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A year or so ago a friend gave me a book to read – “Death Comes for the
Archbishop” by Willa Cather.
In it she wrote, “From an atheist to a believer, tell me why I love this book?” It
was written in 1927 and is about Bishop Latour and his friend Fr Vaillant who
are sent out from Rome to New Mexico in the middle of the 19
Century to re-
invigorate Catholicism there. It is a beautiful book, described as “economical and
distilled as poetry.” A.N Wilson called in “Quite simply a masterpiece.”
Amongst the many memorable, haunting passages one stands out strongly. It
describes the Bishop towards the end of his time in New Mexico – and of his life.
This gentle, holy man who treated everyone with respect and was greatly liked
and admired, suffered from what Mother Theresa described as, “an emptiness so
great I look but do not see, I listen but do not hear.” One such troubled, cold
night he lay in his bed unable to sleep. In the dead of night he got up. It was very
cold and the snow looked ghostly in the moonlight. He put on a thick, fur-lined
cloak and went down to the church to pray alone.
Everywhere was white with snow, and the church stood out sharply in the faint
light from the moon. In the doorway of the sacristy he saw a crouching figure – a
woman - and she was weeping bitterly. Her name was Sada, which means Pure,
an old Mexican woman who was kept as a slave by an American family who were
Protestants and hostile to her Catholic faith. They would not allow her to go to
Mass, or to receive any visits from a priest. On this cold winter’s night when the
family stayed in warm rooms they put her out into a wood shed. Unable to sleep
for cold she had crept out unseen and ran to the Church to pray. When she found
all the doors locked she sank down and wept. This is how the bishop found her.
She had no socks on her feet, just old, worn out shoes. Her thin shawl was little
protection against the cold over a thin, patched dress. She was shivering. He
wrapped his cloak around her and took her into the church. There they prayed
together and the bishop heard her confession. He gave her a holy medal and told
her he would always pray for her. The bishop had never seen such pure
goodness shine from a human face in the way it did from this poor, abused old
It is hard to think of another piece of writing that brings together the Christian
understanding of how suffering and pain bind the poor to Christ and dignify it.
This old woman’s pain was beyond anything the bishop could personally
experience – he was rich and respected, she a peasant and slave. He was deeply
moved by her piety and said that the Church was Sada’s house and he was but a
servant in it.
The end of this section tells of the Bishop looking at the trail of dark footprints
that Sada had left in the snow as she hurried back to her captivity. Although
offered she would not take his cloak for fear her owners would find it.
The plight of Sada struck a deep chord with me. Why didn’t the bishop do
everything in his power to help her? He was a good and holy man. Why didn’t he
demand her release or at least demand that she be treated well? Why didn’t he
take her into the protection of his household and refuse to let the family “own”
her again? But he didn’t, even though many local women were asking the Church
to step in. Why? Because, he said, “the time is not right.” The family who owned
her could cause even more trouble in the town, they already led a group of
militant Protestants who disrupted meetings and services and he didn’t think it
was right to make matters worse in the community. So Sada remained a
prisoner and slave, mistreated and abused.
I have read and re-read this passage because it works on so many levels. From a
spiritual point of view it talks of lifelong commitment to God despite doubt and
hardship. It highlights compassion for the poor that defines the heart of
Catholicism. It talks of the beauty of the sacraments, which are a comfort and
source of inspiration for many. It describes beautifully the presence of goodness
in the most wretched of circumstances. But it also brings to the fore a more
perplexing, and disturbing facet of Catholicism - fractures that have dogged the
Church through time when obvious need is not met because “the time is not
right.” The confused and ineffectual teachings on slavery, Nazism and votes for
women are three obvious examples.
In this passage the injustice that goes unchallenged is the oppression of Sada.
The book is set in the time of slavery and human bondage was established as the
way of society. It was largely accepted by the Church, which even at times
supported it. But for me though this passage can be seen in another light. Sada
represents the earth. In an unexpected way Cather has expressed how I feel
about the Catholic Church’s attitude to nature. The animals and plants of this
earth are abused and mistreated for selfish reasons, often for greed and avarice.
