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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The songs of spring ... in January

For me, spring comes sometime in the middle of February. By then, the days are longer, the spring constellations rise in the early evening, and the sound of migrating song birds greet me in the morning.

But lately, I’ve heard such spring songs as I leave the house to begin my day. And it's only January.

This got me wondering. Why am I hearing these song birds so early? Am I just imagining all this? And so I went to a source that knows a thing or two about birds, The National Audubon Society. And I came across this report: Birds and Climate Change; Ecological Disruption in Motion.

Within it was a good amount of sobering information. Including this: 

Analysis of four decades of Christmas Bird Count observations reveal that birds seen in North America during the first weeks of winter have moved dramatically northward—toward colder latitudes—over the past four decades. Significant northward movement occurred among 58% of the observed species—177 of 305. More than 60 moved in excess of 100 miles north, while the average distance moved by all studied species—including those that did not reflect the trend—was 35 miles northward.

There was also movement inland, from warmer coastal states into areas not long accustomed to winter temperatures suitable for their new arrivals.

The analysis found these trends among nearly every type of species; their sheer numbers and variety pointing to a powerful common force contributing to the movements.
Now keep in mind, I am an eager fan of the coming of spring—especially tonight, when they’re reporting more snow coming my way. But when nature begins to alter how it goes about its business, I take pause. And, if such alternations are truly a sign of a changing planetary climate, then I doubt that such changes are the kind about which future generations will sing in praise.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

For the good of all, don’t use the “c” word

Reuters reported that President Obama didn’t refer to climate change in his State of the Union Address. No mention of it. At all. As this recent Pew study shows, people rank climate change at the bottom of their list of priorities.

But candidate Obama and, until recently, President Obama had made climate change adaptation and mitigation part of his priorities—for which I was glad. It’s nice to know I agree with at least one policy of my president.

And so let’s be clear: reducing greenhouse gases is, gladly, still part of the mission of this White House. Wisely, President Obama is playing up the economic benefits of clean energy and other innovations while playing down anything to do with the “c” word. Good for him. Our economy needs a boost. We need jobs. And people must be reminded that here in America we strive for excellence. If stoking the fires of innovation means not mentioning the science of man-made changes in climate dynamics, then don’t mention it.

And, as it turns out, government officials are being primed not to.

I was a participant in a recent EPA webinar on climate change in which a communications specialist presented the how-to’s and how-not-to’s of climate change chit chat. One of the messages we were told was this: appeal to people’s self interest. Tell them they’ll save money. Tell them they’ll look good to their boss. Tell them anything but don’t use the words “climate” or “change” in succession.

Shocking? Not at all. What this consultant proposed was nothing new, especially for Catholic ecologists. The concept of Original Sin is one we know well. Our fallen race has a strong tendency for self-centeredness—for grasping at objects or endeavors that might feel good at the moment, or may bring us safety, or belonging, or love. As the saying goes, welcome to the human race.

And so going forward, you’ll probably be hearing a lot less about climate change. Instead, you’ll be hearing about competing for excellence in the global market place. You’ll be hearing about new ways of living and new products that will bring savings to your monthly energy bills. But what you won’t be told—because people think you may not care—is that what they're asking of you is really just what's right for the common good.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Migrating coral?

From ScienceNews comes word of coral species off the coast of Japan that have been doing something odd. They’re moving.

Here’s a snippet of the story: 

A new study of reefs around Japan reveals that a handful of coral species have migrated from the balmy subtropics to temperate climate zones over the last 80 years. The study is the first to track coral reefs for such a long time and over several latitude lines, a Japanese team reports in an upcoming Geophysical Research Letters.

The team, led by geographer Hiroya Yamano of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Japan, analyzed maps of corals from four time periods starting in the 1930s. They found that of nine common coral species, four had expanded northward, and two went as far as temperate waters.

Now it appears that some coral species will migrate—and fast—in response to warming waters. Some species Yamano examined migrated as fast as 8.7 miles per year. Yamano calculated that a sample of land-traveling animals migrate only 0.4 miles per year on average. In 80 years, the fastest corals would travel nearly 700 miles. It would be like land plants making the Atlanta-to-Detroit trek between the Great Depression and today.
A climate-change smoking gun? Probably not in and of itself. But it adds to the story of a planet and its life adapting to changing conditions.

In full, it's quite the story—and it's not told by a few crackpot researchers looking to make a name or a buck. You'll find some very hard science about climate change from sources like NASA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Evidence about a changing climate is mounting, ladies and gentlemen. Given that all this means real impacts on God’s created order and the human condition, you can be certain that these pages will be covering the debates and the facts about climate change until the climate of doubt begins to improve.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The invitations of the heavens

I drove my mom this afternoon to visit a very sick relative, and waited in the car to give everyone their privacy. After a few minutes, I looked through my Forester’s sun roof and watched a silent unfolding of grace.

Above me was an arctic high-pressure air system; it offered a fantastic, wintery view to infinity, laced with roiling strands of clouds, similar to the video above.

It was mesmerizing.

