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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The vine, the branches, and the Reporter's troubled editorial

I came home from a sobering conference on climate adaptation and read the National Catholic Reporter’s May 20th editorial “Climate change is church's No. 1 pro-life issue.”

While I am about to present a few concerns with the editorial, I want to applaud its intent and much of its content. Anthropogenic climate change is past debating. It’s an issue that will impact—and one could argue already is impacting—human life. As the editorial rightly observes, “[t]his is a human life issue of enormous proportions.” And I agree with its proposal that "[t]he Catholic church should become a major player in educating the public to the scientific data and in motivating people to act for change"—although I don't know why "church" is not capitalized.

And while there is much from the climate conference that I wish to share—and will over the next few weeks—for now my attention is turned toward my friends at the Reporter and their troubled call for us to move forward.

First, let’s consider the title.

Is climate change the “No. 1 pro-life issue”? The editorial’s author doesn't say this, but the header does. Now, anyone who has had their work in print knows that headlines are typically the work of someone other than the author—and that someone may not understand the author’s intent. And yet, there in large letters is the claim that climate change is more important than all other crimes against humanity—which I suppose includes legalized forms of murder, like abortion, which has as its aim the death of innocents. Issues like climate change arise for reasons other than murder.

Thus the assertion in this headline is as bold as it is wrong.

And anyway, why are we ranking life issues? One moral theologian I spoke with today said it was “silly” for such a choice to be offered. I would add that such reckless assertions only cloud what should be straightforward. For those of us who are responding to climate change in our professions, the last thing we need is more shadow.

From this problematic title we turn to a problematic statement: 
If there is a certain wisdom in the pro-life assertion that other rights become meaningless if the right to life is not upheld, then it is reasonable to assert that the right to life has little meaning if the earth is destroyed to the point where life becomes unsustainable.
In most Catholic circles that I am aware of, we take for granted that the right to life presupposes all other rights, since no right is of any value if one is dead. As for where the editorial takes us—the destruction of the earth’s ability to sustain life—well, I simply ask for a little more nuance and some sound, scientifically grounded realities. I certainly don’t want to see what happens should our planet be subjected to carbon dioxide levels much higher than they are today—although they probably will go much higher. The consequences to people and ecosystems will be terrible. But the world will adapt to such levels and human life will still be possible even if human civilizations, as we know them today, can’t. 

Practically speaking, a growing part of my job requires me to understand what will happen to water-pollution control infrastructure at varying projections of greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting consequences. And it seems that we are already seeing these consequences. Already there are conversations in my office and throughout the nation about communities retreating and the relocation of infrastructure. Those issues are difficult enough to tackle without hyperbole about cascading climate consequences that will make life—even human life—impossible to exist.

(I have to also note—since it is related to the above—that the editorial for some reason thinks this statement was wise to add: “While the church has taken it on the chin for centuries-old condemnations of scientific truths …” If this is a reference to Galileo, than the author(s) should have read a little more about this oft-used anti-Catholic trope.)

Finally, the editorial concludes with some sound suggestions and a glaring oversight. 
Catholic high schools and colleges have the freedom to explore these vital issues from both the scientific and ethical perspectives. They can bring theological perspectives to bear on the issues. Educators and students could devise ways to become active at all levels, from homes, to communities, to states, to advocating for legal measures to offset the effects of global warming.  
Finding a fix for climate change and its potentially disastrous consequences, particularly for the global poor, is not the work of a single discipline or a single group or a single political strategy. Its solution lies as much in people of faith as in scientific data, as much or more in a love for God's creation as it does in our instinct for self-preservation.
The solution will be found in none of these things, although many of them are necessary. To put it simply: The problem is sin. The solution is graceand our cooperation with it.

At the climate conference this week, it was clear to me that secular voices are growing frustrated—even afraid. The good efforts of many seem not to be helping, which is why one (very good) workshop on enlisting the aid of psychology was standing-room only. (More on that later.) I sense that the authors of the National Catholic Reporter editorial are similarly frustrated at where things stand. I am, too.

But as Catholic ecologists, we must be upfront that the Church brings to this global symptom of human sin something more than lectures and laws. She brings the transformative Gospel of Jesus Christ and the grace that allows this transformation to take root and flourish.

As Christ tells us in the Gospel from this Wednesday, “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

What this means for ecology has been stated many times by popes and bishops. Bishop Dominique Rey of Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France taught this truth with startling clarity in his ecological pastor letter. And so to close, here are two passages from the bishop that say what I think the National Catholic Reporter wanted to: 
We are faced with a moral crises: that is to say a crisis of human choice and human action. Hence, the root of the problem resides in man’s heart rather than in strictly economic or industrial concerns. 
In the Eucharist, we find the possibility of a renewed understanding of the created world. The Eucharist allows us to uncover the basis of an integral human ecology; here we find the antidote to radical individualism and collectivism. The Eucharist allows us to find Jesus’ face in every person, most especially the poorest. It also enables us to welcome in creation a gift from God and to thank him continuously for it.



