A failure of moral leadership and pastoral care

Climate change is the greatest moral issue of our age — an extension of Robert Kennedy’s vision for a more humane society — yet church leaders have ignored it or dismissed it as invention. [4 August 2009 | Peter Boyer]

“We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods,” Robert Kennedy told a US university audience in March 1968, as his presidential primary campaign was gathering strength.

Kennedy went on:

“The Gross National Product includes air pollution. It includes destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior.… [It] measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Youthful idealism doubtless coloured my view of Kennedy’s campaign, but I remember it as a burst of brilliance in the US political firmament. At the same time Martin Luther King was speaking of a higher purpose, above the humdrum “reality” of politics and business, mere weeks before he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.

Kennedy’s eloquent speech was a moral statement — a secular equivalent of King’s Christian vision for humanity. Like King’s great speeches, Kennedy’s words carried a power that some found threatening. He too was shockingly assassinated, three frenetic months later.

Four decades on, the message in Kennedy’s speech is as relevant as it was then, but we continue to miss the point. The imperative that now faces us, to reduce our impact on the planet and avert devastating climate change, raises questions about our relationships with other people and with the rest of creation that Kennedy sought to bring to the surface.

At its heart, this is a matter of morality. Poor societies will be hardest hit in dealing with changing climate conditions, yet their plight is a direct result of the consumerism of rich societies, including ours. These same actions of wealthier peoples are causing species to die out at a rate comparable with the biggest prehistoric mass extinctions.

This has to be prime raw material for the world’s religions. If religion is about a quest for the ideal life, an aspiration to a higher, better plane, and the care of God’s creation, then the global moral issues attached to climate change should surely be a principal concern of our religious leaders.

Yet the three great western religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism seem to have relegated climate change to a secondary position, if that. Public pronouncements from their major leaders focus more on politics, doctrine or sex (including some disturbing, irrational attitudes to contraception and disease-prevention) than on the well-being of our natural environment.

Among Australian churches, only the Uniting Church has loudly raised concerns about the climate issue. Anglican leaders have been more muted, while the Catholic Church’s Cardinal George Pell has consistently denied any human responsibility for climate change.

Cardinal Pell sees human-induced climate change as an invention of “radical environmentalists”. On his official website, he has told his flock not to “blindly follow expert opinion” and to ignore long-term scientific models because they “cannot work”. It seems he knows better, as did the Inquisition when it censured Galileo.

Today we are wrestling with the logical extension of Robert Kennedy’s manifesto on economic growth. We now know our “advanced” human activities present the biggest threat to our own and other species since we first walked the planet. Human-induced climate change has become the greatest moral issue of all time.

The climate challenge demands that we cast aside a fundamental tenet of western religion: that humans are entitled to dominate other species. Perhaps it’s that belief in domination which has caused George Pell to reject the evidence that human activity has triggered climate change. Whatever, this is an abject failure of moral leadership and pastoral care.

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