They are used to fuel the making of money that most often does not contribute to
the common good. They are treated wastefully and with a profound lack of
respect. Often they are treated cruelly. When challenged those who have vested
interests react strongly. Many of us feel compassion for their plight and wish it
could be different. Officially however not much happens. The treatment of the
natural world remains low on the list of priorities. “The time is not right.”
Why is it not right? Let’s try to understand this. It is important because in my
opinion we are failing in our duty to be true to our baptism – the theme of this
conference - if we fail to protect nature.
I want to highlight some examples of what I mean when I use this analogy from
Death Comes for the Archbishop.
This last spring Chris Packham went to Malta to bring to the attention of the
world what happens in the skies above a devout Catholic country.
By law 10,000 hunters can shoot 16,000 migrating birds. These birds fly to and
from Europe to Africa – between their breeding and wintering grounds. The
journeys are long and hazardous. They have to cope with storms, extremes of
temperature, natural predators and long distances. They have to find enough
food and shelter en route in a world that is shifting fast. The spread of
urbanization, intensive agriculture and deforestation make that hard. They also
run the gauntlet of men with guns. Many more than the allotted number are shot,
though figures are obviously hard to come by. And it isn’t just Malta, other
countries that are largely Catholic such as Spain and Italy and France, all take
their share too. They use horrific methods, tethering live songbirds to poles with
glue. Their calls attract others which are trapped or shot. Small songbirds that
would fit into the size of a child’s palm, or huge, impressive birds of prey, shot
down all over the Mediterranean each spring.
John Muir, the founding father of conservation and of America’s National Parks,
and a deeply spiritual man, deplored the similar traditional practice of hunting
migrating song birds in America in the 19
“Not even genuine piety can make the robin-killer quite respectable. Saturday is
the great slaughter day in the San Francisco bay region. Then the city pot-
hunters, with a rag-tag of boys, go forth to kill, kept in countenance by a
sprinkling of regular sportsmen arrayed in self-conscious majesty and leggins,
leading dogs and carrying hammerless, breech-loading guns of famous makers.
Over the fine landscapes the killing goes forward with shameful enthusiasm.
After escaping countless dangers, thousands fall, big bagfuls are gathered, many
are left wounded to die slowly, no Red Cross Society to help them. Next day,
Sunday, the blood and leggins vanish from the most devout of the bird-butchers,
who go to church, carrying gold-headed canes instead of guns. After hymns,
prayers, and sermon they go home to feast, to put God's song birds to use, put
them in their dinners instead of in their hearts, eat them, and suck the pitiful
little drumsticks. It is only race living on race, to be sure, but Christians singing
Divine Love need not be driven to such straits while wheat and apples grow and
the shops are full of dead cattle. Song birds for food! Compared with this, making
kindlings of pianos and violins would be pious economy.”
It is gross hypocrisy, suggested Muir, to preach a peaceful, love filled Kingdom of
God while blasting innocent creatures from the sky. He had the same contempt
for those who killed bison, passenger pigeons, polar bears, seals and so on. How
can Christians kill for fun and still proclaim peace on earth?
Each year hunters go to the roof of St Julian’s parish church in Malta and fire
blank rounds to commemorate St Julian, one of the patron saints for hunters in
Malta, along with St Hubert. The guns are aimed at the sky – at passing birds.
There is no suggestion that the Catholic Church in Malta actively supports the
shooting of birds as they migrate, but neither does it stand up strongly against it
– not wanting to rock the boat of “traditional practices.” Birds, like Sada, are just
not important enough to risk upsetting things too much. The time is not right.