Friday, May 16, 2014

Special interview: Bettering rural life with Christ. Part 2

Our conversation with Robert Gronski of Catholic Rural Life continues. Part 1 was posted on May 15th, the Feast of St. Isidore, the patron of farmers and laborers, and can be found here.

Catholic Ecology: You mentioned some of the big issues facing farmers today and referenced the economic crises that farmers have faced in the past. You also brought up some environmental concerns due to industrial agriculture. Is it accurate to say that agriculture is now facing an environmental crisis?

Robert Gronski: I would say we are headed to a crisis if we don’t seriously address the web of connections between the production of food, use of water and generation of energy. This is known by some as the Food-Water-Energy nexus and as you might guess ties into the discussion about climate change. (I don’t mean the controversy waged between proponents and denialists; I refer to those in academia, business and insurance, city governments, military, NGOs and others who are discussing how to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.)

It is not surprising to know that agriculture accounts for a major share of global freshwater use, roughly 70 percent. For Catholic Rural Life members, we take great interest in how water is used on farms and what can be done to prevent mismanagement and pollution of streams and waterways. Over the past couple of decades, we have also taken a great interest in the connection between water and generation of energy. Fresh water is heavily drawn for power generation, both for electricity and transportation needs. For an industrialized nation like the United States, that’s a great deal of water. For instance, large amounts of energy are required to pump water up from underground aquifers and to pipe water from one region to another.

When it comes to agriculture, fuel energy is needed to farm the land and transport food crops, some of which can be turned into biofuel. That creates a dilemma as we weigh food needs against energy needs. It is increasingly clear that freshwater resources cannot always meet the water demands of agriculture, energy generation, public drinking water and industry. We need to more efficiently manage water supplies: there is no substitute, except the dwindling possibility of finding or producing more fresh water.

I previously made the remark above that everything begins and ends with the land when it comes to our work on this earth. Here’s another sweeping statement: As water goes, so goes human life! If water sources are imperiled, then all the earth is imperiled. The warnings are there: human activities have long-term impacts on the land, water, climate and vast biological life that comprise the ecosystems of our planet.

But despite stern warnings from scientists, we as a society still aren’t ready to grapple with how our human activities altering the earth for the worse. Food production is only a part of it, but it is an essential one. We can lose many conveniences of modern life and still survive; the bounty of food is not one we can go without.

So we rightly ask: Can people of faith make a positive contribution to preventing further destruction of our soil and water sources and other threats to our earth? Church leaders and faith-based thinkers can help show us how to "green" our Catholic faith. 

Following the lead of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis promises to guide us in valuing the goodness of creation, to use creation with gratitude and restraint, and to live virtuously within and among God’s creation.

CE: Tell us more about how our Catholic faith informs us about sound agricultural practices. How active are bishops and local parish priests in the work of supporting our farms—especially family farms?

Gronski: Our Board President, Bishop Paul D. Etienne of the Diocese of Cheyenne, expresses the interconnections of faith, food and the environment this way: 

Our starting point is foundational. God created the world and all within it. God’s creation is fruitful and meant to sustain the family of God placed upon the earth. … Everything upon the earth was created to sustain life.  Every plant and animal has an inherent purpose: an internal, divine genius to live in harmony with the rest of creation for the sustenance of all life. This vast diversity of seed, plant and animal life is good, and it expresses God’s beauty. God’s creation says that God is for Life!

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have made it clear in their pastoral reflections  that providing food for all is a Gospel imperative, not just another policy choice. They make it clear that they have integral concerns in how food is produced and brought to our tables. These fall into the realm of moral and ethical issues that the Church in the U.S. has grappled with for decades: 
  • Why does hunger persist and how can we overcome it in the world?
  • How can we ensure a sustainable food supply for generations to come?
  • How can we ensure a dignified life and work environment for farm families and farmworkers? How can we help rural communities survive and thrive?
  • How do we sustain land, water, and other natural resources in the service of the common good?
  • How do we build resiliency into agricultural production that currently depends on cheap fossil fuels and abundant water supplies?
  • How do we prepare for impending climatic disruptions?

I touched on some of these concerns in my comments above, but the heart of these questions is how do we serve the least among us: the poor, the hungry, the disregarded and the disenfranchised. The moral justification of agriculture – the cultivation of the earth – is to feed and serve others. When that “cultivation” tears up or disrupts the soil, water and other natural goods of the earth, then other questions come into play. But the primary moral justification remains steadfast: we must feed one another.

After moral justification comes social justice: Does the structure of the agricultural industry benefit some over others?  Is there a moral obligation to “save the family farm”? Gary Comstock, a professor of philosophy and religious studies, has addressed just this question and broke it down in parts: “Do family farmers practice better stewardship of the land than other farmers? Are rural communities better places to live if they are surrounded by many medium sized farms rather than a few large farms? Are farm animals treated more humanely on family farms? Can smaller farms take advantage of economies of scale and produce food as efficiently as larger farms?” (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2000, entry on “Agricultural Ethics”)

Comstock also brings up environmental ethics, pointing out that humans – as the children of God – have duties to nature in terms of stewardship. We can read in Psalms that the earth belongs to the Lord; this fact should inform us that humans must not abuse soil, water, air, and animals. Can we change our human behavior by realigning our human attitudes towards the earth and creation? We can ponder that, but let us not neglect the role of governments and public policies to shape a fair and just agricultural system in accordance with an ecological spirit.

