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Cry of the Earth



Last week the annual Catholic Social Justice Statement was launched. Entitled Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, its theme is care for the environment. In the same week the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report warned of the need for immediate and radical effort to minimise emissions and of the likely effects of their existing growth.

The documents warned their two constituencies of the danger of inactivity and marshalled the religious and humanitarian reasons for responding urgently to climate change. They face an identical challenge. If governments are to respond adequately to climate change they need to come under pressure from the people. That will not happen unless people see the issue as personal. It needs to enter their dreams, engage their imagination, stir them to change their way of life, and make them active in demanding an appropriate response. 

The greatest obstacle to such a personal commitment is the realisation that personal action is not sufficient. If emissions are to be reduced, let alone removed, all nations need to be involved. This gives individual nations an escape clause. If individual advocacy is to make a difference, it must meet the opposition of politicians, businesses and individuals who stand to lose by radical action. In the face of these obstacles enthusiasm for necessary change is likely to fall away and yield to weary resignation.

That is why Pope Francis and the Social Justice Statement insist on the need for conversion, a word with intentionally religious associations. Conversion involves a change of mindset and priorities that lies deeper than passing or spasmodic attention, the vague desire that things were otherwise or a wish not to be troubled by the situation.

Conversion has many dimensions. To be converted is to come to see an issue as personal. It is not abstract but concerns us and people for whom we care, demands our personal investment, and occupies my feelings and my mind. Conversion also leads us to see an issue as urgent. We become convinced that to respond or not to respond to it will have serious consequences. It takes a high priority. Conversion leads us, too, to give an issue pride of place within our framework of meaning. We set it among our other beliefs and readjust our other commitments and allegiances. It helps reshape our relationship to people and to the world around us. Finally, conversion leads us to see an issue as demanding a practical response. Because it matters greatly we want to do something about it. One aspect of that action will be communal. We seek out people with like mind and act together.


'The future of the Church as well as of the world that we hand on to our grandchildren is at stake in addressing climate change. It needs to be our priority.'


Both the documents are about conversion: winning their readers to a change of mind and heart that will lead to action. The scientists’ report delivered to governments stresses the urgency of the situation and appeals directly to the intelligence. It spells out the current path of climate change and offers probable estimates are of the consequences of continuing as we are or of reducing emissions to different degrees. The report is designed to convert policy makers from leaving the issue for someone else to deal, and to lead them to address it honestly and seriously now.

The conversion that Pope Francis and the Statement have in mind is more multifaceted. It is focused on personal conversion, by which climate change becomes our concern and not someone else’s business. The Statement does so by appealing to compassion and fellow feeling. It represents the harmful effects of climate change, both those already experienced and those to be feared, through stories of the personal experience of farmers, people in mining communities, Indigenous Australians, and Pacific Islanders. This introductory section says without words that climate change matters because people matter. It puts faces on the people. In this way climate change becomes personal.

The stories, too, show that the need for a serious response to climate change is urgent. People whom we have come to know have already suffered because of it and their summers will continue to be made anxious by the risk of fire, drought or flood.

The central task of any message addressed to a Catholic audience is to show that addressing climate change is not just a political or a scientific issue. It has to do with our relationship to God. It is a matter of faith and a central responsibility of the Church. The statement draws on Pope Francis’ writing to show that God loves the world and human beings as part of it. God also entrusts human beings with the responsibility for making the world a place for all to wonder at, to enjoy its fruits, and to develop respectfully for future generations. To care for the world is a central part of our relationship to God, which is not confined to our minds but touches us in all our relationships to the material world as well as to other people. The understanding of our relationship to the world is relational and finds expression in wonder and respect. It is opposed to a technocratic vision of the world as a resource to be exploited for gain in any ways that technology allows. 

Finally, the Statement points to attitudes that will flow from conversion. It will lead Catholics to listen to the world around us and particularly to attend to the voice of scientists who record the effects of climate change. The natural world becomes a source of theology and prayer. Conversion will also express itself in care for country, so that they see Indigenous Australians as their teachers in this respect. As sources of Christian wisdom, these apparently non-religious themes will share with Scripture and prayer a central place in Catholic preaching and teaching.

This Statement will be a helpful resource for Catholic teaching and reflection. It covers a wide territory, necessarily leaving readers looking for further development. In addition to the times named for consideration of the environment, I would have liked to see more suggestions of concrete activities that might flow from personal conversion and deepen it. These might include participation in youth marches, prayers based around nature, changes in diet and travel, and exploration of the natural world.