It’s worth remembering that this year – in September - it is 100 years since the
last passenger pigeon died in Cincinnati Zoo. Once it was the most numerous
bird on the planet, billions of them were slaughtered by farmers and hunters
who bludgeoned them from the trees – some for food, some to feed pigs, mostly
for fun. The same goes for the bison on the plains. The church didn’t react then,
would it today? Does it consider the poaching of animals like elephants and
rhinos for their tusks and horns or exotic parrots and primates for the pet trade
activities that should be publically condemned? Perhaps these are viewed as
political and social problems, not religious ones? I don’t know, I’ve never heard
The Malta spring migration hunt is obviously not as extreme as the killing of
passenger pigeons and bison, elephants or rhinos, but it highlights a reluctance
of the Church to pitch into the movement to protect the earth. I don’t think it is
out of fear, or even ignorance in many cases as there is a lot of information
available – but caution. Often campaigns are seen as too political, or “anti-
human” and there is difficulty in squaring the needs of people with protecting
species. And for sure there are difficult questions to answer. What is more
important, protecting a wetland or draining it to provide water for agriculture?
Speaking out against deforestation or the rights of the poor to clear areas for
farms? Planting palm oil for food stuffs or protecting rainforest? These are
issues that are complex and deserve discussion. I can understand why joining
one “side” is not the right thing to do – there are nuanced arguments to be had
and political pressures are huge. What I cannot and won’t accept is silence. I
look in vain for comments and contributions to difficult environmental issues,
everything from overfishing to pollution to hunting to deforestation, to damming
rivers to plastics in the oceans – and I hear nothing but deep silence. I don’t
expect an alliance with Greenpeace, I do expect a contribution that sheds light.
One issue that does get attention – and excellent work - is in the area of
development and climate change. The threat from climate change is a huge – it is
a dangerous, sometimes lethal, reality. It is a long-term threat that is creeping
insidiously into our lives here in Britain - but is already being felt with great
force in other parts of the world where a change in weather patterns spells crop
failure, death of livestock and famine. Flooding, droughts, storms, extremes of
temperature, are all too familiar problems that countries all round the world are
dealing with. It is undoubtedly a hugely serious issue and I am glad that CAFOD
is tackling it so well. They are superb at highlighting the effect of climate change
on developing countries and the responsibilities the rich West has in living low
carbon lives and contributing to the mitigation process. It is a demonstration
that when the poor are impacted then the church steps in to help deal with the
suffering. Marie Elena Arana can tell you about the new CAFOD initiative One
World, One Climate, a 3 year campaign which is being launched in September. It
has a very welcome message that underlies that we are all one people on one
earth, interconnected and inter-related. There is no “us and them,” only us.
There are also some wonderful, inspirational individuals and local groups who
are humbling in their commitment to the earth and its well-being. Eco
congregations, LiveSimply, Christian Ecology Link, Operation Noah, A Rocha,
Catholic Concern for Animals, Progressio and so on. Catholics and other
Christians are joining emerging groups like Grandparents for a Safe Earth to
campaign for climate change action – some of whom were recently arrested for
demonstrating about the banks’ investments in fossil fuels where I live in Bristol.
Many people here will be actively involved or working as individuals doing what
But doing what we can to get to grips with climate change is not doing the
environment, anymore than thinking curing cancer will solve all the health
problems of humanity. Important as it is, climate change is just one issue the
world faces, there are many, many more that are having impacts on people
physically and spiritually, yet these are largely side-lined and I am at a loss to
know why. For me the world is not just about people, but I wonder whether that
is a minority view – increasingly so. Over fishing isn’t climate change, nor is
misuse of fresh water, plastic pollution, destruction of habitats, extinction of
species, the pollinator crisis and so on.
Let’s look at some of the statements that have been made over the last few years.
Just last year when Pope Francis went to the Amazon, he called for: “respect and
protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it
be indiscriminately exploited but rather made into a garden.”
