyclical will focus on. And nowhere is this link more apparent than in questions relating to how we source minerals for our computers, phones, jewelry and other products.

The tragic truth is that the “laundering” of raw materials from places like Columbia, DRC and Central African Republic into “respectable” western markets is helping fund armed groups that visit unimaginable suffering on helpless civilians. This is nothing new. It’s certainly a topic close to my own heart through my involvement in the London Mining Network, a coalition of NGOs seeking to highlight the role of the City of London in financing ethically dubious projects.

The phenomenon of “dirty gold”, “blood diamonds” and “conflict minerals” has been on the public radar for many years. You only have to think of the impact of the film Blood Diamond, released a decade ago.

What is new however is the recent concerted action by Catholic organisations and bishops on the issue.

The impetus has been a drive to improve the European Union’s regulation of supply chains which potentially subsidise wars. In 2010, the US passed legislation requiring companies to ensure minerals are not sourced from conflict zones. Yet in Europe no equivalent law exists and so it is blithely heading towards becoming a trading hub for conflict minerals. The European Commission has noted this and the European Parliament Committee on International Committee on International Trade (INTA) has proposed new rules requiring companies to report on measures to ensure responsible sourcing of minerals.

But as currently drafted, the measures are unsatisfactory.

imageLed by CIDSE, an umbrella group of Catholic development NGOs, there have been calls for the EU proposals to go further. In short, the INTA’s recommendations need sharper teeth (unlike in the US, the reporting requirements would be voluntary, not mandatory), catch more companies (not just importers of raw materials, but also importers of products which contain minerals processed outside the EU) and have a wider application (not just apply to tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold as currently envisaged, but be extended to include copper and diamonds).

In a forthright letter coordinated by CIDSE last month, signed by nearly 200 Catholic bishops from around the globe, there is an appeal for the EU to enact legally binding requirements on companies. As the bishops put it, “As many of us are first-hand witnesses to the powerful dynamics in regions affected by conflict, having engaged in dialogue with all involved, we can assure that nothing less will be able to change the behaviour of companies and other actors.”

It’s surely this first-hand witness of what’s happening on the ground that gives the Church credibility when advocating about these matters. Pope Francis has said that the Catholic Church can never simply be a giant NGO. Of course that’s because it is concerned with peoples’ souls as well as their material welfare. But it’s also because unlike most NGOs, when the Church speaks and acts, it does so as a family, not just an organisation. We have a direct and personal link (and responsibility) to what is happening to our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

imageMgr Fridolin Ambongo, President of the Episcopal Commission on Natural Resources and a DRC Bishop picks up on this theme in a recent interview. He expressed his sense that there is a growing momentum in the Vatican behind the view that we cannot speak of evangelization without speaking of justice for people. From his position as a bishop from Democratic Republic of Congo, he is able to observe with complete clarity that “When we speak about blood minerals, it’s not just a theory. It’s the reality”. As he says “through their supply chains, some European companies are complicit in abuses …this situation is intolerable”.

The European Parliament will debate the proposals for tighter regulation of supply chains next month. Time to lobby your local MEP …

Natural Law: A Light of Understanding for Ecologists?



Bright Spark: St. Thomas

“The light of understanding placed in us by God” is how St Thomas Aquinas describes natural law. Natural law is basically an ethical system rooted in Aristotle, developed by the Catholic moral tradition, that views certain rights or values as inherent and universal to all humans.  Connected to natural law is the concept of natural rights, a philosophical school that influenced the rise of thinking about inalienable human rights.

Natural law is clearly fundamental to Catholic ethical reflection.  Given this, it has a part to play in the Church’s approach to environmental issues and indeed the forthcoming ecology encyclical.  You can imagine the interest then when a leading academic specialist in natural law and highly influential US Catholic recently entered the debate about what Pope Francis has in store for us.  Robert George, is a law professor at Princeton University, and is a proponent of the so called New Natural Law Theory.  However his article entitled Four Things to Remember about the Pope’s Environment Letter has disappointed those of us who are interested in developing the extent to which Aquinas’ “light of understanding” can be applied to our relationship with the non-human world.