I would also have welcomed more emphasis on the cry of the poor throughout the document. Though Social Justice Statements should avoid partisan party politics, they should also offer some local analysis of the public response to climate change and of the ways in which the cry of the poor is silenced. If they do not they risk being mere exhortation. The rising inequality in Australian society and the strain imposed by uncertainty about work and income among struggling people, for example, is certainly related to governmental reluctance to address climate change seriously, and should be addressed.

The gravity of the effects of the human despoliation of God’s creation revealed in the IPCC Report also calls for a more urgent response by the Catholic Church than the plans of the Bishops’ conference that conclude the Statement. The decisions to prepare materials for a Sunday dedicated to Laudato Si’, to join the seven-year Laudato Si’ program and to change the name of the Bishops’ Office for Justice to the Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace, worthy though they are, do not suggest urgency. Indeed, the expansion of the responsibilities of the Office for Justice to include the environment at a time when the national and many diocesan offices have suffered severe funding cuts, could weaken the capacity of the Catholic Church to implement Pope Francis’ agenda of demanding ecological justice. The future of the Church as well as of the world that we hand on to our grandchildren is at stake in addressing climate change. It needs to be our priority.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Sun setting in burnt smouldering mountain landscape with smoke filled valley after bushfire in Blue Mountains (Andrew Merry/Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Catholic Church, leadership, Plenary Council, Synodality



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Existing comments

The problem with the Church, as I see it, is that we are in the early stages of a power struggle between the clergy and influential members of the laity. On top of that is the understanding, by a lot of the laity, that the Church should not be, or get, involved in political issues. As a result they will see any statement made by the Church as a political statement which will only be accepted if it conforms to their political ideology. With this mishmash of power and political ideology I don't see the Church doing much about climate change anytime soon. It's too involved in it's own internal struggles.

Brian Leeming | 19 August 2021  

For the last couple of weeks I've been watching ABC's Back to Nature program featuring Indigenous actor Aaron Pedersen and writer Holly Ringland. The beauty and life of the landscape are overwhelming and the reverence (a fitting word) by the two presenters who show a genuine respect for country is palpable. This is the treasure we have and the treasure which must be protected. We are a small part of this life teeming on our doorstep. But our stewardship is vital to the continuance of such beauty. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" G M Hopkins. Everything else pales in comparison.

Pam | 19 August 2021  

Whacko-the-diddle-oh, Andy! Nice work. +Francis uses the word 'metanoia' for 'conversion' in 'Laudato si', which proclaims a conversion that is as much spiritual as material. Unfortunately, the risk here is that the fundos will seize upon the spirituality clause to proclaim an 'other-worldly', anti-materialist papal agenda, thereby descending into the usual dualism, and turning +Francis' reflections against him by misdirecting them away from the commandment to do good in 'this world'. I think too, as an educator, that a pedagogy is needed here: a kind of process theology, drawn from mimetic theory and focused on recognising the extent to which all polemics and disagreement are driven by an unseen but powerful scapegoating impulse. A very big ask, but once we've achieved that acknowledgment, its not beyond the realms and bounds of expectation that everything else would fall into place. Of course, this is easier said than done. After all, Jesus was the original scapegoat, as Dostoevsky, Cervantes, Proust, Stendhal & Shakespeare beautifully as well as persuasively showed. Perchance a useful way to start would be to make Conflict Resolution a compulsory aspect of the Catholic 'Justice' program. Nothing quite like you, Anderson, for having a stab at 'making things anew'!

Michael Furtado | 19 August 2021  

it is very important that we do something about caring for our common home as Pope Francis has asked us to but governments do not want to listen at all so i think that there needs to be more conversations on this issue
and the time to do it is now

Maryellen Flynn | 19 August 2021  

Social Justice Statements tend to leave me for dead, because I both know what they will say and have subscribed to what they say years before they were written. Many people are like that. Many ordinary, non-religious people, even 'recovering Catholics', trust Pope Francis becuse he's for real. Someone like Archbishop Fisher knows this and gets panned, like the Pope, by Catholic tragics who think they know better. Catholic tragics generally know nothing. Zilch. Sad that. But it doesn't stop them raving. One of the greatest Catholic tragics is Matt Fradd, an Australian. Watch his videos. Like Sergeant Schultz of 'Hogan's Heros', Matt, like one of his own heros, the appalling Cardinal Raymond Burke, he castigates the Pope for supposedly leading us into error. This, to me, is pretty close to schism.

Edward Fido | 19 August 2021  

Reading the article is like water trickling in dry riverbeds, so welcome the sense of possibility when humans come to understand then act. I will be re-reading for several weeks now.