We could have a whole talk on that sentence alone, but it is, in my opinion, a step
backwards. Pope Francis is a beacon of hope for a beleaguered church, but on
this his words are unfortunate. The earth is not a garden for our use, as this
implies. I can’t imagine anything worse than the whole earth being turned into a
garden, not matter how beautifully constructed. A garden by definition is human
made and human designed. The earth is primeval, anarchic, beats to its own
rhythm. It has a purpose and a path above and beyond our control. It is wild,
rambunctious, diverse, inconvenient, dangerous, exquisite, terrifying, glorious,
ugly, mundane, thrilling. It is all these things but it is not a garden, and nor
should it be. We must use some of this planet for our needs, but that does not
make it a garden. I await with interest the encyclical on the environment from
The pope who seemed to have the most thoughtful approach was John Paul 11:
“The seriousness of ecological degradation lays bare the depth of man’s moral
crisis…Simplicity, moderation and discipline as well as sacrifice must become
part of everyday life.”
“Around the world, we can see the results of exploitation which destroys much
without taking future generations into account.”
“We must therefore encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in
recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it
has been heading. Man is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward’, but an autonomous
despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of
I don’t agree with everything that Pope John Paul 11 said by any means, but for
these statements I am truly grateful. It seems to me though that his vision is
disintegrating. We are going backwards at the moment, focusing more and more
on one issue alone, and losing sight of the earth as a joyful manifestation of
wonder in its own right, of which we are just a part. Our relationship with the
earth now equals dealing with climate change and little else gets even a mention.
So let’s have some practical suggestions then, rather than general talk. What can
we do when faced with such huge issues? Let me make one radical suggestion.
And I am delighted, truly delighted, that this conference is one step ahead of me.
To be true to our baptism we should carefully consider eating meat more than
once or twice a week. Just that one commitment makes a whole array of
statements about what it is to be Christian fully and completely alive on an earth
that is increasingly stressed. Why do I say that?
1. In terms of fresh water, 1 kg of beef needs 15,000 litres of water whereas
cabbage and eggs around 200.
2. In terms of CO2, providing for a meaty diet produces twice as much CO2
as a vegetarian one, half that again for vegans.
3. Grazing occupies 26% of the earth's ice-free terrestrial surface, and feed
crop production uses about one third of all arable land – food that could
be grown for people. 1.3 billion tons of grain are produced each year just
to feed to livestock.
4. Cruelty, antibiotics, disease transmission are other increasingly worrying
Let’s look at what we are eating when we eat meat. If we were transported to
another planet and plonked down and asked to decide what creatures on Planet
Zog we would eat, many would like to apply some ethical ground rules.
Does the alien in front of us feel fear? Does it feel pain? Does it form emotional
bonds? Does it have a high level of intelligence? Does it form social relationships
and affliliations? Does it form inter-species relationships? We can apply our own
levels to this test, but I imagine for those Planet Zog blobs that do pass all these
tests at some level, we would insist they are killed humanely and treated with
respect, reducing stress and fear and pain as much as possible. Do we apply
these rules to our own creatures here an earth? Not always.
The way most farm animals are kept, transported and killed is far from meeting
these standards. Hens form real and tender bonds with their chicks, even when
they are still in the egg. Cows and calves are deeply bonded, so are pigs and
piglets, lambs and ewes. All feel pain and fear, all relate to their own and other
species. They deserve our respect and I don’t believe we should expect to eat
them everyday, mass-producing them as though we are processing inanimate
And meat eating is increasing year on year.
There is increasing evidence that fish too feel real pain, they certainly have
intelligence and form social bonds. Fish are not honorary vegetables and
treating them as lesser protein, as we were urged to do on Fridays recently, just
demonstrates a lack of understanding of the state of the oceans and of fish. An
arrogance in my opinion. Making Friday meat free would have been a far more
The seas are overfished by a huge margin using technology and advanced
equipment that hoovers up millions of tons of fish, 1/3 of which is thrown back
For example, a paper out just now shows that the amount of white fish – cod,
haddock etc, in the early 20
C formed 50% of the catch in the N Sea, now it
forms just 4%. Just this week the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and
Aquiculture Science (CEFAS) produced a report demonstrating the dramatic
decline in seabass and calling for an 80% reduction in catch. In 2010, 15,000
tonnes of breeding seabass was found in our seas, that is expected to fall to
10,000 next year. That is dramatic in 5 years. Seabass have been increasing in
our waters as our seas warm due to climate change and already we are
exploiting them to dangerous levels. By promoting fish on Fridays just
exacerbates a problem and highlights how little the church is engaged with what
is happening in the world around us.
