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05 September 2022

Reflecting on the Guardians of Creation Project

The Guardians of Creation project provides guidance to Catholic dioceses on decarbonisation. Led by Salford Diocese, the project partners with St Mary’s University and the Laudato Si’ Research Institute (LSRI) at Campion Hall. Part of the original proposal was to prepare a theological report on the relevance of integral ecology to diocesan sustainability, and to understand the theological basis for Catholic activity. The resulting paper from the LSRI, “Caring for our common home in the Church and beyond. Theological foundations for a comprehensive decarbonisation strategy in the Catholic diocese,” included a number of practical thoughts to act on. As the project nears completion, Edward de Quay (Carbon Transition Officer at the LSRI) reflects on how far the project has been able to incorporate these thoughts. 

Dioceses need to cultivate 'ecological virtues' and 'practical wisdom'

These are long-term processes, but there are things we can do to make it easier for them to develop. Time was spent with diocesan staff and subject experts to learn from a wide range of experiences and catalyse conversations. Staff workshops discussed what ‘Laudato Si’ meant for mission and strategy in the diocese, and the ‘Laudato Si’ Champions’ component of the project provided 10 schools in Salford diocese with learning and opportunities to develop practical responses. The guidance issued also aims to develop practical wisdom by breaking down vague or slippery concepts around decarbonisation, so that we can be confident progress is real. It should be recognised however that we are in a situation where we do not have all of the answers, and so sharing wisdom through pilot projects will be essential.  

Ethical procurement is part of this ‘practical wisdom,’ which often involves being willing to pay higher prices for goods produced fairly. The team work closely with Churchmarketplace, the central buying body of the church in England and Wales, who have a strong commitment to ethical procurement. Diocesan finances are limited, but experience has shown that the church is able to leverage the benefits of a large organisation to buy better goods together at reasonable cost, as is the case with their renewable energy contract. It is possible that other economies of scale might be leveraged whilst nudging the market in the right direction, but also recognising that there is still much more to do. In the future, a well insulated property portfolio that generates its own energy will be more comfortable and cheaper to run, but it mustn’t happen in a way that promotes low standards in global or local labour markets.

Diocesan strategy must look to the past and future, and be community centred

In gathering case studies and talking to subject experts, information was gathered on past success and challenges. For example, several churches took advantage of financial incentives to purchase biomass boilers, but have found them difficult to maintain and supply and had to replace them; a costly experiment that can be learned from. Financial incentives are, however, vital with restrictive budgets, so having a learned eye to the future in financial terms is imperative to being able to retrofit our buildings.  

Establishing a carbon footprint and monitoring it year on year will help a diocese see where it has come from and where it is headed in terms of emissions. It becomes possible to plot a trajectory to net zero from here, the target date of which is made at the local level dependent on local context. The methodology taken for Salford also emphasises the importance of building local networks and community, both within the curia and more generally in parishes, to increase ownership of the changes that need to be made.

Everyone has something to offer, so it is important to make spaces to listen and act together

Whilst the primary audience for these outputs is diocesan staff, efforts were made to involve all areas of diocesan life. The Diocesan Environmental Leads network were regularly consulted and influential, as were other diocesan staff networks. A variety of surveys were issued to schools and parishes to gather views of parishioners, and efforts were made to connect at an interfaith level, such as with Manchester’s interfaith climate working group in Salford. In the UK context, it is perhaps less obvious as how to identify those voices which are ‘indigenous’ to the UK, and more effort could be made here.

Education to move from a technocratic paradigm to integral ecology mindset

To a large extent this relies on existing work. For example, Bishops individually and collectively have highlighted the severity of the situation and the urgency of action, and masses for creation are increasingly common, especially with greater awareness of the Season of Creation. Other groups offer homily notes on creation, formation and prayer opportunities and gatherings. Various groups offer talks from experts and the laity to share experience and promote action throughout the year. These are opt-in opportunities and often the result of small groups, but readily available. Influencing behaviour at an individual level is the subject of upcoming work, and more thought on areas such as diet and transport choices is clearly important, as is looking to understand impact and potential in the natural world and our land so as to show care for all creation.

The built environment can also be used as a tool for education and influence, helping those passing and entering our buildings see the importance we put on sustainability by the sorts of interventions they can see, such as solar or vehicle charging points.  

Perhaps the most challenging is to promote a slower pace of life at the same time as promoting urgency of action. It is hoped that further research over the next few months on behavioural change will grant new insights into the actions that still need to be taken.

You can download guidance issued so far here.