Prof. Robert George

George approaches the question of how we react to the ecology encyclical from a Papal authority angle.  In doing so, he distinguishes between papal pronouncements constituting moral norms which are binding on Catholics, and statements about empirical fact that are not.  Moral norms cover a range of issues including the sanctity of human life, religious liberty, sexual morality, and indeed moral responsibilities towards the natural environment.  In terms of empirical facts, George gives the hypothetical example of an encyclical providing that pregnant women should not take ibuprofen because it threatens the life of the child she carries.  He argues that in this instance, the Pope’s beliefs whether ibuprofen is an abortifacient or not is an empirical question of fact, and to disagree with his belief would not amount from dissent from the underlying moral norm of protecting human life.

This observation is not controversial, reflecting as it does conventional Catholic thinking on papal magisterial authority.  More controversial is his application of all this to the question of climate change, in respect of which George argues the Pope does not possess any special insight or teaching authority.

It strikes me that this is a big claim.

In the first place, whilst climate change is a undoubtably an empirical factual issue (which of course makes it all the more serious in terms of whether action is taken or not!), George overlooks the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is indeed a factual reality, and instead portrays it as a debate between “alarmists” and “skeptics”.

Secondly, we can take issue with his contention that the Pope does not have a special insight into this factual matter. In his capacity of the head of a very large network (known as the Catholic Church), surrounded by highly skilled advisers, and through visiting those communities who have first hand experience of suffering the effects of climate change, the Pope surely does have special insight.  Michael Sean Winters makes this point forcefully.

Thirdly, does George not overstate the distinction between empirical facts and moral norms, or at least our ability to separate them on a practical level?  In the past a Catholic may have argued, along the lines George suggests, that the Church using magisterial statements to support legislation prohibiting slavery (or to bring it up to date, human trafficking) was an instance of statements concerning empirical facts.  Using legislation was one means among others to protect people.  Individuals were therefore not dissenting if they disagreed with teaching regarding the best means, provided they accepted the non-negotiable moral norm regarding human dignity.  And yet nowadays, I don’t think anyone could justify separating magisterial support for measures outlawing slavery or human trafficking from the principle of human dignity itself.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Likewise, are we being a little overconfident in drawing a solid black line between on the one hand what the Pope says about climate change, and on the other, what can be regarded as “real” moral issues?  If, as the majority of scientists indicate, climate change is a reality, it is an ethical issue that poses profound humanitarian challenges.  As with other moral questions like human trafficking, measures to combat it are indistinguishable from the moral norm and imperative to preserve life.

But, my fourth, and perhaps main point, is that George does not engage with the bigger picture of what the encyclical is to likely to deal with, namely the increasing disconnect since industrialisation of societies, between humans and their natural environment.  Climate change is just one symptom of unsustainable consumption and wasteful use of resources which compromise the flourishing of non-human species, as well as future human generations.  Other examples of this disconnect include the alarming rate of species extinction, destruction of forests, desertification and of course the impact of all this on the world’s poorest communities.  To paraphrase the Catholic broadcaster Mary Colwell who has spoken and written extensively on this, climate change is not the only game in town.

It is a shame that Robert George has not sought to examine these wider questions of the break down between human ecology and natural ecology through the lens of natural law.  If he did he would be in excellent company.  Namely that of his fellow conservative-minded new natural law theorist, Germain Grisez.  As Jacaranda Turvey Tait notes Germainin her very insightful article on the Robert George intervention, Grisez’s contribution to environmental ethics has yet to be properly acknowledged.  I certainly hadn’t seen Grisez in this light before, and so I was delighted to be directed to the relevant sections of his monumental work The Way of the Lord Jesus where a number of rather startling sub headings give us a glimpse of his natural law perspective on environmental stewardship:

  • People should not regard nature as mere material for exploitation
  • In dealing with nature, people must cooperate with its creator.
  • Technology tends to obscure human cooperation with the creator.
  • Contemplation of natural beauty fulfills both human beings and nature.
  • People should not regard nature as mere material for exploitation

I couldn’t agree more with Turvey Tait’s comments that whilst some environmentalists have dismissed the new natural law as impossibility anthropocentric, “Grisez’s ethics is actually inherently green” and that natural law may well provide us with a key unlocking a authentic Catholic response to ecology.  Let’s hope there is more to come on this!





