Australia's powerful Catholic Church signaled its intention to mobilize its congregation - representing one-quarter of the Australian population - on environmental issues. The church is concerned about curbing land clearing and the logging of old growth forests, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.
Catholic Earthcare Australia - an initiative that gained official endorsement at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in mid-May - was officially launched Sunday in a special mass at the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Sydney.
The goal of the initiative, said Archbishop John Bathersby, chair of the Bishops Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace, is "to mobilize Australia's five million Catholics to take decisive action to protect the natural world before it's too late."
Two days before the official launch, Bathesby announced the initiative to the media from the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
"I had that marvellous experience of being able to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge and to look down on that magnificent harbour and realized only recently - through the work of Ian Kiernan and his Clean Up Australia campaign - how we had damaged that icon of Australia," said Bathesby.
Christine Milne, former parliamentary leader of the Tasmanian Greens and member of an advisory committee on the initiative, believes the political impact of the Catholic church on environmental issues should not be underestimated.
"There are still large number of politicians in Australia that come from the Irish Catholic tradition, and therefore the church increasing its role in the environment will really be putting the political process in Australia on notice that the mainstream wants change," she said.
The initiative has its origin in calls by Pope John Paul II for the church to pay greater attention to protecting the environment.
In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, the Pope said, "the ecological crisis is a moral issue ... respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation."
In January 2001, the Pope spoke passionately about human impacts on the environment. "Humanity has disappointed God's expectations. Man, especially in our time, has without hesitation devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted waters, disfigured the Earth's habitat, made the air unbreathable, disturbed the hydrogeological and atmospheric systems, turned luxuriant areas into deserts and undertaken forms of unrestrained industrialization," he declared.
"We must therefore encourage and support the ecological conversion which in recent years has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading," the Pope said.
In response to the Pope's pleas for "ecological conversion," the Australian Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace has developed the Catholic Earthcare Australia initiative. It appointed a 20 person advisory committee including Milne, Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson, well known champion of social justice Father Brian Gore, and Franciscan priest Father Andrew Granc, to provide advice to the bishops.
In one of its first actions, the church has distributed a 20 minute video titled "The Garden Planet" to all the Catholic schools. The video highlights critical environmental issues facing Australia including threats to ecological and human health from pollution, the logging of old-growth forests, and from global warming.
Attending the Catholic Earthcare Australia launch at the special mass on Sunday were leaders of environmental and other social justice groups.
While the Catholic Church has previously played a significant role in debates over economic and social policy, the launch of Catholic Earth Care Australia represents the first national initiative on the environment. It is a shift that has been welcomed by environmentalists.
"The fact that the archbishops in Australia are taking the call by the Pope for an ecological conversion seriously is extremely heartening," said Alec Marr, campaign director of The Wilderness Society, an Australian environmental group unrelated to its U.S. namesake.
"We are delighted that the Catholic Church is taking a leadership role amongst religious leaders to put the environment fairly and squarely on the national agenda. Hopefully it will bring a moral perspective to the damage that is being done to the environment," Marr said.
The initiative has already had a ripple effect within the international Catholic community. The video was screened at a recent meeting of European bishops in Italy where a number of bishops expressed interest in obtaining copies for their own domestic distribution. It is an impact that may also spread through the Asia-Pacific region where the Catholic church has an extensive presence.
One of the next steps in the initiative will be the release on Social Justice Sunday, September 29, of the annual bishops' statement on social justice issues.
"For the first time the social justice statement will be on the environment," Milne said. The initiative will be publicized though the Catholic newspaper as well.
Bathesby, who has spent time hiking in the backwoods, it excited at the initiative. "There have been Catholics who have been passionate about the environment for a long time - they are delighted about what is happening," he said. "There is a realization that this is just not what we should do from the point of view of Catholic morality but it really lies at the very heart of our faith."