Government policies, especially at the federal level, must set the stage by improving ecological management and illuminating how water-food-energy systems and processes overlap. Otherwise, a policy relevant to a single resource might actually end up having a negative impact on the rest of the food, water and energy nexus.

Change can only happen if policy makers, business owners and consumers alike better understand the interconnections of resource use, environmental impacts, climate change, and human actions and attitudes. The choices we make at home and at the grocery store, the decisions made by business managers, and the policies set by elected officials will affect the land, our waters and all of creation. This in turn will come back to affect future generations, for better or worse.

CE: What’s in store for Catholic Rural Life this year?

Gronski: We are planning a symposium entitled “Vocation of the Agricultural Leader: Faith, Food and Environment” to be held in St. Paul, Minn., in early November. It will cover many of the issues I mentioned above. The idea is to bring together agricultural leaders, theologians, and environmentalists to address the challenges facing the farming community today. It is time to formally address the moral and ethical issues of agriculture, both in respect to providing food for all while understanding the impacts on the environment.

Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, is also working with Catholic partners in Rome to hold an international symposium along the same lines in 2015. The outcomes and consensus that emerge from these dialogues will be used to create a comprehensive set of resources to help agricultural leaders around the world navigate their vocation in the shifting landscape of the 21st century.

One of the academics slated to speak in November is Dr.Christopher Thompson,  a moral theologian who teaches at the University of St. Thomas. He also happens to be a Board member of Catholic Rural Life. He says that a farmer is called to be “a prudent steward of God’s creation—an incredible vocation,” but that the Church in America hasn’t done enough to help farmers address their responsibilities and tasks in a decidedly Catholic way.

Dr. Thompson, Jim Ennis and the rest of the board and staff at Catholic Rural Life believe this Faith, Food, and Environment symposium and project will go a long way toward highlighting the intersection of Catholic social thought and agriculture. There’s also hope that this is the start of a larger, more sustained focus on the “theology of food” and stewardship of creation, possibly including the establishment of a Pontifical Institutes devoted to agriculture and the environment.

That’s grist for another blog post later this year! To end for now, let me again ask St. Isidore to pray for us and help all farmers in their noble vocation on the land. Their trust in God and a spirit of devotion to the land are the virtues we seek in our world today.

Part 1 of the interview can be found here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Special interview: Bettering rural life with Christ. Part 1

On the Feast of St. Isidore, the patron of farmers and laborers, we begin a two-part interview with Catholic Rural Life, looking especially at the issues faced by farmers in rural America. Part 2 of the interview can be found here.

Introducing us to the organization is Robert Gronski, a part-time policy correspondent for Catholic Rural Life. His duties involve tracking federal legislation and policy perspectives on farm, food, environmental, and rural community issues, and helps frame these within the perspective of Catholic social teachings. He joined the staff of CRL in 1999 after completing doctoral studies in political economy of agriculture at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Department of Rural Sociology. He also brings an international perspective to Catholic Rural Life with his development work experiences overseas, mainly Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Previously based at the CRL office in Des Moines, Iowa, when he worked as the full-time policy coordinator, Robert now works part-time from his family home in St. Louis, MO. Contact him at

Robert Gronski

Catholic Ecology: Tell us about Catholic Rural Life. When did it form? What are its primary goals?

Robert Gronski: Catholic Rural Life, previously known as the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, was founded in November 1923 during a gathering of bishops, priests and laity meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. They shared common concerns about Catholic families in rural areas and thereby determined it was time to form an active organization. Most Rev. Edwin V. O'Hara, then director of the Rural Life Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (which later became the United States Catholic Conference and eventually the U.S. Conference ofCatholic Bishops), was the energetic guide behind this rural initiative. O’Hara saw that the rural church was underserved in terms of priests, churches, and Catholic schools. So in its early years, Catholic Rural Life was primarily interested in religious education for rural Catholics and the challenge of anchoring families to the land.

The Great Depression of the 1930s probably shaped the CRL organization more than anything else during those early years. The economic plight of farmers occupied a great deal of attention by federal government officials, not to mention state and local ones. President Roosevelt and others felt that prosperity for the nation would not return until farming was a decent livelihood again. Their solution was to create government support programs to increase the price of farm products. This was part of the much larger New Deal programs.

The hard times of the Great Depression, coupled with the environmental challenges of the Dust Bowl era, followed by the trying times of World War II, created a strange twist: Catholic Rural Life as an organization attracted more members than at any other time in its history. If you can imagine life before the internet and digital communications, Catholic Rural Life somehow maintained an active network of diocesan rural life directors. It seems we were better known at that time throughout the countryside than we are today!

I should mention that the most popular and well-known leader, Monsignor Luigi G. Ligutti, held the reigns for Catholic Rural Life during the 1940s and 50s. He was the first executive director by that title and established the main office in Des Moines, Iowa. Ligutti was a great spokesman for Catholic rural life, and many thought of him as the personal symbol of the Catholic agrarian movement. He expressed the importance of family farms and love of the soil as the foundations of a virtuous nation.

By the way, it was also at this period of time that St. Isidore the Farmer became the patron saint of Catholic Rural Life and, of course, to all farmers and farmworkers in the United States. Initially his feastday was celebrated on March 22, but this was subsequently changed to May 15. St. Isidore, pray for us!

Let me jump to the early 1980s: this was another rough stretch for farm families and known by many today as the farm crisis. Fluctuations in the farm economy, along with the economic and farm policies of the federal government, took their toll on the countryside. During the 1970s, farmers were strongly advised to expand acreage and production, which meant carrying heavy debt loads. But then farm prices fell dramatically as the global economy faltered and farm exports dried up.

During this period, Catholic Rural Life and dioceses in farm states groped for ways to respond pastorally to farmers who were either in danger of losing their farms or had already lost their farms. Social action and rural life directors started counseling programs and support groups. Efforts were made to become more active in changing or fixing agriculture policies that were now detrimental to farmers.

Much of our work today continues to focus on agricultural, food and environmental policies. We are part of several national coalitions and efforts; we also connected with international groups, but try to stay grounded by regular contacts with local groups. Like other membership organizations that depend on annual dues and grants, we are susceptible to economic downtowns, such as the one that hit the country in 2007-08. This curtailed are program work and reduced our active presence for a few years now.

However, Catholic Rural Life is currently regrouping. Our 90th anniversary last November served as impetus: we could persevere knowing we had made it through rough periods in the past. New staff members have come on board this year; funding and project grants have picked up again. Many still believe there is a need for a faith-based group like Catholic Rural Life to bring a voice of hope to the challenges facing farmers, rural communities, the environment and the world’s food system in a time of great changes.

CE: What are some of the most important issues related to farming today?

Gronski: This is a question that can be answered in many ways. Farmers will look at it one way, agribusiness processors another way, conservationists and sustainable food advocates yet another way, and even food consumer groups will have their perspective.

We could spend a great deal of time examining the farmer category by breaking down the different kinds of farmers or ranchers throughout the U.S., which region of the country they operate, and whether or not they are a working farmer on the land. (That might sound strange, but it has to do with landowners who rent farmland and absentee farm investors.) But let’s skip over these categories for the moment and highlight what appear to be major concerns as expressed in the farm press and by agribusiness observers.

The rising cost of industrial agriculture is certainly near the top of the list. The ever-greater demands on fossil fuel use, water irrigation and topsoil resources (namely synthetic fertilizers) are making it increasingly costly to produce sufficient food for a growing population who still want it cheap and abundant. Just imagine what will happen – politically, socially, globally – as agricultural resources become not only scarce, but are depleted in various parts of the country, not to mention the world. Many further question the very nature of industrial agriculture and whether its grievous impacts on the environment should be allowed to continue.

This leads to farmland management as a related and rising critical issue. We cannot continue to drain the nutritional value of the soil and expect to replenish it with cheap synthetic inputs. Sustainable agriculture proponents – and Catholic Rural Life is decidedly in this camp – are calling for a new agrarian mindset of soil and water stewardship. Sound practices must be renewed, such as crop rotation and use of cover crops, to help the soil replenish its organic material. Grazing and livestock management also requires greater attention and care; grasslands can be readily replenished under proper land and cattle management.

Let me say that everything begins and ends with the land. The opening chapters of Genesis seem to bear this out when it comes to our life on this earth! For us in the modern world today, we need to stay aware of preserving good farmland, particularly near cities and towns where the economic incentives of urban sprawl tend to outweigh ecological rationality. Even in the wide-open spaces of rural areas, we need to take care in continually plowing up marginal lands; that means preserving grasslands that should remain as natural habitats. Finally, we need to publicly support the stewardship of productive land on working farms, thus protecting the soils and sustaining our agricultural production for generations on end.

A third important issue generating a great deal of discussion is food waste. Some observers have estimated that on a global basis, we might be wasting as much as one-third of the food coming off the field. Some waste occurs in the agricultural production process itself; this is followed by food loss in post-harvest handling and storage; and there is also loss in processing and distribution. Then there is a sizeable percentage of food waste by the consumer – you and me! We put too much on our plates and then throw it out; we buy too much at one time and let it spoil; or we simply don’t like the look or taste of something – and toss it.

This is the world we live in: sufficient food for many, yet hunger for some, obesity for others, and an inordinate amount of food waste still to deal with. As a society, we are alarmed by the human health concerns of malnutrition, whether too little food or too much. We should become equally alarmed to the impacts on the environment. The industrial method of production, the intensive use of fossil fuels and the subsequent waste along the way are simply not sustainable for the world’s growing population.

Thus, Catholic Rural Life joins with those trying to change U.S. farm and food policies. Our recent efforts in the new Farm Bill (more descriptively, Food, Farm and Jobs Bill ) are evidence of that. But just as important is reconnecting the general public, far removed from life on the farm, to how their food is grown and processed. This is the beginning of a solution.

CE: What would you like the average consumer to know about the farms and the families who feed the rest of us?

Gronski: Catholic Rural Life has for many years now tried to create awareness among “eaters” (meaning the public) about what is happening in farming. Our campaign called “Eating is a Moral Act” was a striking way to engage consumers in relearning where their food came from and what important issues they should be aware of. By the power of their eating choices, which is to say consumer choices, they could create change in how food is produced and who gets to stay on the land and produce that food.

So the “ethics of eating” (as we also refer to it) was our way to reach out to an urban audience and to the many parishes who no longer have strong ties – or really any ties – to farms and rural areas. But they still have a great concern about food and the environment. Catholics, like many other faith traditions, have always been concerned about hunger and its primary cause, poverty. They are perplexed as to why farmers are able to produce so much food and yet many still go hungry. This gets to the other side of the question: what is really happening in the structure of our food system? Why is the market failing to feed everyone? Why is the market creating incentives to erode the ecological foundations of food production?

Farmers and ranchers will grow and produce what people want to buy and consume. You might say, “Well, of course! Why wouldn’t they?!” The modern structure of agriculture, however, sets a powerful “middleman” between farmer and consumer. I’m referring to giant agribusiness corporations that control the handling, processing and marketing of the food we eat. Farmers and ranchers are producing for those giant firms since that is how the structure of the agricultural system in our country works. Because these are first and foremost business corporations, they “source” (look for, contract with, buy from) the “most efficient” crop or livestock production – which is to say the lowest cost at the acceptable quality – and then processing and packaging the final food products in a way to capture the most profit.

This system works fairly admirably when they are plenty of competitors vying for the product coming off the farm and the product going into supermarkets and other food outlets. But when those middlemen become few and big and powerful, then we become rightfully concerned. They set industry standards, they heavily influence federal policies, they lose any transparency they might have had and we can only guess at what we are consuming. (A good source to learn more about agribusiness concentration and what to do about it: Organization for CompetitiveMarkets.) 

But coming back around to farmers and their families, we already know that their numbers continue to dwindle. Technology makes that possible, but I think it is wrong to believe it makes it inevitable. “It’s just the way it is,” I often hear in reaction to the industrialization of agriculture and the big getting ever bigger. I say it is the way the powerful have shaped it.

At Catholic Rural Life, we believe that most farmers and ranchers feel a vocation towards growing the best food they can for the health and daily nutrition needs of all people. Our network of members and partners favor the family farmer and fret over the continued loss of the family farm. Actually, I believe we will always have family farms: some will just be very large operations and many will be much smaller “niche” farms. The problem is not really the size or scale of the farm; it’s whether or not we will have a sufficient number of farm families who make rural life thrive. It’s not just about growing food: it’s raising a family, sending kids off to school, filling shops and churches, and building community. The values it took to make that all work are the values a country needs to remain secure and sustainable.

Family farms accomplished this in the past, so we should not let them slip away because it’s more “efficient” to produce food on a giant industrial corporate scale. (Fortunately we’re not there yet, but the tendency to head in that direction clearly is.) There is a common belief that family farmers are good stewards of the land; this was the case when one generation planned to pass along the family farm to the next. They knew their land and they took care of it. As today’s farmers retire, however, their children may no longer see a future in farming; it is a capital-intensive business and the margins are thin. It is not uncommon for the land to go into the hands of much larger farm operations or farm investors. Maybe they will be good stewards; but first and foremost they will be businessmen.

Part two of the interview is here

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Lessons from moms and (unhealthy) bees

During my little walk earlier to fetch my newspaper—among a Mother's Day chorus of birds and bees going about their homemaking chores in a landscape of leaf, grass, and flowerI got to thinking about a new report on a type of insecticide that is killing bees. Of course, the death of bees will have some small or large impact on food supplies (which need bees for pollination). And so this issue about bees is one that we should be aware of. (For the record, the work of "mother bees" is important enough that it is noted specifically in the Church's Easter Exsultet hymn.)

The study, “Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoidsimpaired honey bees winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder,” is yet another alarm sounding over the often unknown effects of manmade chemicals. The paper notes in its final discussion that the “results from this study not only replicate findings from the previous study … but also reinforce the conclusion  that sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids is likely the main culprit for the occurrence of (colony collapse disorder).”

Neonicotinoids are man-made. They mimic the insecticidal characteristics of nicotine—which occurs naturally. But as science is showing us, the use of the artificial variety in the food supply chain is causing problems that could eventually bring great harm to the systems that feed millions. Perhaps we will soon find a version of neonicotinoids that will not come with bee-hive-collapsing impacts, but at the present this is the matter before us.

