St John’s Cathedral, Limerick
Saturday, 22 August 2009
Cardinal Seán Brady
Earlier this afternoon I planted a tree at Mary Immaculate College.
It was planted to mark the International Conference of the European Society for Catholic Theology. Over the last few days almost two hundred theologians from many countries and continents have gathered at the College. They have come to discuss ecology and the economy, under the lovely title of “The Eager Longing of Creation”. I say lovely title because it reminds us that all of creation eagerly longs for the fullness of life which Jesus came to bring. As St Paul tells us:
“From the beginning till now the entire creation … has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free’ (Rms 8:22);
The letter to the Ephesians puts it this way: “For all of creation is to be brought into unity in Christ” (Eph. 2:10).
Every creature, every species, every ecosystem and the entire expanding universe display the grandeur of God. Touched by God’s hand, our world is holy.
Each of us therefore has a responsibility towards creation. We face up to that responsibility by taking certain decisions – the sort of decisions that show a real appreciation and respect for the environment. The natural environment is a gift of God – not a personal gift but a gift to everyone – a gift to rich and poor alike, to past, present and future generations, in fact to all humankind.
The particular focus of the Conference at ‘Mary I’ has been ecology and the economy. Some would say we hear a lot about the economy and little about ecology! Respect for the natural environment or rather the lack of respect for the natural environment is a pressing moral problem in the world today. There is a crisis and most people would accept it is a crisis of our own making. It is yet another example of the consequences of greed. It comes from our failure to ensure a sustainable, just and integral approach to human development and the global economy.
The fact is that nature is much more than mere raw material to be manipulated solely for our profit or our pleasure. Nature is to be used wisely, not recklessly exploited. Pope Benedict made this point clearly in his Encyclical ‘Caritas in Veritate’ when he said: ‘In nature the believer recognises the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo, or on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.’ (n. 48)
We are very grateful to the European Society for Catholic Theology for drawing our attention to this pressing moral issue and helping to ensure that the Christian vision of nature is not lost. We welcome whole heartedly to Ireland all who have come for this important Conference. It is the first to be held by the Society outside the mainland of Europe.
The role of theologians is to explain what God reveals to us in faith.
They help us to interpret the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Like St Francis of Assisi the theologians at this Conference have decided to put across their message about care for creation by actions as well as words. In fact for the first time at a theological conference in Ireland the total carbon footprint of the event has been calculated. It is estimated to be 56.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide. To counteract the potentially destructive impact of this carbon footprint on the environment a tree will be planted in every University across the world which is represented at this Conference in Limerick. This will mean a total of 72 trees will be planted in all.
Those attending the event have also made a donation to the – Trócaire irrigation scheme in the Manchanga District of Mozambique. There Trócaire will plant 30,000 eucalyptus and casuarinas trees. These practical steps will ensure that the Conference is ‘Carbon-neutral’.
Hopefully these steps will offset the potentially damaging impact of this Conference. The fact that they are being taken internationally makes them a timely and powerful example to us all. If we are ever to ensure a sustainable environment for future generations it will require global solidarity in taking small, practical steps at a local level.
Planting trees is only one practical action that people can take.
Every Parish and Church organisation could usefully undertake an environmental audit, and calculate their carbon footprint. We could all implement a wide range of carbon off-setting and other practical initiatives to maximise the environmental efficiency of our activities. Ecology is certainly one aspect of theology where orthodoxy – thinking the right thing – and orthopraxis – doing the right thing – are inseparable!
The consequences of not addressing the questions of climate change and environmental sustainability could be catastrophic at this critical time for the world. As in all times of challenge and crisis, it is a time for careful discernment, discernment about the right thing to do – not alone about the natural environment but about related environments as well.
As Pope Benedict has often pointed out, ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society’(Caritas in Veritate n.51).
Now most people are willing to accept, and most legislators to legislate for the hard ethical choices we need to make to ensure the well-being of creation.
However, this willingness is less evident when it comes to safe-guarding other aspects of the integrity and well-being of creation such as:
– respect for human life in all its stages;
– respect for marriage between man and woman as the natural cradle of life, love and formation in society;
– and the right of every person to an adequate share in the goods of the earth.
When these aspects of our ‘human ecology’ are respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits.
This poses a particular challenge for Ireland at this time. The advent of embryonic stem cell research indicates just how attractive a morality of the end justifying the means can be. This same utilitarian approach to morality underlies the present ecological crisis. It is the attitude which says that creation and life are there solely to serve me and my needs and that man is the master of creation rather than its steward. To plunder human life at its genesis, without respect for its inherent dignity reflects the very moral attitude which has put our created world in jeopardy. If we cannot respect our own inherent dignity from the moment of conception, what hope has the rest of creation of receiving our care and respect? If we afford more protection and respect to other forms of life and creation than we do to ourselves, then by any standards we have inverted our moral priorities completely.
