Joe Gunn

June 10, 2013

Canada's bishops believe that core truths have been spoken on environmental issues by recent popes – but much more has to be done. "What's needed is the reception of what's been said," says Saskatoon's Bishop Don Bolen. "Canadians need to adopt dramatic change in our relationship with the environment."

To encourage this dramatic and necessary change, the four bishops of the Commission for Justice and Peace released on April 8 a document entitled Building a New Culture: Central Themes in Recent Church Teaching on the Environment. It is self-described as a "modest outline of eight central themes found in recent Church teaching on the environment."

More precisely, it is a six-page summary of general principles from the letters and speeches of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, illuminating topics such as environmental care as a moral issue, stewardship, solidarity and creation spirituality.

This is the third time in a decade that the bishops of the commission have issued a letter on environmental themes. To mark the feast of St. Francis of Assisi in 2003 they published You Love all that Exists . . . All things are Yours, God, Lover of Life, and in 2008, Our Relationship with the Environment: The Need for Conversion.

Building a New Culture does not reference these two earlier efforts, nor does it mention pivotal statements like Celebrate Life: Care for Creation by the Catholic bishops of Alberta in October 1998, or Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, released by the Quebec bishops in May 2001.

These are excellent resources for Catholics interested in acting on their local and national environmental concerns.

My guess is that if we asked Canadian Catholics what the two biggest environmental challenges were today, they might answer: pipelines and climate change. Insight from the popes on these specific themes cannot be expected to be found in Building a New Culture.

Last month's election in British Columbia as well as current national debates, feature forceful differences over several different pipeline routes and options which speak to the heart of the challenges of Canadian Catholic teaching on the environment.

Catholics looking for guidance on such specific challenges could turn to the brilliant pastoral letter written by Bishop Luc Bouchard, formerly bishop of St. Paul, Alta., entitled, The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands.


Bouchard wrote, "I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca Oil Sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. . . . The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified."

In April of that same year, Bishop Murray Chatlain, then bishop of the more northern diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, joined his brother bishop in expressing concern.

He wrote, "I join the call for the suspension of rapid growth of the tar sands in Alberta."

Going back even further, the Catholic bishops released 1975's pastoral letter Northern Development: At What Cost? which called for a moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and specifically named the corporations they hoped to call to account.

Concerning climate change, in October 2011 almost 20 Catholic leaders of religious congregations and organizations joined over 60 faith community leaders in signing the Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change.


This document demanded the Canadian government support an international agreement to ensure global temperatures stay below a two-degree increase, commit to national carbon emission targets and a national renewable energy policy, and contribute public funds to assist the poorest countries to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Although the Catholic bishops had repeatedly called for Canada to ratify the Kyoto Climate Accord, the CCCB would not sign the Canadian Interfaith Call in 2011.

Nonetheless, through their membership in the Canadian Council of Churches, which continues to work on this issue, the bishops remain engaged (including through preparation of a new letter from the churches to Environment Minister Peter Kent, scheduled for release in June).


Building a New Culture may be a helpful tool for Catholic groups to discover the environmental crisis as a key opportunity for faithful conversion.

Most useful could be the nine short quotes from the document, available on the CCCB website, which could easily be reprinted in parish bulletins across the land.

It's time for the faithful to take up the bishops' challenge.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)