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A reflection by Bishop John Sherrington

As the Diocese of Westminster plans its pathway to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2030, it is important to place such institutional developments, as well as the legislative, political and social changes which will occur over the next nine years, in the spiritual context of the response to the God who calls us to conversion. Pope Francis echoes the invitation of St. John Paul II to ‘ecological conversion’[1] (LS 216). This will lead to profound changes in ‘life-styles, models of production and consumption, and established structures of power which today govern societies.’[2] It is a summons to both the Church and all people of good will to ‘hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ (LS 49) and contribute to build anew our common home. 

Naming the Crisis

In Only One Earth (1972), Barbara Ward and René Dubos wrote ‘the two worlds of man (sic) – the biosphere of his inheritance, the technosphere of his creation – are out of balance, indeed, potentially in deep conflict. And man is in the middle. This is the hinge of history at which we stand, the door of the future opening on to a crisis more sudden, more global, more inescapable and more bewildering than any ever encountered by the human species and one which will take decisive shape within the life span of children who are already born.’[3] In these words they highlighted the profound dangers of a world dominated by the use of technology which claims to be in the name of progress but fails to appreciate and recognise the human and environmental implications of such developments. Eight years later Barbara Ward wrote that the burning of fossil fuels would increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and might lead to ‘catastrophic changes in climate’.[4]

Prophetically she identifies two central themes which are developed in papal teaching and more fully in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. First is the failure to appreciate the interconnectedness of all reality and an integral human ecology, which seeks to promote the flourishing of both humans and the natural world; Pope Francis writes, ‘Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.’ (LS 240). Second is the danger of the globalisation of the paradigm which seeks only technical solutions which are inadequate for integral human development, and so offer a limited understanding of reality (LS 106ff). Developing a spirituality which includes the appreciation of this integral human ecology requires a further step of conversion. We rely on God’s grace to bring about this conversion and ask the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi who was named by St John Paul II in 1979 as the heavenly patron of all those who promote ecology because ‘he offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation.’[5]

Appreciating the mystery of God’s Creation

A first step towards ecological conversion is to appreciate more deeply the mystery of God’s creation and to respond with gratitude and reverence. At the end of the sixth day of creation, ‘God saw all that he had made, and indeed it was very good’ (Gen 1:31). On the seventh day he rested, ‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy’ (Gen 2:3). The account of creation in the Book of Genesis establishes the pattern of the Jewish Sabbath as a holy day and a day of rest. Saint John Paul in his encyclical Dies Domini (1998) explores the rich meaning of the Lord’s Day – Sunday – in the light of its Jewish origins. The holy day of the Jewish people reveals the ‘God of all the days of humanity’ (DD 14). For Christians, the meaning of Day of the Lord is fulfilled in Christ’s Paschal Mystery so that ‘In him, the “spiritual” meaning of the Sabbath is fully realized, as Saint Gregory the Great declares: “For us, the true Sabbath is the person of our Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ”.’ (DD 18). This holy day recognises that all creation, all time and all space belong to the Almighty.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the diversity of God’s creation reflects more perfectly his mystery, ‘For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.’ (Summa Theologica I. 47.1). Every Sunday we celebrate the joy of Easter Sunday, the mystery of our redemption, the gift of God’s creation and are caught into the mystery of the ‘new creation’ as all things are renewed in Christ. There is an invitation to deepen our contemplation of the gift of all God’s creation on this day of gratitude. We can each take practical, small steps to deepen the appreciation of this gift; to pause and behold the beauty of a plant, to walk in nature, to clean up rubbish and seek to make the world more beautiful.

Our obligation to care for all creation

Pope Francis’s urgent summons in Laudato Si’ develops earlier papal teaching. In his message on the 33rd World Day of Peace in 1990, St John Paul II reminds Catholics of their serious obligation to care for all of creation. ‘The commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God (cf. Ps 148:96).’ (1st January 1990, 16).[6]

Pope Benedict XVI continued this theme in Caritas in Veritate (2009): ‘The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole.’ (CV 48) and later ‘The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere…’ (CV 51). At the heart of this understanding is an understanding of integral human ecology which reflects on the set of relationships between persons and with the whole of creation. It includes our relationships with the unborn child, the elderly, the gift of sexual dignity, marriage, family, the world of work and all social and economic relationships.  He continues, ‘Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.’ (CV 51) 

Responding with gratitude

Pope Francis writes of ecological conversion of Christians ‘whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtues; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience’ (LS 217). The only worthy response to this gift of our common home is gratitude and generosity. 

Gratitude will lead to thanksgiving in prayer, for example, the regular practice of grace before and after meals as an integral part of family life (c.f. LS 227). Gratitude leads to humility; ‘It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.’ (LS 222). Gratitude tempers envy which often leads to violence.

Gratitude leads to greater freedom from possessiveness and the desire to hoard or over-consume. For the desert monks, growth in the spiritual life, led to them providing antidotes to particular sins. The sin of avarice or greed could be countered by charity. The person full of gratitude will more easily recognise that all is gift and will want then to be generous to others. Gratitude helps each person appreciate the universal destination of the goods of the earth for all people: ‘Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”.’ (LS 93 quotes CA 31). A pattern of consumption based on need rather than desire is more moderate and recognises that the gifts of the earth are destined for all people.

In strong words, Pope Francis reminds us that ‘The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.[78]’ (LS 95)

Ecological conversion will lead to an examination of conscience which includes patterns of consumption and the goods we buy, use once and throw away, the food that is wasted. It will lead to an identification of attitudes and patterns of behaviour that are sinful because they are wasteful and disrespectful of this gift of God. They form part of our confession of sins. A temperate person is one who is moderate in use and recognises the gift of each item. This virtue helps us develop a pattern of simple living, justice in relationships, and appreciates the beauty and goodness of each and every other man and woman with freedom and helps us to be more gracious and grateful. 

Conversion requires an opening of our hearts to hear the suffering of the earth and the sufferings of peoples. Recognising the gift we have been given, we become men and women of gratitude leading to greater generosity. With such an attitude the purchase of an electric car, a green heating system, or using cleaner transport is not a begrudging choice but a real choice for the good of God’s creation and other people. It also challenges us to ask how poorer families can be helped to make such choices through subsidies or grants. A cleaner world will be a financially more costly world and the poor must not suffer further because of the political choices which are to be made. Gratitude leads to generosity and is manifested in a deeper love of our neighbour and our worship of God.

Bishop John Sherrington
Feast of St. Bonaventure, 15 July 2021 

[1] A term used by St. John Paul II in his General Audience on 17 January 2001. See footnote 5, Laudato Si’.
[2] St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991) 58.
[3] Barbara Ward and René Dubos, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. Penguin, 1972, 47.
[4] Barbara Ward, Progress for a Small Planet, Penguin, 1979, 36.
[5] Apostolic Letter, St. John Paul II, Inter Sanctos: AAS 71 [1979], 1509f.

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