Pope Benedict has spelt out clearly the impact on the overall moral tenor of society.
‘If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology’. (Caritas in Veritate n. 51).
In any time of crisis and challenge, such as we now face with the natural environment, there are always fundamental decisions to be made. Sometimes in the life of Christians, as in the life of the chosen people, the covenant has to be renewed. There are times when we have to choose either to stand clearly on the side of Christ, or depart from Him. This can come about not only in moments of personal crisis but also at certain moments in the life of an entire society.
Such a moment will soon confront the people of Ireland. During the next Dáil and Seanad term politicians and citizens will debate and be asked to make a fundamental choice about the future of marriage and the family in Ireland. They will be asked to approve legislation and policy which, among other things: will make same-sex partnerships equal in status to marriage, with the same benefits in tax and welfare as married couples – the only difference being the right to adopt children; will give cohabiting same-sex, or opposite sex, partners the same status as marriage, after they have lived together for a short period; will remove ‘marital status’ from key legislation and public documentation and replace it with ‘civil status’, thus directly challenging the Constitutional recognition that marriage is ‘a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law’ (Article 41.1.1).
Furthermore it will challenge the article of the Constitution which says that ‘the State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its Constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State’ (Article 41.2).
By refusing to officiate at what could probably become known as same-sex ‘weddings’, any Registrar of Marriage who, in conscience, declines to officiate at such ceremonies, will be guilty of an offence. This is an alarming attack on the fundamental principle of freedom of religion and conscience. The legislation also leaves the door open for individuals and religious organisations to be sued in a variety of ways for upholding their belief that marriage is an institution exclusively for a man and a woman.
How one approaches an issue like this will, of course, be “coloured by our belief in the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety” (Spe Salvi n. 31).
Whatever authentically promotes the common good can be proposed in terms that find an echo in every human heart. There is a duty on every Christian to judge legislation like this in light of the teaching of Divine Revelation and the natural law. This duty falls, in a particular way, on politicians who are responsible for amending or approving such legislation. The right of politicians to debate and vote, in accordance with their conscience, must be respected. Respect for the right to freedom of conscience and religion is the mark of an authentic democracy.
What the government is planning will hugely change peoples’ concept of the family. Nevertheless, marriage between a man and a woman will always remain the ideal environment in which to raise children. Any government that undermines such an environment could hardly be said to be promoting the common good.
Precisely because Christian marriage and the family answer the deepest needs of the human heart, to be loved and cherished, Pope Benedict recently called on governments to enact policies that protect marriage. He calls on them to enact policies that protect the centrality and integrity of the family. In other words he wants to keep the family at the heart of society. He wants governments to do what they can to keep the family intact and safe from destruction. It is a family based on marriage, marriage between a man and a woman, which is the vital cell of society. I repeat that call of Pope Benedict, here today, because this is one of the fundamental choices that Ireland has to make and make soon.
Today’s readings describe two dramatic moments when God openly demanded choices from his people. The first reading tells how God had chosen the Hebrew people. They had been showered with blessings. Now they were about to enter the Promised Land. God asks for a decision – will they choose Yahweh or the other gods?
In the Gospel we hear of another moment of definitive choice. Jesus had chosen His disciples. He had become, in a sense, father to them all. There comes the moment when they too have to choose – do they stay or do they go? What Jesus says to them is ‘a hard saying’. They are free. Some go, some stay. Followers of Jesus cannot be afraid to echo his hard questions as well as his overwhelmingly merciful and consoling message. We must be faithful to the whole Gospel, not just the popular bits!
Today’s second reading also calls for commitment and selfless choices.
St Paul urges husbands and wives to love, respect and commit themselves to each other as Christ has loved His body, the Church.
The commitment of Christ is total. His giving of His flesh and blood, to be our food and drink, is a sign of His total self-giving on our behalf. It is a sign to us that what he has done for us, we should do for others. Perhaps that’s what makes it a hard saying, not only hard to believe but especially hard to imitate.
Thirty years ago, here in Limerick, Pope John Paul II famously threw out the following challenge – “Ireland must choose”, he said. The choices are just as real and urgent today. Do we choose:
Personal greed or the common good?
A culture of death or a culture of life?
Reckless exploitation or responsible stewardship?
A civilisation of selfishness or a civilisation of love?
These are the stark choices which confront us. In our response we face the same fundamental choice which confronted Peter in our Gospel this
evening: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life!’ Whom do we choose – Jesus or another?