‘The earth is our only home. We don’t have anywhere else.’ This was one of the messages two members of the Justice, Peace and Development Commission of Palmerston North Diocese took from the Catholic Earthcare Australia conference in Melbourne last month.
Irene O’Connell, a hospice worker of St Mary’s parish, Palmerston North, and Patea organic farmer, Terence Whelan, were asked to take a lead in the Palmerston North Diocese’s response to the environmental justice theme of Social Justice Week.
The Palmerston North JPD Commission was a strong promoter of the environmental justice theme, particularly following the 2004 floods in the Manawatu and Whanganui regions. The commission sees itself as having a strong role to play in ongoing work, particularly as the diocese encompasses areas that have experienced both floods and droughts.
Irene and Terence were inspired by the conference’s opening Rerum Novarum lecture from Catholic Earthcare Australia’s chair, Bishop Chris Toohey. Irene said Bishop Toohey spoke of humans as being in a privileged position in regard to the rest of creation. ‘With that privilege came responsibility. As stewards we are called to care for the earth,’ said Irene.
She said both Bishop Toohey and the other conference speakers stressed the importance of listening to information from the sciences, but also bringing our own spiritual dimension – our sense of faith and hope. ‘We need to know the science, and to be in touch with what God is asking us to do.’
As well as scientific information on the geographical effects of climate change, including rising temperatures and sea levels, information was given at the conference about the effects on human health. ‘Bacteria can travel further, can go into places that it couldn’t survive previously.’ Irene explained that malaria, which at present is found only in northern Australia, is expected to spread as far south as Sydney as temperatures rise.
Terence said one of the messages he found inspiring was that God’s creation didn’t end with the Genesis story. ‘Creation didn’t stop at seven days. Creation kept on going.’
He said that climate change has now become a mainstream concern in Australia, in the five years since Catholic Earthcare Australia was founded when it was considered a fringe issue. The present drought and the loss of iconic landscape features, such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Murray River, have contributed to the growing awareness of environmental issues in Australia.
He said the Australian Catholic conference, like the wider Catholic environmental network in Australia, encompassed spiritual and moral reflections, alongside scientific information, the views of non-governmental organisations and reflections of the business community.
Members of the commission are considering what they can do in 2008 to continue the understanding and commitment to environmental justice in the diocese. Irene and Terence attended the Catholic Earthcare Conference with the help of diocesan funding and support from Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand.