In 2016, in response to the massive drought in southern Madagascar, compounded by El Niño, Catholic Relief Services worked with the U.S. government to shift funding swiftly from other geographical areas of the country, where CRS was implementing a long-term Development Food Assistance Program through USAID. Food aid, mainly rice, sorghum, split yellow peas and cooking oil are assisting people in the worst-hit areas. (CNS photo/Heidi Yanulis, courtesy Catholic Relief Services)

by P.J. Cullinane 

Recent events have reverberated with claims that the climate crisis is “the defining issue of our time”, “the biggest threat the human race has ever faced” etc.  It’s true, of course, if we’re looking only at symptoms.  Surely the underlying causes that create such a crisis, prolong it, and make it harder to fix, are a bigger problem! But that comes down to human attitudes and behaviour, and that is a moral/spiritual problem. Twenty years ago, St John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew 1 put it this way: 

“The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spiritual. A solution at the economic level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change of lifestyle and sustainable patterns of consumption and production. A genuine conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we think and act.” (Common Declaration, 2002). 

So long as the moral/spiritual dimension is not noticed and named, the solution is sought only at a political level, with the shallowness of political bargaining, trade-offs and compromises – re-arranging the deck chairs. 

This shallowness also results in inconsistency; it neglects the fact that environmental damage and social damage go hand-in-hand. Because of the way everything in nature is connected, “We are faced, not with two separate crises, one environmental, and the other social, but with one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 138, 139). Ten years ago, Pope Benedict asked: “How can we separate the protection of the environment and the protection of human life . . . since the book of nature is one and indivisible?” (Caritas in Veritate, 51). Failure to respect this unity results in “tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side-by-side with a ‘green’ rhetoric”. (LS, 49).   

A further consequence of not recognising the moral/spiritual character of ecological, social and economic distortions is to look for someone else to blame – scapegoating! History shows how we have treated supposed witches and heretics in times of crisis. Today, those not coping well with reality often try to avoid it by recourse to conspiracy theories, and blaming people in authority, sometimes with rage and threats; and, of course, bizarre apocalyptic preaching (often from fundamentalist sources in the USA). 

In the way that one thing leads to another, false ideologies don’t necessarily start at the sharp end of the spectrum. A recent documentary on “The Making of a Nazi” featured the atrocities and mass murders carried out under Heinrich Himmler, and then it recalled that he started as “the champion of organic farming and herbal medicine, promoter of handicraft and new age mysticism, the radical environmentalist . . . who valued nature more highly than humanity . . .”. 

There is no need for predictions of the end-time to explain our crises. The devaluation of human lives is occurring in “ordinary time”, and in all the ways we “normalise” various distortions, and hardly notice we are doing it.  

The marketplace has many examples of unethical practices deemed normal and acceptable. Family violence has been called “New Zealand’s hidden pandemic”, even before we include its inter-generational consequences. And it is deemed a ‘right’ to be able to take human lives – at their most vulnerable – sometimes for no better reason than someone else’s convenience, turning a blind eye to what the sciences clearly teach concerning the newly-conceived human being.  

The pandemic has done us a good turn by showing up radical individualism for what it is – not something to be proud of after all.  Indifference to the needs and well-being of others flows directly out of a narrow focus on “my rights, my choice, my freedom . . .”.  In the USA, this individualism is euphemised by simplistic comparisons with “collectivism” and “socialism”. Catholic social teaching combines the rights of all with the rights of each in its teaching on the “common good” and “subsidiarity”. Do we need to ask why our teaching has not been more credible and more effective?   

In our own country, whatever happened to common sense that some people needed the courts to tell them that a government has the duty and the right to safeguard its citizens against false understandings of “freedom” and personal “rights”?  We need look no further than the road code to know that “freedom” does not mean the right to do whatever we like, that concern for others is a component of civilised life, and that a government is within its rights to make rules that are mandatory. Try telling the judge that road rules should be optional; or that allowing only those with a licence to drive violates the freedom of those who want to drive without a licence. Or, just try thinking. 

Ultimately, we have to own up to and confront the disorders where they start. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that “. . . imbalances under which the world labours are linked with the more basic imbalances rooted in the human heart. For within our hearts many elements wrestle with one another . . .” (GS 10).  Nothing less than a “change of heart” is needed to liberate us from social, economic and ecological disorders. 

To change from behaviours that are less human and inhuman to ways that are truly human presupposes a complete turn-around in the way we think and act. It means living “no longer for ourselves but for others”. It is the opposite of narrow self-interest and shallow thinking. 

If the future is to be better than the past, we need to ask: where was the Church’s influence when Western society developed this self-centred individualism? Richard Rohr’s comment is telling: 

“I suspect that Western individualism has done more than any other single factor to anaesthetise and even euthanise the power of the Gospel. Salvation, heaven, hell, worthiness, grace, and eternal life, all came to be read through the lens of the separate ego, crowding God’s transformative power out of history and society . . . thus leaving us with almost no care for the earth, society, the outsider, or the full Body of Christ. This is surely one reason why Christianity found itself incapable of critiquing social calamities like Nazism, slavery and Western consumerism. For five hundred years, Christian teachers defined and redefined salvation almost entirely in individualistic terms, while well-disguised social evils – greed, pride, ambition, deceit, gluttony – moved to the highest levels of power and influence, even in our churches . . . (The Universal Christ, 164). 

He is describing individualism within the practice of the faith! Salvation, and the practices of faith, were too much about “God and me”, with exactly the social consequences Rohr identifies. Even lots of “me’s” worshipping in the same space, though comforting for each “me”, does not constitute the “we” of Christian identity, Christian worship and Christian mission. That’s because Christian identity, worship and mission call us out of that kind of privacy into the relationships and the dynamics of community – a people acting as one body – within the liturgy and within society. The need to overcome individualism (in liturgy and in life) is ultimately what the Second Vatican Council’s liturgy reform was about. 

  • Bishop Peter Cullinane is Bishop Emeritus of Palmerston North. This is the first part of a two-part article.  



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  1. Gregory says

    Richard Rohr’s Universalism (The Universal Christ) has probably also “anaesthetise(d) and euthanize(d)” the power of the Gospel”, in that we are now not only individualistic and affluent but are now ALL destined to be Saints. Whew, that is good news, indeed!

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