The Context

Getting religious organisations committed and vocal about the risks from global climate change is an important step in mobilizing public support for political action.  There are many voices needed to persuade citizens, and through them the politicians, to let go of old habits and earth-destructive behavior .   In Ireland, Northern Ireland, the United States and elsewhere, the relationship between environmentalists and religious organisations has sometimes been adversarial, even confrontational, as there are often differing political values and agendas that divide the two groups, including such issues as family planning.  That dynamic has been slowly changing as both groups realize that they need each other to address the escalating risks from climate change.

In this context, the recent Pastoral Reflection on Climate Change, “The Cry of the Earth,” from the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference is important.   The pastoral reflection derives from Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Letter, Caritas In Veritate  (Love in truth) that called for a responsibility toward protecting the environment for future generations and for new lifestyles to honor that responsibility. In a similar vein, the World Council of Churches has called on churches around the world to ring their bells 350 times during the Copenhagen climate change summit on December 13 as a call to action on global warming.  The number “350” represents the level of carbon dioxide (CO2), measured in parts per million, in the atmosphere that many believe is the highest level that would avoid the most extreme consequences of global climate change.  See

The Pastoral Reflection

“The Cry of the Earth” extends an earlier exhortation from the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, “Towards the Global Common Good.”  That pastoral letter on International Development (2005) addressed development aid in light of the expanding global economic order, and Ireland’s fortunes and obligations arising out of that global economy.  It included a brief, critical discussion on how the economic development was fostered by fossil fuels and deforestation, and how that reliance was destroying Ireland’s natural resources.  The Bishops’ letter reaffirmed Pope John Paul II’s call for an “ecological conversion,” and the Bishops characterized the actions of individuals needed to address climate change as a “moral imperative.”

The pastoral reflection, “The Cry of the Earth,” begins with a primer on the science of climate change, including the causes, scope and consequences, and concludes that the science has created an “overwhelming consensus” on the need for action now to address the risks presented by climate change.  That science-based conclusion is then reinforced by the specific moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church, especially the obligation to advance the global common good of which the climate is an integral part.  Based on the principles of distributive justice and the polluter pays, the reflection argues that each individual contributes to the pollution causing climate change and that richer nations have contributed more than poorer nations and each individual and the richer nations have a moral obligation to act to compensate for those actions.

The Reflection sets down a series of specific actions that parishes can undertake to fulfill these obligations.  Parishes are urged to establish a study group to further reflect on “The Cry of the Earth;”support the Trócaire Climate Change Campaign urging rich countries to do more to support poorer countries in adapting to the devastating impacts of climate change; conduct an environmental audit of the parish; invite schools, families and individuals in the parish to calculate their carbon footprints and set targets to reduce carbon emissions and to take concrete actions such as reducing energy consumption, recycling and planting trees; and join other churches in celebrating and protecting the earth.

The Reflection returns to the notion that “What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to new lifestyles…”.  Perhaps this is one of the major contributions of the Reflection.  To convince someone to give up a present pleasure in exchange for a future, arguably greater, pleasure — delayed gratification — is not easy.  To convince someone to give up a present comfort so that someone, even one’s great-grandchildren, may avoid potential risks 50 to 100 years from now is really not easy.  If the Bishops are able to add a moral dimension to the dialogue on climate change, which furthers the argument for behavior change, that contribution is most welcome.


“The Cry of the Earth”

“World’s churches urged to ring bells against climate change,” UK Independent (12 Nov 2009),   The WCC represents 348 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches with approximately 560 million Christians in 110 countries.  The action is supported by the Council of European [Catholic] Bishops Conferences.

Towards the Global Common Good: Pastoral Letter on International Development from the Irish Bishops’ Conference (2005).

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