Religion and Sustainability Fr. Seán McDonagh SSC

For the past few weeks I have been discussing the issue of sustainable development from a number of perspectives, to mark the 19th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).  To be honest, there was very little talk about the role that religion might play in promoting sustainable development at the CSD. Other institutes and scholars are beginning to focus on who religion might promote a more sustainable way of living on the planet, while at the same time alleviating the poverty which is the lot of over one billion people today.

In a chapter in 2010 State of the World, on “Engaging Religions to Shape Worldviews,” Gary Gardner believes that even though, at present, there is only a small minority of environmental activists in most religions, religion “could become a major factor in forging new cultures of sustainability.”[1] In the Christian tradition, he pointed to the work of Patriarch Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople who set up the organization, Religion, Science and Environment (RSE) in 1996 to promote dialogue between science and religion around environmental problems associated with oceans, seas and rivers. Despite my criticisms of recent statements from the Holy See, at least the Vatican is now engaging more seriously with the ecological crisis.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) symposium outlined four ways in which the Churches or Religions could help make a global transition from a consumerist to a sustainable society.  The first role is prophetic as it sets out to challenge the   current status quo. Examples of this can be found in recent papal teaching. In, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation, (January 1st 1990) the late Pope John Paul II wrote: “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause.  … Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.”  Pope Benedict in If you want peace, protect creation,( World Day of Peace, January 1st 2010) repeats the same message. In No 13 Pope Benedict XVI writes that “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles.” Further on, in No. 11 he writes, “it is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-styles and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. All religions should challenge the greatest modern heresy which is that more and more consumption is the pathway to happiness.

The second thing Churches could do is to accompany people both at the local, national and international levels in the painful process of change from a non-sustainable to a sustainable way of life. Churches are well positioned to do this since they are present at the local, national and the international level. To achieve this they must educate their followers about the environment. Each religious tradition has its own stories about the origins of the universe, the earth and humankind. There is normally a wealth of wisdom in these traditions on how to live in a sustainable way. However, in this generation we are privileged to have available to us, from scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and genetics, an understanding about the emergence of the universe, our solar system, the formation of planet earth, the emergence and proliferation of life, culminating with the evolution of humankind in the past few million years. This story give us a new understanding of what it means to be human and intimately connected with the 13.7 billion years which went into shaping the universe in such a way that it could support conscious life.

It is now abundantly clear that humans are part of the biosphere and that we are challenged to live in a way that does not undermine the well-being of the planet. Particular religious traditions can enhance this understanding of our connectedness with all creation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we believe that the creative principle behind the emergence of the universe and humankind is best addressed in personal terms as a caring, loving father. Religions ought also to highlight and emphasise those segments of their scriptures or holy books that enhance our appreciation of nature.


[1]  Gary Gardner, “Engaging Religions to Shape World View” 2010 State of the World, page 23.

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