Church reluctance with regard to environmental issues

Although there are, within the Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) in particular, many texts and movements that seriously address today’s environmental challenges and more particularly global warming, one may also at times feel a reluctance to enter the public debate and to take matters as seriously as they should be, particularly at higher hierarchical levels. Sometimes, one can’t escape the impression that environmental challenges remain peripheral or are even considered as if drawing away our attention from the really important issues. For people who feel the urgency of the environmental challenges and who are increasingly aware of the huge number of people suffering worldwide from ecological degradation and the consequences of global warming, this kind of opposition is painful and it may even enrage them. I think we should try to understand the reasons for reluctance towards environmental challenges before allowing our passions to get the upperhand. Dealing with these objections is a way of responding to the environmental challenges. This is particularly true, when we become aware of the fact that we can address these challenges only “together”. We may, therefore, have to learn from the objections and difficulties by attempting to answer them. I attempt to make a list of these difficulties without claiming to be complete.

(1) Many of us certainly find it difficult to understand and envision what climate change means on a global scale. It is, in a way, too big and too complex an issue – our minds are overwhelmed and there may be paralyzing fears or anxieties in our hearts. Moreover, we will have to live with global warming – it is not a problem we can do away with – and it may seem to many of us that the initiatives we take do not immediately change the situation in which we find ourselves. We cannot avoid anymore; maybe there is some space for mitigation and we will certainly have to adapt. Over the coming years, as social disruptions and natural disasters or extreme weather conditions increase, these feelings may actually become more dominant. “What can we do? It’s all so much bigger than ourselves …”. Here lies, I think, a spiritual (learning to deal with our fears and discouragement) as well as a very practical task (what can we do at our micro level in the face of these challenges).

(2) Environmental thinking and climate change require us to think in the long term, to take decisions and to change attitudes and life styles now, although their effect will be felt only in a future that we don’t consider “near” to us. This is difficult for many of us, particularly when we feel pressed by urgent issues – hunger, conflicts, the immediate consequences of natural disasters, … We deal with matters when they pose a problem and find it difficult to act or think in order to avoid matters to become a problem. We think short-term and reactively … Environmental challenges require pro-active long-term planning and strategies. The task here is to learn to think and act pro-actively with a view on the long-term, even amidst urgent and pressing short-term issues. We can learn to individually change our reactive setup of mind; we can also build institutions that allow long-term pro-active thinking and foster that attention in the public debate.

(3) Over the past years it has not always been easy to get good and reliable information on environmental issues. Very often, indeed, the information we receive has been “handled” (as was clear in some of my previous postings) to allow for or even cover up egoistic financial and economic interests. This means that the real situation has been misrepresented, that confusion has been spread, that serious scientists have been silenced or discredited, and that science itself has come under suspicion (an activity for which sometimes religion has been used) or is being relied upon beyond its capabilities (e.g. by conceiving of climate change as a mear scientific or technical challenge, so that our societal life-styles are not questioned). The task here is to provide reliable information and to take on an honest attitude with regard to science, technology and life-styles. This is not easy, as this may involve the unmasking of huge economic and financial interests, and as it may require that, particularly in the rich world, we reconsider our globally unsustainable life-styles. Religions and churches can play a very important role here and they should be very careful not to squander away their credibility by allowing themselves to be used to cover up the real abuses and injustices brought about by the powergames in political and economic global interactions. A serious reflection on neo-liberal and capitalist modes is urgently needed.

(4) There is a painful and tricky competition going on between religion and science within the Christian churches, which finds it apex in the discussions concerning evolution theory and creationism. I think that in the background of this lies not, in the first place, an issue about “content” (descriptive approach to creation and to the world as it is), but rather a set of difficulties about the relationships between faith and science. This has led some scientists to throw out religion and theology alltogether or to make them part of a larger “evolutionary” human history; it has resulted in forms of religious fundamentalism that are highly distrustful of science and its results. As Lord May of Oxford has pointed out, this is not without consequences in the environmental debate. It is crucial that a new balance be constructed between religion and science – the infighting between two approaches that need not be killling competitors, takes up too much energy at a moment of environmental urgency.

(5) The RCC is an enormous international organisations, with grassroots connections and operating at nearly all levels of human interactions and societies. It is, therefore, aware of how people in various places on earth react differently to the environmental challenges. It is aware of the criticism voiced by the so-called South with regard to Western attitudes on ecology and environment. Has not the Western discourse on the environment been an attempt (and doesn’t it continue to be so) to safeguard its own globally unsustainable life-styles at the expense of the development of the poor people? It is not surprising, therefore, that RCC authorities are critical in the face of Western environmental discourse that might well result in attempts at further exclusion from the poor. But it seems to me that, in the face of the crisis we are facing worldwide, this argument and this perspective may well side track us from the urgent matters at hand right now. However, this debate reminds us that crisis-response cannot be trustworthy it it does not also address the long-term views on development and changing life-styles. Here again, there lies an enormous task ahead. Our crisis response risks to be only “cheap charity” (the rich give to the poor and decide how the poor have to live – a paternalistic approach) if it is not born out of solidarity that arises in the context of creational togetherness. What has become very clear, however, is that environmental issues are also issues of global social justice.

(6) Over the past years RCC key documents from Rome have highlighted human dignity and the concept of human person. Environmental issues have – it seems to me, but this would require more in depth study of the matter – been viewed from that perspective, and this explains the use of the expression”human ecology”. To some this will appear as exaggerate anthropocentrism and even dangerously biased if the concept of “dignity” – which is always also contextual – is understood in the Western neo-liberal sense. A ‘cosmological’ debate – taking into account theology, anthropology, ecology, social justice – is urgently needed. To do this, the Western mind, profoundly influenced by (post-)modern approaches – will have to allow itself to be creatively criticized by philosophical and theological approaches from elsewhere in the world. This is an urgent theme for interreligious conversations in which also (post-)colonial perspectives can find a space.

(7) Again in the RCC, the environmental reflection has been hampered by attitudes that, with regard to sustainability, touch on family planning and population control. For Christians, family planning and population control reach out into the theological realm: can human beings control God’s gift? can human beings play God over their lives and the lives of others? is the world (as creation) to be understood as “to be managed” according to human made rules? … There are theological and general moral issues at stake here, concerning how we relate to God, but also to the world. The questions of human control and power arise to the surface. Even if one may critically regard what one considers to be conservative and irrelevant RCC positions on sexuality, one may nevertheless be sensitive, particularly with regard to the environmental debate, to the control-issues that are addressed here: can one plead, on the one side, for a world that one cannot control and that one has to respect, and on the other side for full control on human life? Is there not a contradiction here?


I am aware that these questions and issues still need further reflection. I just wanted to open up some perspectives, that are willing to take into account the difficulties raised by those whom many of us consider to be fundamentalist or conservatist. One need not agree with the answers they give, but they surely raise some important questions. But, however this debate may evolve in the coming years, I am convinced there are three factors that we will have to reckon with when facing the environmental crises today:

(a) there is urgency: the lives of many are at risk and we face immense suffering in the years to come. How are we going to react, while at the same time also setting up more long-term, pro-active, strategic thinking? The perspectives of those who suffer the consequences of climate change are crucially important, and their needs, frustrations and anger will dominate political debate in the near future. We do not have the luxury to enjoy needless discussions and debates.

(b) we will have to face crises, but in the long term we will also have to change life-styles, taking into account the vision of sustainable life for all and for creation.

(c) a new balance between religion/faith and science has to be developed – they are not competitors and neither of them should be overrated.


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