Episode » Little changes make a difference wh...

Little changes make a difference when caring for the environment, says Bishop

Catholic News
Catholic News
Little changes make a difference when caring for the environment, says Bishop

As the Social Justice department of the Bishops’ Conference launches a new revised edition of the Bishops’ teaching document on the environment The Call of Creation, Bishop John Arnold, our episcopal lead for environmental matters, has been speaking to us about the current ecological crisis, our responsibilities as Catholics and custodians of the created world, and his belief that we all need to play our part to protect our common home.


We’re fundamentally going to talk about the ‘Call of Creation’, which is the Bishops’ teaching document on the environment, released in 2002, and I know it was revised along the way by CAFOD, but we are now re-releasing in 2022. Just tell us why we’re doing this now.

Well, I think the world was woken up a great deal by Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical, and that did a great service not just to the people of the church, but to the world. But still we’re not acting quickly enough. And if you look at the statistics that are emerging we’re really making a terrible mess of the environment and it’s having an appalling impact on so many people around the world.

In the news… Pakistan – 33 million people directly affected by climate change. We’ve got Japan with Typhoon Nanmadol – three million people evacuated; the Puerto Rico typhoon; Alaskan storms; the west states of the United States with their wildfires; Kentucky with its ongoing flood damage. Really, it’s an appalling state of affairs. When are we going to make it urgent to be effective in our response?

And that’s really before we mention war and other things that are going on in our world… Let’s go back to your foreword for The Call of Creation, in which you say a truly Catholic understanding of the environmental crisis does not see it as a series of individual problems that need to be solved. Now, I find that very interesting. How should we, then, as Catholics, respond to this environmental crisis?

Well, I think Pope Francis gives us a lead, when he says everything is connected and that each and every one of us has our part to play.

We’ve got to see climate change and the damage it’s doing as not just a series of things that we can cure one by one. It’s a matter of care for creation as a whole, which means changing our lifestyle and everyone has got to be part of that. It also includes our political actions. The war in Ukraine is an appalling, damaging feature for the environment. It’s a dreadful thing to be happening. It’s affecting food supplies and destroying property. There is evidence of a number of deaths that have not yet been accounted for. It’s all connected and we’ve got to have a global look, as Pope Francis says, and put these things together so that we can recognise a plan for all of us in order to save our common home.

Now, without getting too controversial, I think there might be something of a problem with the psychology behind action. Sometimes you’ll get people saying, well, what about India, China, the US, ourselves, the big polluters? How can we avoid individuals getting disheartened by these big polluters so they carry on doing their bit, changing their relationship with the environment, going about it in a positive way, thinking about their consumption, recycling etc? How do we keep their spirits up so they continue to make a difference?

Well, I think Christian hope has a great deal to do with this – that we’ve not been defeated. Pope Francis is very clear, we live on in hope and that hope can’t be just something that we put nicely on the windowsill and say, it will happen, we’ve got to be part of this. And it’s all very well to feel very pessimistic about certain nations in the world and what’s going terribly wrong and they’re correcting their ways of destroying the environment.

At the same time, we’ve got quite an upsurge of popular understanding, people around the world, particularly young people, who are learning so much about the environment and wanting to make it a priority. Now, if our political leaders are going to lead us effectively, they’ve got to listen to us. And the more noise that we can make about their prioritising the environment, I think the better place we will be in to persuade governments around the world to make those necessary actions.

Now, obviously, you’re our Lead Bishop for the Environment, and I won’t ask you to speak for every diocese and to tell us about every single church building, for instance, but in your experience, and in your diocese, perhaps in particular, how are we getting on with our carbon net zero aims, emissions, efficiency in churches, schools and offices?

I think we’ve made some good progress. We’ve got the Guardians of Creation project, which is effectively helping us to combine our thoughts and share our best practise. We’ve certainly, as a church, got a lot of properties and we can do a great deal in terms of moving towards net zero in carbon.

We’ve got that sense of education going on. Certainly among the young people in my diocese, I do feel a real enthusiasm. We’ve got to try and make sure that we express our concerns about the environment, not in a frightening way for young people, but in a way that encourages them in their understanding of what they can be doing and what their families can be doing in terms of modifying our behaviour and helping at ground level with care for the environment.

