Last month, 44 women from south Asian countries met at St Pius College, a Catholic seminary in a Mumbai suburb, to discuss their perspective on climate change and its impact on vulnerable populations.
Engagement with environmental issues is not a new thing for the church. More than two decades ago, before global warming and climate change received the attention the subjects now get, Pope John Paul II, the then head of the church, had made pleas about respecting nature. Pope Francis, the current head, has warned about climate change and its implications on human life. In Laudato Si, a document that he released in June 2015, the Pope wrote about environmental degradation and global warming, and called for action to mitigate the problem.
The concern for the environment has found support in the local church. The Mumbai diocese has a bishop who heads an Archdiocesan Office for Environment. This year, the archdiocese of Bombay has asked Catholics to observe a ‘carbon fast’ during the 40-day Lent season, which begins on March 1, to create awareness about global warming and the importance of a sustainable lifestyle. Every parish in Mumbai has been given a day when they will incorporate environment-saving practices into their activities.
Some decisions taken at the January meeting are important: the participants have pledged to propagate information on climate change in their newsletters and in schools run by the church. Some ideas that will be implemented are conventional: kitchen gardens in schools, recycling of waste water, planting indigenous trees in afforestation programmes, forgoing firecrackers at celebrations, and avoiding the use of plastic ‘use and throw’ plates and glasses.
Other ideas are more exceptional: leaving more surfaces in compounds and grounds without concrete (to allow rain water to seep into the ground and recharge groundwater), restricting excessive withdrawal of groundwater, treatment of sewage before it is discharged into natural water bodies, energy-efficient electrical appliances, promoting use of shared or public transport and avoiding the use of personalised transport.
Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a doctor and a lay Catholic theologian who was one of the delegates, explained why the issue of climate change needed a woman’s perspective. “Because women are affected the most by climate change, particularly in rural areas; women go in search of water, firewood and they put food on the table. All these activities are affected by climate change,” said Lobo Gajiwala. “When the environment is degraded they have to walk farther and farther to search for water and firewood.”
It is said that educating a woman is educating a family. This is something similar, said Lobo Gajiwala.
There are sceptics within the church who feel that the environment programmes are acts of tokenism. “I have seen functions at a church (a pilgrim centre in the city) where pilgrims are served refreshments in paper cups that are discarded after one use. Is it environment-friendly to cut trees for paper? Why do they not have cups that can be cleaned and used again?” asked a parish priest from a south Mumbai church. “People who talk about carbon fasts do not hesitate to use air-conditioned cars for every trip.”
Lobo Gajiwala felt feels that considering the vast reach of the Catholic Church – with 1.3 billion members, that is more than a sixth of mankind, thousands of schools, hospitals and universities – the environmental ideas coming from this global institution will have a far-reaching impact. The influence could travel beyond the community as some of the institutions, especially the schools and universities, are used by other groups. “The priest does have a point (that there is tokenism), but it will take time for the ideas to seep in. When the official (church) machinery is promoting it, the ideas will sink in,” said Lobo Gajiwala. “The official mandate is now there. Machinery has been put to the service of this ideal.”