Mother’s Day is a day devoted to the natural order of things—to moms, who make choices to bring new life into the world, and then spend a lifetime sacrificing for their sons and daughters so that they may someday do likewise.

What this story about neonicotinoids tells us is that mimicking nature is not wise when we don’t think enough about the impacts of our choices. "See where it leads," St. Augustine would say. It turns out that this is not just true for theology, but for sciences and technology, too.

There will be time a little later to wrestle with weighty issues. For today, let us pause on this Fourth Sunday of Easter—on this Mother’s Day—and remember those that gave birth to us and all those who in any way were like a mom to us.

And may Mary, the mother of us all, hear in our prayers our love for her, as she also prays for us—for our planet, too. Mary, protector of life, pray for us! 
O Mother most merciful, Mother of compassion,Ark of Salvation, Gate of Heaven,Refuge of sinners and those in despair,To Thee we fly, unto Thy leaven. O Mother most sweet, most radiant, O Mother of mothers!Mother most pure, Mother most dear,Thee do we entreat sending up our sighs,As Thou bendest to blot every tear.
 Prayer excerpt from 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Making all things new: wrapping up a pontifical success

Well, it’s a wrap. Or is it?

Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility,” the Vatican super-conference of some sixty of the greatest minds in academia, was apparently so well-received that we might have witnessed not the end of the conversation between the natural and social sciences, but “the beginning of something, a new sort of communication across the disciplines.”

Those were the words of conference organizer and atmospheric scientist Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan. He was speaking during one of the many spontaneous times of reflection during the five-day event, when it seemed unanimous that the work of this pontifical gathering must continue.

But for now, the event's organizers need to rest. And we need to ponder all that happened and all that was shared.

What follows is a summary of summaries of conference news and commentary. There is certainly more—or at least there should be—and so if you know of any other event coverage or commentary, please share it in the comments below.

First, there is conference material from the event’s organizers, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The event website is here; the event program is here; and video of the proceedings can be found here for Saturday, here for Monday, and here for Tuesday. (Friday’s archive seems absent, but when a source is found I’ll revise this page and add it.) Presentation documents can be found here.

As for coverage, Andy Revkin of The New York Times was present during the conference and also participated in it with questions and with a final conference reflection, which can be found at about the 10:39:30 mark of this YouTube archive.

Dan Misleh, at the Catholic Climate Covenant, who was also an observer, has been blogging about the conference here.

Brian Roewe at the National Catholic Reporter has written about the event and I would image there is more to come.

Commonweal’s Dominic Preziosi has this posting, and John Allen at the Boston Globe provides coverage towards the end of this posting about all things Vatican.

And besides my blog entries (this first one, this one, and this one), Catholic World Report was kind enough to publish my analysis.

Again, if you know of any other coverage, please share it below.

Photo credit: Pontifical Academy of Science. Used with permission. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Vatican conference breaks for Sunday: “Were our hearts not burning within us?”

They urged him, “Stay with us,
for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
So he went in to stay with them.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24: 29-32

A productive Vatican conference on global sustainability has paused for the third Sunday of Easter—a day that offers Luke’s great Emmaus resurrection account and the finding of Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

This passage, read today at all Masses across the world, has much to say about trust, doubt, hope, life, and the often unexpected place of Christ in our lives. As it turns out, it is particularly meaningful for the Vatican’s international gathering that is exploring life, relationships, and shared choices. 

"Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility" (known in the Twitterverse as ) has wrapped up two successful days of deliberations. The event is slated to end Tuesday evening with a talk by Enrico Berti titled “Social Ethics: Humanity’s Responsibility Toward Nature,” followed by observations from Andy Revkin of the New York Times, one of the few reporters covering the event. His Excellency Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, will then wrap things up.

Summarizing this conference will be a tall order. Even at the halfway mark, there is much to consider about science, policy, hopes, and at least one “sad truth.”

I was particularly interested with Saturday’s discussions on climate change. After a talk by Anil Kulkarni on the use of glaciers as water supplies, attendees deliberated on how best to communicate the realities of anthropogenic climate change to those who are suspicious of what science is telling us.

This led to a heartfelt, pastoral question by Bishop Sorondo—a question that many of have asked: How do we convince others about the reality of climate change?

Answering in context of the day’s discussions was the panel leader Hans Joachim Schellnuber, the founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change. He noted that research on “black carbon” is concrete enough to persuade people about localized climate change realities. But as for global warming? “We need the overall body of evidence … the full picture that is convincing in the end.”

He then went on to say something important.

“Some people will only be convinced if they’re completely overwhelmed by the evidence, which may be too late, actually, for their own sake. That is the sad truth.”

Of course, Bishop Sorondo’s question and Dr. Schellnuber’s answer are the same ones asked and offered by many involved in the front lines of ecological protection. My colleagues and I certainly wrestle with these issues. With my work at the Department of Environmental Management increasingly focused on how natural hazard from climate change will increasingly impact the Ocean State, I have become aware that while many people and communities in Rhode Island understand the dangers they face, others don’t, and some scoff at the very notion of climate change.

