Advent, Climate Change and Christians – Alleluia or Bah Humbug!?!
There is no question that Canadians are concerned about climate change. Droughts have been severe in Western regions, while floods and severe storms rocked Eastern provinces. Our country endured the worst forest fire season ever, where 6,669 fires destroyed 18.5 hectares – an area larger than the State of Florida! These conflagrations blocked commerce on the TransCanada Highway, destroyed several communities and forced evacuations of tens of thousands more from their homes. Globally, climate effects have been even more devastating (millions of poor people were displaced in Southeast Asia) – while perhaps not surprisingly, 2023 has been officially declared the hottest year on record.
Given this stark reality, does our religious tradition provide us with a guide to faithful responses?
Well, to be fair, there is good news and bad news…
The Good News…
On the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4) Pope Francis released an Apostolic Exhortation called Laudate Deum on the question of climate change. In it, the pope made five key points:
- Francis updated the climate science since writing his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si. Today, the pope calls for even greater urgency in climate action.
- In section 4 of the new document, Francis uses nine paragraphs to criticize the “poor implementation” of international climate agreements.
- The pope frankly admits that he gets pushback from his own constituency from climate deniers: “I feel obliged to make these clarifications, which may appear obvious, because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”
- Despite the lack of progress in confronting the climate emergency, Francis does not reject politics. He calls people of faith to greater resolve, suggesting the need for “a multilateralism from below” (LD #38) whereby communities pressure larger institutions to act.
- Finally, Francis clearly states that, “effective solutions will not come from individual actions alone.” (LD #69) While Christians must refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle, we also must promote necessary systemic change.
The Bad News…
Well, if you’re looking to hear leaders of the Canadian church emphasize the pope’s views, you’ll only be humming “Silent Night.”
Canada’s bishops did not issue even a short statement welcoming Laudate Deum. You’d look in vain for a commentary on the climate crisis from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops – which is passing strange, since the CCCB has published three pastoral letters on the environmental crisis, in 2003, 2008 and 2013. (Their resulting silence is more remarkable since the encyclical Laudato Si (LS #85) even quoted the CCCB’s 2003 pastoral letter!)
Responses to Laudate Deum
Of course, Christian communities do not have to wait for permission from bishops to act.
Oblates of Mary Immaculate included a section on Laudato Si in the most recent Acts of their 37th General Chapter, stating that, “Each Oblate and every Oblate community, ministry, and institution, will undertake a process of reflection and concrete action…” The OMI Superior General issued an impressive letter on environmental responsibility last August, and has constantly reiterated his call to make “a comprehensive ecological conversion” a priority of the Congregation.
The three Oblate provinces in Canada have joined 23 other Catholic orders in financing the new Office of Religious Congregations for Integral Ecology (ORCIE). OMI Lacombe Canada provides administrative services without cost, and the Oblates provide office space without charge at the Centre Oblat in St. Paul University in Ottawa. ORCIE has organized educational webinars and lobby days with politicians and government officials on Parliament Hill.
Canada and climate politics
As 2023 ends, and the UN’s climate conference (COP28) meets in Dubai, Canadians can be forgiven for tiring of all the hot air they’re hearing. Environmental NGOs suggest that without a firm commitment to the “phaseout” of fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emission reduction targets will never be reached. Canadian federal politicians have offered (small amounts) of financing for the losses and damages caused by climate disruption in poor nations. A cap on “unabated emissions” of the oil and gas industry (promised two years ago) and regulations to lower methane emissions were also announced – and immediately denounced by industry and provincial governments. (Alberta has also vociferously opposed the federal Clean Energy Regulations, designed, by 2035, to ensure electricity is generated by renewable energy sources. Little surprise that the international Climate Action Network gave the government of Alberta the “fossil of the day” award at COP28.)
It is challenging to uncover any policy where Canadian politicians agree to limit climate destruction. For people like this writer, who have family members working in the oil industry, holiday conversations could also be fraught with tension.
Even here, Francis provides good advice: “It is useless to join the fray; in this case, as in the case of peace, it does not help to remedy the situation. The remedy is good politics: if an example of concreteness and cohesiveness comes from the top, this will benefit the base, where many people, especially the young, are already dedicated to caring for our common home.”
Increasingly, the question of divestment from fossil fuel companies can be controversial. While the texts of the pope do not mention divestment, many individuals, several Catholic universities, Canadian congregations, the bishops of Ireland and the Philippines and 12 of 20 Catholic dioceses in the UK have already publicly divested – yet not one diocese in North America has done so. While the Vatican has encouraged such a step, the Mouvement Laudato Si Movement – Canada is encouraging its members across Canada to communicate with their bishop, advising them to move towards divestment in 2024.
Returning to Laudate Deum, however, the pope’s message is clear: “…the necessary transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, is not progressing at the necessary speed. Consequently, whatever is being done risks being seen as only a ploy to distract attention.” (LD #55; my emphasis.) Although Francis was unable to attend COP28 due to bronchitis, his statement read there called upon governments to take four steps towards the ecological transition: “energy efficiency, renewable sources, the elimination of fossil fuels, and education in lifestyles less dependent on the latter.”
There’s no question that these issues are complex and can be controversial – but nor (at least according to Francis) can they be avoided: “…the task to which we are called today is not about yesterday, but about tomorrow: a tomorrow that, whether we like it or not, will belong to everyone or else to no one.”
Let’s all be guided by a faithful resolve to act for climate justice this Advent…
By Joe Gunn
Joe serves as Executive Director of Le Centre Oblat: A Voice for Justice.