“Man has slapped nature in the face”: Pope Francis on Climate Climate

Perhaps drawing on his brief experience as a part-time nightclub bouncer during his days as a chemistry student, the Holy Father has made not just one, but two references to physical resistance in interviews over the past week. Much has been said about his comments in relation to religious freedom, but I’m interested here in his interview with journalists on the plane to the Philippines.   Pope Francis noted that “man ‘slaps’ nature, continually … we have taken hold of nature, of Mother Earth”.

Pope Francis & Cardinal Tagle

Pope Francis & Cardinal Tagle

The past week has certainly been an important one for stepping up the Church’s commitment to environmental stewardship, and this all bodes well for a new year which bring us the much awaited Ecology Encyclical.

Before embarking on his tour of the Philippines, in an address to Holy See diplomats, Pope Francis expressed his view that 2015 will be of tremendous significance for international leaders. He highlighted two forthcoming milestones: first, agreeing the Sustainable Development Goals to replace the existing Millennium Development. Second, he flagged the anticipated (Paris) Climate Change Agreement, saying this is “urgently needed”.

Arriving in the Philippines, Francis was met by his host Cardinal Luis Tagle, who is well known for his support for environmental initiatives in a country that is already suffering from rising sea levels and climate change. Tagle presented the Pope with a copy of the statement of the newly formed Global Catholic Climate Movement. The ever-expanding Movement consists of variety of Catholic agencies and prominent individuals (including, I’m proud to say, the Jesuit European Social Centre!). Its statement proposes that time-honoured and very catholic principle of the virtue of prudence – “right reason applied to action” as Aquinas frames it – could provide a way of transforming dry intellectual debates about climate change into conversations concerning “spiritual and moral implications of our failure to care for God’s creation”. It calls on Catholic leaders to speak prophetically and dialogue with leaders and consumers who “engage in climatically destructive policies and practices.”

Of course that includes every single one of us – we are all “consumers” facing daily decisions about how to reduce our own ecological footprints. But on a structural level, the Church has a special role in encouraging collective decisions to be made by nations and large organizations. This came out clearly and effectively during the Lima Climate Change talks. The secular media is recognising it too: only yesterday, Tim Stanley writing in the Daily Telegraph claims that Pope Francis is “showing he has the capacity to be a truly global force for good in our time”. A challenge is to ensure that the task is not seen to rest solely and exclusively on “Pope Francis” but rather the whole Catholic Church.

There is also a body of opinion building up that a concrete ‘prophetic’ action the Church could make would be to divest itself from those companies profiting from fossil fuels. An advocacy group known as 350.org represents this view and through its local partner, Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development has planned various events during the Papal Visit. Other faith groups have already started the divestment process, with various Anglican dioceses and Quaker communities around the world completely divesting from fossil fuel companies. Meanwhile, the Church of England has reduced its holdings in fossil fuel investments but not completely withdrawn them, on the basis that they are in a better position to lobby the offending companies if they have a small, but not insignificant shareholding.

Guardini - An inspiration behind the Ecology Encyclical?

Guardini – An inspiration behind the Ecology Encyclical?

Back to the interview with journalists on the plane to the Philippines. Asked about the forthcoming encyclical, Francis once again drew on his first hand experience of ecological destructive in his native South America. He spoke of his intervention to stop deforestation in the Tartagal zone of Argentina and how the monoculture of soya cultivation is “exhausting” the land. He cited two influences in his approach to ecology: the first his “beloved brother” Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and secondly, the Italian Oratorian theologian Romano Guardini. The latter is certainly an interesting choice, perhaps a subject for a later GreenJesuit article …



Bishops getting vocal about climate change

un-climate-change-talks-lima-peruIt seems that the Lima climate change talks held earlier this month have yielded at least some tentative fruit. As a result of the negotiations, officially named the 20th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the “COP20”), all major countries have committed to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Such a consensus is a historical first. If all goes well China will formally pledge to cut its emissions, as will India, Brazil and other emerging economies. The detail will need to be finalised in Paris next year. Before then however, individual states are obliged to reveal how they will cut carbon pollution.

