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Climate Change and the Threat to Creation by Fr Augusto Zampini Davies

Father Augusto Zampini Davies, theological adviser to CAFOD, reflects upon how Catholics might respond to climate change and the threat to creation.

For Catholics, having a compassionate and loving attitude towards those in need is crucial for our truly human development and faith (cf. Lk 10:26-27; Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18).  At least in theory, no Catholic would argue that ignoring human suffering or mistreating human beings is ethically acceptable, not even if they are enemies (cf. Mt 5:43-38).  But what about mistreating or ignoring the suffering of the rest of creation, in particular the threat from climate change?

Catholics believe that human beings have a special call from God to protect the vulnerable and safeguard Creation, as Pope Francis has recently explained in the General Audience on 21 May 2015.  Mistreating Creation, or ignoring the fact that it is being seriously damaged, is a sin, because ‘we destroy the sign of God’s love for us’.  By doing so, Pope Francis argues, we are saying to God: ‘I don’t like it! This is not good!’ – ‘So what do you like?’ ‘I like myself! – Here, this is sin! Do you see?’ Conversely, protecting and healing creatures and Creation is like saying to God: ‘Thank you, I am the guardian of Creation so as to make it progress, never to destroy your gift’.  Still, although many Catholics perceive creation as the cosmos, biosphere, and the natural elements, many forget to include animals in this equation.

Loving God’s creation means, for many, loving nature – particularly the natural elements – and those creatures created in the image and likeness of God, i.e. humans.  However, it is worth remembering that, according to the story of creation (Gn 1), after God created the waters under the vault (v.7), God enlivened them with a ‘swarm of living creatures… all the creatures that glide and teem in the waters in their own species’ (vv.20-21).  Moreover, after creating the skies above (vv.6-8), God enriched them with birds that can ‘wing their way above the earth across the vault of heaven’ (v.20).  Furthermore, after creating the ‘dry land’ called ‘earth’ (v.10), with all its vegetation (vv.11-12), God also allowed the earth to ‘produce every kind of living creature [animals] in its own species’ (v.24).  These birds, fish and earth-animals are not only an important part of God’s creation, whose goodness needs to be respected, but also they have been especially entrusted to humans, who are asked to ‘be masters’ of them (v.28).

Being ‘masters’ of animals in the name of God the Creator means to treat them with the same kind of love, care and respect as God would do.  Mistreating animals or ignoring their suffering is not part of human stewardship on earth.  While there is a great debate on the need to feed humanity with animals, what is not debated is the harm caused to animals beyond the feeding purpose. Neither should we ignore the responsibility to preserve species and the diversity of God’s creation, or to heal those beings [animals] we see lying wounded or half-dead at the side of our life-journey-road (cf. Lk 10:30-35).  Even  if we admit the need to ‘produce’ and ‘eat’ animals, serious theological debates have arisen regarding the ‘method’ and the consideration to mitigate their suffering. And there are further questions such as whether the production and consumption of meat is an appropriate response to food security, points extensively discussed by Professor Celia Deane-Drummond, a Catholic theologian from The University of Notre Dame, U.S. and a theological advisor to CAFOD.[1]

Christians in the ancient world were aware of the effects of severe food shortages on the human body.  The emphasis on voluntary fasting in the first Christian communities was due, in part, to a wish to live in bodily and spiritual solidarity with those who were malnourished and famished through no choice of their own.  It has also always been a way of questioning systems of food production, distribution and consumption.  For the first Christian monastic communities, meat was not for the strong but for the weak, being available in Benedictine houses to children, the elderly and the ill but not to healthy adult males.  Now, however, most of the meat produced and consumed worldwide is for the developed world, as the Christian environmentalist theologian from the University of Chester, David Clough, argues.[2]  And 40 per cent of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock rather than people, as CAFOD’s Fair Food Guide indicates. 

Despite the debate about ‘food’, which cannot be side-lined when discussing the relationship between humans and animals, Christ’s disciples are expected to behave in a compassionate and ‘neighbourly’ way towards God’s creation.  According to the parable of The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-35), loving God, our neighbours and ourselves comprises a compassionate way of seeing, a sight that can deeply move us to express our compassion through appropriate external actions.  This way of compassionate seeing, non-discriminatory judging and healing behaviour, reflects our image and likeness to God, which Jesus renews.  But such behaviour is not limited to our intimate, familial, religious or national relationships. Behaving in a neighbourly way comprises all our relationships, including our bonds with God and his creation, redeemed by Christ. The question that matters in order to ‘live life to the full’ (John 10:10), is not just ‘who is my neighbour?’, but ‘who behaves in a neighbourly way?’  (cf. Lk 10:36). Given that the Good Samaritan invites us to widen our notion of behaving in a neighbourly way, it seems feasible to explore whether other creatures, especially animals, are also like neighbours who need our love. 

In the end, behaving neighbourly is the attitude of Christ, who epitomises The Good Samaritan. He sees with compassion all creatures in need, judges with solidarity how to respond to injustices, and deploys actions of healing and restoration to redress unjust situations.  To avoid the sin of selfishness – hurting and damaging God’s creation – Christ’s followers are called to ‘do likewise’ (Lk 10:37). This means that we are invited to revisit our attitude towards animals and, if needed, to start a process of conversion from which we can reflect our true image and likeness to God, i.e. through our compassionate and caring love for all creatures.

Inspired by experiences of poor communities overseas, and by biblical stories such as the one of Creation (Gn 1-11) and New Testament parables, CAFOD has launched a major campaign, One Climate, One World.  The idea is to encourage the Catholic community in England and Wales to examine their own lives and make practical changes to better love our neighbours and care for God’s entire creation.  Concrete actions go from cutting down our use of energy, to rethinking the food we eat or the way we travel. However, aware that individual actions are important, but not enough to heal the damage humans are causing to God’s creation, CAFOD also asks the Catholic community to put pressure on political leaders to respond to the challenge of climate change. It is our leaders who can (and should) back an ambitious global deal on cutting carbon emissions, and support a transition from polluting fossil fuels – the major cause of climate change – to reliable, sustainable energy sources.  Doing so would entail healing those wounded due to climate change: many species, poor communities in the developing world, and the Earth itself, which is not only our common neighbourhood; but also our neighbour.


[1] See Deane-Drummond, C. and Clough, D., 2009, Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals, London: SCM Press.

[2] See Clough, D., 2012, On Animals: I. Systematic Theology, London: T & T Clark/Continuum.

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