On his speaking tour in Australia last month, Irish Columban Father Sean McDonagh talks about the gift of Laudato Si' to the Church and how we can make it our own with urgency and climate action, writes Peter Bugden.
"Are you not worried if there’s going to be any flowers left here?”
It’s a question Fr Sean McDonagh asks people, young and old, when he takes them down to The Burren, in County Clare, Ireland, to wonder at the beauty of nature in his homeland.
It’s also a question he’d love everyone to be asking themselves.
Fr McDonagh, a Columban missionary and world-renowned eco-theologian, has been asking such questions for 40 years and he contributed to early draftings of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home.
He has just finished a speaking tour of Australia to spread the Laudato Si’ message and discuss ways of implementing the call of the document.
The tour started in Brisbane archdiocese on November 1 and continued in Adelaide and Sydney, and finished in Melbourne on Tuesday, November 15.
Apart from writing about caring for creation and travelling the world giving lectures and running courses to encourage others to share his enthusiasm, he lives his passion in a simple way.
“I do a lot of travel, because there’s not that many people in the Catholic Church who do this kind of thing,” he said during a break in his Brisbane engagements.
“But apart from that, I try to live a simple life.
“I take public transport wherever I can. I’m hopefully not wasteful with things.
“In terms of spiritual life, I run a summer school every year on the natural world in Ireland – the theology, the flora and fauna, identifying and coming to understand and know the natural world.”
Fr McDonagh said the summer school had enriched his life enormously.
“I will bring people down to The Burren, in County Clare, and it’s just a beautiful place,” he said.
“I love to be there and I love to introduce children to it, or teenagers, and say, ‘Isn’t this extraordinary? Isn’t this what beauty is? Isn’t this what makes life worth living? Do you want your children’s children to have that experience or are you not worried if there’s going to be any flowers left here?’”
Bringing that approach home for Queenslanders, Fr McDonagh posed a similar question about the Great Barrier Reef.
“Here, you have in Queensland, a real issue – do you develop coal in a way that actually destroys the environment?” he said.
“Last year, on your Great Barrier Reef, which is the largest living organism on the planet, twenty per cent of the coral polyps died because the surface temperature changed by over one degree Celsius – that’s how delicate life in the oceans is.
“It was (due to) two combinations – the combination of climate change and the El Nino.
“But it’s horrendous. It’s horrendous that the Australian and Queensland governments don’t see it as an extraordinary crisis. But you can’t do coal, and look after your coral (at the same time).
“These are issues that are becoming clear morally.
“You have a country where you have plenty of sunshine, you have a country where you have all kinds of possibilities for alternative energy, so do you put your money into new technologies that are not based on fossil fuels ordo you keep stacking up the companies who are making a fortune selling fossil fuel to India and China?
“These are concrete questions.”
Fr McDonagh said Pope Francis’ pronouncements in Laudato Si’ would indicate that taking decisions that would continue to contribute to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef would be a sin.
He said one of the first persons the Pope quoted in Laudato Si’ was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who says “if you destroy the rainforests, if you destroy biodiversity – of course climate change – (and) if you interfere with our waters or air, these are sins”.
“So here’s the first big change,” Fr McDonagh said.
“Okay, Pope John Paul II did say that these are moral issues but we haven’t actually brought that into our Catholic consciousness.
“I always start (a talk) by saying – it’s like putting the brakes on – ‘No one in this room believes that’.
“We were not brought up to believe that. We were brought up to believe that, as Christians, we have to obey God and respect God and respect people.
“Now we’re (told in Laudato Si), ‘… Christians realise that their … duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith’.”
Fr McDonagh said that, in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis was “the first pope to get right the magnitude of the ecological crisis that’s affecting our planet”.
“He also talks about the urgency with which we need to address this issue, because of irreversible damage that will be done (or is being done),” he said.
“He says there is clear evidence that climate change is happening and it’s due to what humans are doing – burning fossil fuels.”
And the Pope makes it clear that the poor will suffer most as a result of climate change.
“That’s what he does – (highlights) the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth, and they’re connected,” Fr McDonagh said.
“The people of Bangladesh will suffer, not the Americans or the Europeans who actually put most of the carbon into the atmosphere.
“(The Pope says) the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth are one call, they’re one challenge, they’re one crisis.
“They’re not 20 different crises – they’re one.
“We need to have economic and political policies that actually address that, take seriously what’s happening to the poor and what’s happening to the Earth.”
Fr McDonagh said Laudato Si’ was an extraordinary document covering many issues – the environment, the cry of the poor, social justice, politics, economics, “chemicalisation of the planet”, climate change, biodiversity, water, the oceans, waste and extractive industry.
He said the Pope corrected perceptions about scriptural references to humans having “dominion over the Earth”.
Pope Francis said “dominion” did not mean humans had control and could do what they liked with Creation.
“It means, in actual fact, you’re a viceroy of God so you are supposed to have the same care for the non-human reality as God has for everything, including humans,” Fr McDonagh said.
“One way or another, this is a great gift to the Church. It has brought out serious new teaching, particularly in the area of biodiversity, which is, in other words, the intrinsic value of every other species.
“We have an obligation to make it our own, and it’s going to take time …”
Listen to the Xt3 podcast and view its accompanying Powerpoint presentation of Fr Sean McDonagh's talk, 'Bringing Laudato Si to Life: From Vision to Action' with Fr Sean McDonagh at the Australian Catholic University, Gleeson Auditorium here.