To help authentically communicate the realities of climate change—and to do so before it is too late—my office is adding public and media outreach to an upcoming series of vulnerability assessments of wastewater infrastructure. The hope is that we can use this opportunity to present what science is showing us by working with the media and others on outreach throughout a narrow study of vital and low-lying infrastructure.

The goal will not be to speak down to others, but to speak with them.

This same point was made yesterday when the story of Emmaus entered into the homily at my God Daughter’s First Communion. Listening to the pastor—who is also a friend of mine—it occurred to me that this gospel has something to say about communicating climate change. Speaking mostly to the adults, the pastor stressed that on the road to Emmaus Christ entered into relationship and listened to the disciples before He tried to teach them anything. 

“Teachers sometimes think that they can just teach without first getting to know the student,” the pastor said. “But no one is going to listen to you if you don’t listen to them first.”

Like Pope Francis, this pastor is known for his humble demeanor, his “journeying with,” and his desire to listen to the stories of others before he lays out in no uncertain terms the truths of the gospels. And so bringing Christ to others and others to Christ in the Eucharist was at the center of his homily—because true communication comes when people are first in an authentic communion.

In the ecological and social realms, the goal of our encounters with the public and our environmental educational efforts must similarly be this communion. Providentially, this is precisely the work taking place by all those attending the Vatican's sustainability conference. 

The two disciples journeying to Emmaus were busy discussing the problems of the day when they unknowingly met the Risen Lord and later recognize Him in the Eucharist. Their experience was similar to St. Paul’s on his road to Damascus. In encountering and dialoguing with the risen One in their journeys, their hearts and minds opened and their lives were changed forever.

This, then, is a model for all of us engaged in ecological protection. As noted by Cardinal Maradiaga at the conference opening, authentic education must be focused on the whole person if it is going to transform lives, lifestyles, and thus protect the planet.

And so on this Sunday—as we pause and consider our own journeys, stories, troubles, and hopes—let us continue our prayers for this important gathering hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Science and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

With faith in the transformative grace of Godwho is not at all satisfied with letting others journey alone when night falls around themmay the truths spoken at this conference be passed throughout the Church and through the work of others. May these truths thus be made available to all who journey in the twilight of an age facing difficult choices. And may minds be opened and hearts set on fire so that worry over sad truths may be quickly replaced with confidence in happy ones. 


Friday, May 2, 2014

Vatican conference opener stresses “values education”

Image of Cardinal Maradiaga: Flicker/ Christoph Müller-Girod

Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB, of Honduras today opened the Vatican’s sustainability conference, "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility," by echoing every social encyclical issued by a pope in over a century.

He said that to tackle today’s ecological and economic crises we must bring about
an education on environmental values that encourages a culture of vitality, healthiness, respect and responsibility, and that builds individuals endowed with a discerning and participative conscience. As long as it is not addressed in this manner, environmental education will do no more than supply knowledge on the natural world, overlooking one of its principal roles: encouraging a change in perception that may be conducive to the emergence of new values.
In other words, our modern woes are reminding us of the dangers when we disconnect our sciences and technologies from a genuine love of neighbor. The question becomes, then, how does a culture encourage in its members something as transcendent as love?

The failure to embrace brotherly love—which quite often coincides with a rejection of God and His grace—has been a perennial concern of the Church. Leo XIII is especially known for his expression in the nineteenth century of these concerns. Since then, every pope and a host of bishops, priests, religious, and lay people have in one way or another underscored the same exhortation to love, respect, and tend to one’s neighbor.

If only the world would listen.

Well, some in the world are doing just that—most especially this morning in Rome when a roomful of noted scientists gathered from around the globe to consider the ecological and economic problems of our age. That their conversations would be opened with—and thus illuminated by—the words of Cardinal Maradiaga (who heads up the Vatican's charitable arm Caritas) is something we should not overlook.

Nor should we ignore that Leo XIII himself can place into perspective this twenty-first century sustainability conference and the cardinal’s opening talk:
For the Church does her utmost to teach and to train men … The instruments which she employs are given to her by Jesus Christ Himself for the very purpose of reaching the hearts of men, and drive their efficiency from God. They alone can reach the innermost heart and conscience, and bring men to act from a motive of duty, to control their passions and appetites, to love God and their fellow men with a love that is outstanding and of the highest degree and to break down courageously every barrier which blocks the way to virtue. (Rerum Novarum, 26)
These words, written in 1891, underscore a pithy statement made this morning by Cardinal Maradiaga: “Nowadays man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”

And so the question: what is the solution to this imbalance between our technical and ethical abilities? Cardinal Maradiaga’s answer takes the form of an education that brings us into contact with a certain kind of truths. The problem is, these truths may lead us to where we may not wish to go—to a life of routine temperance and sacrifice. Or, in Christian parlance, to the Cross.

