Catholics around the world decided on Ash Wednesday what they would be giving up for the next 40 days, commemorating the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert and denying temptation from the devil. While many in the United States choose to give up such indulgences as chocolate and social media, one group of Catholics — being organized, in part, by the Global Catholic Climate Movement — will be fasting for climate action.
Rather than fasting continuously, participants will engage in a series of rolling one-day fasts in 45 countries around the world. The first took place on Thursday in Peru, whose capital city of Lima was the site of the most recent United Nations Conference of Parties, or COP, to discuss governmental action on climate change. Participating Catholics in the United States will fast on March 16. In accordance with tradition, all participants worldwide were encouraged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some observers will also “carbon fast” continuously by restraining from air travel and other high emission activities.
Notably, the group is calling for “ambitious climate action to solve this urgent crisis and keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius (relative to pre-industrial levels)” — half a degree below the oft-cited 2 degrees cap needed to avert the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change. The Lenten fast also coincides with the 365-day fasting chain that began on Dec. 1. That action grew out COP 19 in Poland, where Filipino delegate Yeb Saño — whose country was devastated just days before the talks by super-Typhoon Haiyan — began fasting on the first day of negotiations.
The Lenten Fast for Climate Justice, as it’s known, comes after Pope Francis’ public embrace of liberation theology and harsh criticism of man-made climate change. This summer, he called “exploiting the Earth” a sin, and has implored Catholics and world leaders numerous times to “safeguard creation” by protecting the planet. In October, he connected climate change to unhinged economic growth, saying, “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.”
Well prior to Pope Francis’ tenure in the Vatican, however, Catholics have enjoyed a long tradition of supporting progressive causes. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933, which — since that time — has galvanized faith communities against such things as war and income inequality in an attempt to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps most notably, Catholic clergy were some of the most outspoken critics of the U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes that violently came to power across Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century.
A number of faith communities have also been active in the recent fossil fuel divestment movement, with the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and the World Council of Churches, having all pledged to take their holdings out of fossil fuels.
Given its 1.2 billion members worldwide, the Catholic Church could prove a force to be reckoned with. This fact appears not to be lost on either the fasters or Pope Francis, and nor should it be on anyone looking to build a popular movement to confront climate change.