But what has impressed me the most about the COP20, is how vocal the Catholic Church has been about the need for leading economies to come up with a plan to tackle climate change.

First, we had a strongly worded statement of Pope Francis on 12 December 2014 in which he stressed the serious ethical and moral responsibility aspects of the issue. He also highlighted the urgency of the problem, reminding world leaders that inaction was not an option and that “the time to find global solutions is running out.” And then there was a reference to a common theme of his: the need for collective action and trust. This is a point he has made in relation to other the challenges posed by other social issues like human trafficking and the refugee crisis. He told leaders “It is only possible with a collective answer that is able to overcome attitudes of mistrust and to promote a culture of solidarity, of encounter and of dialogue able to show the responsibility to protect the planet and the human family.”

Second, there was the communiqué issued by an international coalition of Catholic bishops. This makes very insightful reading. I picked up on a few salient things, points which could be relevant to the anticipated ecology encyclical.  Here they are:

  • Its insistence that humanity is ordered in such a way that Creation is to be treated respectfully because Creation has a value in itself. Could this be nudging us towards a view that the natural world has a value independent of ourselves? Obviously humans are part of this natural world, and so such a value could never be completely extrinsic to humanity. But it nevertheless moves us away from a purely anthropocentric account of our relationship with the non-human world.
  • It recognises that the “atmosphere, rainforests, oceans and agricultural land” are common goods requiring our care. With the rise in land grabbing (i.e. private companies acquiring huge amounts of land, predominantly in developing countries), such a statement is significant. So is the inclusion of ‘rainforests’ as a common good. State governments selling off concessions to commercial entities for mineral extraction and energy projects on rainforest land not only reduces natural carbon sinks, but is a big problem blighting indigenous communities for whom the forest is held in common.
  • It states that the main responsibility for the problems of climate change lies with the dominant global economic system. The bishops here seem to be calling into question the sustainability of the current economic models based on year-on-year growth and an ever-expanding consumption of commodities – an economic model that overlooks factors like community, security, or the quality of our environment

In sum, these statements of the Church hierarchy pull no punches: climate change and associated environmental degradation is a serious ethical issue.



Pope Francis’s Ecology Encyclical – What can we expect?

Here’s an article I’ve done for the (mostly) American The Jesuit Post (TJP).  
Thanks very much to Matthew Charlesworth SJ for introducing me to Michael Rossmann SJ, editor of TPJ.  Michael is one of the astutest editors I’ve encountered.  His spelling of certain words is questionable however!  But then again he is from “across the pond” as we say …


The Parish Priest who has become an Erin Brockovich of Naples

The film Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts as a feisty young legal clerk who takes on a big US corporate on behalf of victims suffering from cancer caused by land they Erincontaminated is an inspiring depiction of the way the Law can be used to achieve justice for people and planet alike.  It certainly fuelled my desire to go into environmental law (although I ended up usually acting for the “wrong” side … but that’s another story!).  So I was intrigued when I came across a story in the Italian press about a priest of a town near Naples who has played a critical role in uncovering an illegal toxic waste dump in his parish. And it being Italy, the Mafia are involved …


Don Marco Ricci calling on the Holy Spirit

Don Marco Ricci is pastor of Our Lady of Consolation, Herculaneum which lies in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It is an agriculturally fertile area, the soil pregnant with the ash of Vesuvius, and its delicious tomatoes are renowned throughout Italy. But over the past twenty years or so, strange things have been happening. It started with trucks filled with waste rumbling through the town late at night. No one knew where they came from or to where they were destined, or whom was responsible for them. Then Don Marco noted he was taking an abnormally high number of funerals of parishioners affected by Leukaemia. Furthermore he has observed that this form of cancer is particularly prevalent in young children.