So just by doing something simple, cutting down on meat and fish, will make a
big difference. By saying why you are doing it tells the world we care.
And by doing it with a good heart, not resentful or grumpy. Sharing the earth
with all other life might mean sacrificing to some degree, but sacrifice is a
positive, giving experience in a religious sense. A self-emptying.
There is a lot of confusion however out there, a confusion which arises from not
understanding the natural world. Last night we heard amusing examples of
some of the ludicrous ideas about sex. Well it’s not just between the sheets that
confusion reigns. What are these creatures?
The natural historians among you might think they are a snail and a bird – a
guillemot. In fact you are wrong, the Catholic Church viewed them as fish which
could be eaten on a Friday. The snail is cold bloodied, so not likely to give you
heated passions, the guillemot (and puffin), fly underwater better than in the air
– so lets call them fish.
This is not the time to point out all the environmental problems of the earth, it is
a talk about being true to our baptism, to live full, holy, intelligent, meaning-filled
lives. In my opinion that is not possible if we stay dumb when the earth suffers.
Faith has a lot to say about so many of these issues. It can cut through the hype
of campaigns and bring a depth and sense of humanity and understanding to
issues. It can bring a long view, a sense of time unfolding, a joyful insight. But I
look around and see no outstanding spokesperson from the official ranks. Is see
no deep desire to contribute to the national and global conversation about our
relationship with the earth – outside the frame of reference of climate change.
But can a flourishing person thrive in a degraded world?
We need a time of reflection and to look into our hearts. We need to read Job
again. This little quoted by superb commentary on the role of humanity on earth
should be read every day. God tells Job to find the answers he is seeking in the
world around him. “Ask the animals and they will teach you. Or the birds in the
sky and they will tell you. Or speak to the earth and it will teach you, or let the
fish of the sea inform you.” They can’t teach us if we destroy them.
We think we know so much, have mastery and dominion, we don’t. We need
more humility. If those who feel superior to the other creatures we share our
planet with read Job 40-42, I wonder if they would still feel so good.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know
so much. Do you know how its dimensions were determined and who did the
surveying? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the
morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? Who defined the
boundaries of the sea as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds
and thick darkness?”
All the environmental problems of the earth are complex issues with many
interacting parts. People are bound up with the fate of this earth. We do not
float above it like angels we are part of the grit and weave of the planet. To
remove our spirituality from the discussions about the environment is a
dereliction of duty.
I thought this talk was about looking for a hero – that figure who could pull it all
together and inspire the Christian world to turn its formidable energy and
compassion into protecting the natural world. I think I’m wrong. Perhaps the
organic growth of the different groups that are self-assembling is the way
forward – grass roots power that will eventually grow and thrive everywhere.
To spread the word that Gemma talked about last night – to be a priesthood that
reconciles and builds bridges with creation, that turns it from a resource into a
manifestation of God. That makes the earth a sacred space, not separate from,
but part of humanity itself. All is holy and all is one she said – how true. When
we separate out holiness from the ordinary and put them into different spaces
we are in trouble – how very true.
Everyone in this room is here because they care about who and what we are. I
know I am preaching to the converted when I say it is being true to our baptism
to care for the life and landscapes that make up planet earth. Let’s all keep
talking about it, work for it, love it, enthuse people about it, write letters of
complaint when things are wrong, write letters of praise when organisations or
governments or church leaders act. Thomas Berry said we have broken “the
great conversation with the earth” – we must start talking again, and listening.
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