This gets us to a central point of the cardinal’s opening talk to the gathered scientists. To fully engage our ecological crises we must encounter a kind of value system that ultimately transcends the scientific method and economic theories.
In my view, our primary environmental strategy should be environmental education: this is a pressing and ongoing requirement, because through an education on the environment, individuals, societies and states will become aware of the transcendent meaningfulness of the world around us. Education will thus enable us to constructively absorb the skills, the experience, the values and the determination that will prompt us to work to solve both present and future problems in this realm and address them as challenges pertaining to our responsibility for the sustainability of both the environment and mankind. (Emphasis added)
You can find the full text of Cardinal Maradiaga’s opening here. The conference program is here and the vast majority of the conference’s talks and presentations can be found here. And if you haven’t already visited his blog, Dan Misleh of the Catholic Climate Covenant is posting updates from Rome. So is Andrew Revkin of The New York Times. And Brian Roewe at the National Catholic Reporter has also posted on the conference.

So there’s lots of ringside coverage for sure. For my part—when not attending to family needs here at home this weekend—I’ll keep posting from the perspective of a former atheist and environmental regulator who has been writing on the Catholic perspective of ecology for now over ten years. 

As such, you might imagine that I am delighted at what the PontificalAcademy of Science and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences are doing—how they are continuing the thoughts and mission of Leo XIII and his successors so that we today may reverse the often unbridled destruction of so much of God’s life-giving creation.

More tomorrow. For now, may Almighty God bring rich blessings to the conference presenters and to all those listening in and reporting out. May this gathering be very fertile and may its benefits multiply in abundance.

Feeding the multitudes: Vatican conference focuses on science

Jesus said, "Have the people recline." Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, "Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted."  John 6:10-12

Given Pope Francis’s repeated criticism of a widespread “culture of waste”—a term he often uses to connect critiques of ecological and social ills—today’s Gospel sets the stage perfectly for a big event kicking off at the Vatican: the long-awaited conference on the intersection of human desires and nature’s limits.

The conference, Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility, is the joint work of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Science. What makes this event so special is not that the Holy See’s intellectual engines are examining the subject of sustainability. This is not news. The Church has a strong track record in the eco-sustainability department.

What makes the gathering special is the cooperation it is fostering between two academic fields (the natural sciences and social sciences) that speak to each other less than they should. The hope is that in bringing together leaders in these respective fields, the subsequent dialogue will encourage new and bold insights about how we all might live in sustainable, healthy, and environmentally friendly ways.

According to the event’s advance publicity, the pontifical academies seek to offer this inter-disciplinary dialogue in large part because of the ineffectiveness of recent attempts at finding solutions to growing ecological crises. Conference organizers note in particular the United Nation’s Rio+20 Summit on biodiversity preservation.

The Rio+20 conference failed in many respects because it fostered “no collective endeavour among natural and social scientists,” the Vatican announcement notes. “That is why we are proposing a joint PAS-PASS workshop on Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature.”

The Vatican’s goal in doing so, then, is simple: 
Our idea is not to catalogue environmental problems. We propose instead to view Humanity's interchanges with Nature through a triplet of fundamental, but inter-related Human needs – Food, Health, and Energy – and ask our respective Academies to work together to invite experts from the natural and the social sciences to speak of the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on Nature's ability to meet them.
In other words, the pontifical academies are offering the world's academicians a platform to gather, share, and listen to each other—and thus to better understand how their individual efforts can, when brought together, create a symphony of the sciences that can shore up human dignity and the common good (two aims mentioned by Pope Francis is a recent Tweet).

This focus on the sciences explains why some observers have expressed concern that there seems to be little place for faith within the conference agenda. (A word search of the event program for “faith” shows no results. The same goes for "grace" and there is only one notation of "Christ," in the biography of a participant.)

But fear not. This focus on human reason makes perfect sense. Conference participants will be from a variety of faiths or have no faith at all. The event should thus not be about how scientific questions intersect with the Christian Creed or sacramental grace—although given the location, that will be hard to ignore.

Those who know me may be surprised at my acceptance that this focus on science is the proper path to take for this gathering. While I continually stress grace and holiness as the preeminent solutions to our ecological woes, one should not invite guests to dine and discourse and then demand that they speak of a particular topic, especially when that topic is the host's confession of faith. This is a gathering for some of the world’s top scientists, so we should let science be science (and scientists be scientists) while trusting that the Spirit will move the conversations where they ought to go—whether they be external dialogues or the more important internal ones.

As conference organizer Veerabhadran Ramanathan noted in an interview with me in February, “[at a 2011 Vatican conference on climate change] I realized our political leaders need help from religious leaders to exercise moral authority to ask people to protect the air and the water. […] The world urgently needs religious leaders with moral authority like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.”

And so let us pray fervently as this most important and special gathering begins today. May the conference organizers, participants, and guests be inspired to share and listen, so that what unfolds over the next four days may be blessed, distributed, and shared widely to feed a great multitude across the globe.

Stay tuned for much more as news comes in from Rome.