According to the Italian environmental group Legambiente, around ten million tons of industrial hazardous waste has been illegally dumped between 1991 and 2013 in an area around Naples and Caserta, which includes Herculaneum. It’s become known as the “Triangle of Death” and it is believed that the waste was put there by companies controlled by the Neapolitan Camorra mob. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm2KmBVpAMo&feature=player_embedded


Not a pretty site: the illegal toxic dump

Whilst the authorities have had knowledge of the contamination for some time now, discovering precise locations of the waste has been tricky. This where Don Ricci comes in. He has been a long time campaigner for an environmental clean-up, but a break through occurred earlier in the year when an elderly man came to him for confession. The man told the priest that he knew where hundreds of drums were buried. Overcoming fears of retribution by the mafia, the man followed Don Ricci’s advice and went to the authorities with the information. As a consequence, this particular dump has been identified and contamination is being remediated. Don Ricci is keen for others to come forward with information. As he told a news reporter

“In addition to digging in the ground, we need to do it in the hearts and minds of the people … all those who know the hidden truths.”

http://www.avvenire.it/Dossier/Terra%20dei%20fuochi/Storie/Pagine/Rifiuti-ora-i-cittadini-rompono-lomert-.aspx.  This reminds me of a quote of the real-life Erin Brokovitch

“If you follow your heart, if you listen to your gut, and if you extend your hand to help another, not for any agenda, but for the sake of humanity, you are going to find the truth.”

A hard-working community leader, innocent people suffering,a sinister Mafioso connection, and a confession, all set in a famous part of Italy … surely Don Ricci’s story has the makings of a great film!

Farewell to Pius

The Clapham Jesuit Community said goodbye to Pius Ginting this morning.  Pius is an Indonesian community and environmental campaigner who has been in the UK for the past couple of weeks taking past in the Dirty Coal Tour, organised by London Mining Network: http://londonminingnetwork.org/2014/09/dirty-coal-tour/

Pius (middle) and a few of my Jesuit brothers

Pius (middle) and a few of my Jesuit brothers

Pius, who works for Friends of Earth Indonesia, has been advocating for the Dayak Siang tribal people who live in the Central Kalimantan, one of the last pockets of primary rainforest on the island of Borneo in Indonesia.   The international mining company BHP Billiton, has plans to develop the area. Known as the IndoMet Project. BHP’s open cast coal mine will cover an area twice the size of Greater London.  Over the past decade, BHP has been buying up land in this region with a view to developing this massive mine.

Dayak tribes people from West Kalimantan

Dayak tribes people from West Kalimantan

Needless to say, this will have a devastating impact on the Dayak Siang who depend on the forest for their livelihood.  Furthermore, the compensation offered in exchange for leaving their lands in 2005 was a pittance (about half a pence per square metre) and the there is evidence to suggest that the police used powers of arrest and imprisonment for those who refused to accept compensation.

MDG : KPC coal mining company truck in East Kutai, Kalimantan, Borneo

Work has already commenced at the East Kalimantan mine

Over the past couple of weeks Pius has been at meetings and speaking at various events up and down the UK. The campaign aims to highlight BHP’s dubious human rights and environmental record and calls on organisations to divest from the company.

The tour kicked off with a demo outside BHP’s AGM held in London since the company is listed on the stock exchange.  There was a public meeting about BHP’s funding of University College London’s Institute of Sustainable Resources (rather ironic for a fossil fuel entity to be sponsoring this …). See  http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/23/fossil-fuel-divestment-campaign-targets-ucl-and-bhp-billiton.  Pius has also been at meetings with various MPs, Foreign Office officials, pension fund holders and lawyers.  In addition to all this, he has been darting up and down the country, speaking to various community and university groups from places as diverse as Oxford and Glasgow.

Pius has been a joyful addition to our community.  It’s edifying for us to encounter individuals who remind us of our own Ignatian charism to accompany, serve and advocate for marginalised people.  We wish Pius the very best.  May Saint Ivo of Kermartin, patron saint of the poor, pray for him!

Demo at BHP AGM: Yep, they are still stuck in a hole despite our efforts