But we’ve got a lot more to do, and it’s very important that we, as bishops, speak out very firmly about the urgency of what we face, and that, as bishops, we also need to be approaching the politicians loudly and clearly about what needs to be done and that they must lead.

Well, talking of which of course we have the COP 27 UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt in November. You talk about young people, but also we have a number of groups in and around the church, of potentially older people actually, that can support the bishops and help guide and be a bit more active. What can we do to make our voices heard to the world’s decision-makers ahead of November?

I think we’ve got to responsibly demonstrate what we believe and I think that’s happening more and more. Yes, there are a number of organisations, both of Christian faith, other faiths, or of no particular faith, who are promoting good practise. We’ve got to make sure that this education goes on, because when we know that we’re responsible, I feel that we can react more sincerely and constructively in our actions.

Talking about that – being better formed, understanding the theology and spirituality behind looking after the environment as good custodians of creation – how would you like people to interpret this revised Call of Creation document?

I think the tone of it is a very practical description of what’s happened and the direction in which we are going. It offers a sense of education that we can all be part of the way we respond to the needs of our times. We can do that in a sense which is promoted by our faith, that it’s part of our theology and our spirituality, and that it’s now something that we really need to turn our attention to because it underpins all the other difficulties in our world. We’re not going to solve poverty if we’ve not got an environment in which we can survive happily. We’re not going to sort out people’s lack of clean water if we’re not caring for the environment. We’ve got to make sure that we know about our common home and appreciate the value of it and that we are going to look after it and repair it. Which is so important.

We need to look beyond short term goals. So many politicians look to their term in office and wanting to be elected and that really depends on how much prosperity they can engage for their people. But this is a time when we can’t just be looking to prosperity but to the very survival of humankind because we’re not looking after that common home in which we live.

We know about custodianship, and we can always do better with that, but I think this document is very relational, isn’t it? It’s not just our relationship with the natural world as we see it, it expands beyond that. We mentioned war a bit earlier, relationship between peoples. You touched on it there, that damage to the environment affects the poor most of all, doesn’t it, as those poor communities inhabit the worst affected and most vulnerable locations. You mentioned at the very start of this piece the flooding and the terrible situations around the world caused directly by environmental damage. So do you see this as a relational document where it’s not as simple as just sorting out our relationship with the created world, it’s about sorting out our relationship with one another?

Oh, certainly. And one of the things that looked so optimistic with COP 26 was this loss and damage budget, where it’s proposed £100 billion a year be set aside for those countries that are already suffering so much. But as far as I know, very little has come of that promise for the loss and damage budget. But certainly we, as the prosperous Global North, are inflicting dreadful damage on so many countries in the Global South. It’s interesting to see that we are now being affected quite radically. California and the western states of the United States have had some real destruction. We’ve got troubles in Japan now with typhoons, and we had those floods in Europe. So we are all being affected. Perhaps that’s going to nudge us into more action, recognising that while we’re affected, other people have been really life threatened by what’s happening to them. The droughts in the Horn of Africa now going on for seven years, they’ve had no crops because of the seasonal breakdown in weather conditions. Yes, we’ve got to think globally. We have our common home and we must recognise our responsibilities to one another.

And finally, Bishop John, for those in our pews, our Catholic community, when they look at this, and they might get quite disheartened by all the things that are happening around the world. Obviously, we believe in working for the common good, but what would you say to them if they feel a little bit of inertia or a little bit of a difficulty in stepping forward and making some of those relational changes you’ve been talking about?

Well, there’s so much information on so many websites, diocesan newsletters and parish newsletters of even the smallest things that we can do which will make a change. Pope Francis had said that drops of water eventually put together make a reservoir. It is in those little changes that you and I can actually make a difference today. And it doesn’t mean great deprivation in our lives at all, but it means a more careful use of the resources that are freely available to us and that sense of promoting a “good” which will build up. I’m confident that we will make the whole question of the urgency much more prominent and that our political leaders will take a real notice and provide the policies which will save the environment.