But there's a problem. As Monbiot writes on the response of politicians to climate change: "For tiny and temporary political gains, they commit us to vast and irreversible consequences". https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/19/life-earth-second-place-fossil-fuel-climate-breakdown

Andrew says "If governments are to respond adequately to climate change they need to come under pressure from the people...". Yet polls seem to show people are perfectly concerned eg Lowy Institute's longitudinal poll or a recent Guardian poll finding Australians are 3 times as worried about climate change as they are about Covid. When I door knock or do stalls or stand on street corners hoping to talk about the end being nigh, people approach me to tell me how worried they are and almost always, add 'but what can I do? The politicians don't listen'.

Are you saying, Andrew, our 'conversion' needs to be more profound? So profound, that the 0.1% (or whatever the figure is) who wield insane amounts of power to keep promoting weapons and fossil fuels, will simply keel over?

That's the part I am missing. People say 'vote them out' but we can only vote for who gets on the ballot paper, which is more of the same. Because the party system delivers more weapons and fossil fuels because that's all it can do.

The only other thing people can do, then, is what they can think of for themselves. As Flanagan wrote in 2019 "..the only thing that will save us is us...half of the carbon in the atmosphere was put there by us in the last 30 years...and now we have 11.5 years to reverse that disastrous act...it is a time to act and it is for us to act...because there is no one else and there is no other time…". Yet it seems that however we act as individuals, it's for nought if we can't get our governments to hear and to act.

Catarina Neve | 20 August 2021  

History tells us repeatedly that power and money corrupt and this combination excludes the vast majority of people. The comments here highlight the sense of powerlessness and frustration that today's people increasingly experience. History also tells us that this state of public disillusionment leads to world changing revolution, usually violent, and curiously cyclical. Hopefully the next revolution will come via the ballot box not through the barrel of a gun. That is the only voice that politicians listen to. Our big problem in Australia seems to be that politicians grouped together in their parties are all the same, leaderless, self-interested and unethical despite the sanctimonious pleadings to gods of various dimensions. Vote the bastards out - but in so doing don't vote another bunch of bastards in! That is the only way wherein the people will be heard.

john frawley | 24 August 2021  

Fr Andrew, if the Government harnessed the wet season rains from the Burdekin, Ross, Palmer and Mitchell Rivers and built the 2500 km channel to the Darling, there would be ample water for NSW and Victoria. Unfortunately the Southern States have 68% of the country's population and only 13.38% of Australia's land.
The cost would be approx 10 bn (twice Snowy 2) but the extra volume of water tenfold the current volume of the Murray.
Gladys could also build her lakes to drought proof NSW.
If NZ can plant 1 billion trees, why couldn't Australia plant 5 billion trees with that extra resource which washes out to sea every year during the wet season?

Francis Armstrong | 24 August 2021  

I think I found an explanation of the deep conversion question I had for Andrew.

I just heard David Marr and Abbas Nazari who was a child when rescued by the captain of the MV Tampa, explain why Australians again and again and again indicate willing to be 'led' by fear-mongering and much-raking.



While ever our parties get results from manipulating fear, it is us, the people, who must grow up. Reject the lies of hollow men and women and look within. We strive to meet our own and others' needs because we are human. In the meantime, don't vote. It only encourages them!

Catarina Neve | 26 August 2021  

John Foley SJ hymn the "Cry of the Poor " based on psalm 34 is a superb reflection about who the Lord listens to and it is not the rich and powerful. It is a song I have enjoyed leading many times when I was cantor at St Marys.
The Cry of the Earth however has to be addressed by the very same politicians who are pumping most available resource into the pandemic social securities.
There has to be a balancing of resources and while Pope Francis and the Social Justice Statement insist on the need for conversion as part of the process, it isn't necessarily so.
Water is the key to saving wildlife and flora and fauna but it simply doesn't figure in the $200m pledge by the Environmental portfolio to redress the Black Summer bushfire ravages. To date, the Morrison Government has committed $200 million for wildlife and habitat recovery through the $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Fund. A list of the 111 Landcare grant projects can be found at http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/bushfire-recovery/activities-and-outcomes
A commitment to the resurrection of the Bradford scheme, though it would be much more costly, would be a far better outcome.

Francis Armstrong | 06 September 2021  

I'd hope conciliatory gestures by popes and references to some aspects of previously censured theologians' works or rhetoric (e.g., Leonardo Boff's" Cry of the earth, cry of the poor") are not construed and received as unqualified endorsement of their thinking, let alone binding status on the faithful. Boff's aversion to and call for the abolition of all forms of hierarchy is one instance I have in mind. Another is his gnostic notion of a "pneumatic" or "cosmic" Church, "identified with the Spirit, rather than in terms of the carnal Jesus." (Church: Charism and Power, 1981).

John RD | 09 September 2021  

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