For about twenty minutes I watched as the laws of physics—the interaction of sunlight, gusty air and ice crystals—soothed me. It was a slow, sometimes chaotic evolution and dissolution of clouds that came and went and made amazing or funny or stunning shapes. There was order there, for sure.

Watching clouds is lot like faith. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to appreciate the sky, and you don’t have to be a theologian to love God.

In fact, those two studies of the heavens have some relation. There has always been a discussion in Christian theology about what that natural world can teach us, what it can tell us about the Creator, without access to Revelation—that is, without Scripture or the Church’s Tradition.

St. Bonaventure provided ways to bring meaning to experiences of awe, like when our senses take in nature’s stirrings—the dramatic ones or the quite ones—and our minds respond as if to an invitation. His most famous work on this topic is his Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum, or The Journey of the Mind to God. In it, he says this:

By praying thus, one is enlightened about the knowledge of the stages in the ascension to God. For since, relative to our life on earth, the world is itself a ladder for ascending to God, we find here certain traces [of His hand], certain images, some corporeal, some spiritual, some temporal, some aeviternal; consequently some outside us, some inside. That we may arrive at an understanding of the First Principle, which is most spiritual and eternal and above us, we ought to proceed through the traces which are corporeal and temporal and outside us, and this is to be led into the way of God. We ought next to enter into our minds, which are the eternal image of God, spiritual and internal; and this is to walk in the truth of God. We ought finally to pass over into that which is eternal, most spiritual, and above us, looking to the First Principle; and this is to rejoice in the knowledge of God and in the reverence of His majesty.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Roe vs. Wade vs. Reason

Ecologists champion life. If so, why do some ecological advocates support abortion, which is, by any account, the ending of something living? Hence the dilemma in which so many environmentalists find themselves: Life vs. choice.

But as it turns out, this choice is not new.

 The ancient text known as the Didache admits this in its opening words: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death.” The Didache also recounts a Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments, which includes this: "thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born." Keep in mind, this text was written in approximately 50AD.

The Didache, circa 50AD
For Catholic Ecologists, the link between ecological advocacy and abortion is obvious. And denying this link results in angst for many so-called “pro-choice” environmentalists. Well, perhaps angst is not the best word. Maybe we're speaking of madness.

All this crossed my mind the other day when watching the movie 2010: Odyssey Two. The 1984 film was a poorly executed follow up of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1969 motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. Putting all the sci-fi nuances aside, both 2010 the novel and the motion picture explain why HAL-9000—a sentient computer that had been programmed to support human life and help fulfill life’s mission—in the end murdered the humans it had been programmed to protect. The reason? The machine’s programming had also been instructed to lie. The resulting conflict between life and lie consumed the logic centers of this computer, and so HAL went mad, and found no other choice but to kill.

The modern culture of abortion as a free choice, one supported by the state, leads to similar lies and a kind of madness that future generations will find horrifying.

And so as we reflect on the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade—and as we pray fervently for the souls of the justices that allowed this law to come to pass, as well as the American Catholics that stood by silently, and especially for the 50 million babies murdered in America since this decision—let us remember that in this age of reason and ecological hyper-awareness, we can dialogue with the secular world by connecting the desire to save all human life with the desire to protect all other life.

As I’ve written about before, ecology is a life issue. And if authentic ecologists seek to maintain their sanity, they must understand this simple truth: more and more, science is showing us that human life begins at conception. We are all called to protect this most fragile form of life. In doing otherwise, we will become like HAL. We will become the polar opposite of what it means to be authentically human.

Here, we must give the last word to the Holy Father, who spoke the following words the day before America mourned Roe v. Wade. In discussing a different but related topic, Benedict XVI said that

Our world, with all its new hopes and possibilities, is at the same time affected by the impression that moral consensus is breaking down and that, as a consequence, the basic structures of coexistence are no longer able to function fully. Thus, many people are tempted to think that the forces mobilized to defend civil society are, in the end, destined to fail. Faced with this temptation we—Christians in particular—have the responsibility to rediscover a new resolve in professing our faith and doing good.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I'll drink to that

From my own backyard comes a story of a package store—a small shop that sells beer, wine and other liquors—that’s green not just on St. Patty’s Day, but year round. The moral of the story? Small-business owners can make big decisions for the good of more than the bottom line.

Much of the [store's] large parking lot is built with blocks that allow rainwater to drain into the ground. A large advanced septic system was installed, lessening the chance that pollutants will make their way underground to the nearby Ninigret Pond.

The building’s siding looks like wood shingles, but actually it’s recycled PVC.

Hot water from the geothermal heat pump is pumped through radiant heat tubes in the floor. They will be covered by wide, white pine planks. The walls and roof are made from insulated panels that are 8 to 10 inches thick.

Much of the lighting is provided by light-emitting diodes that are controlled by touch pads.

Maldon said it has been estimated that it will take five years for energy savings to pay off the cost of the geothermal equipment. After that, it will cost very little for heating and cooling.

“Also, it was just the right thing to do,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense.”
The right thing to do. That’s a phrase that can never be spoken too often. God bless Mr. Maldon for going above and beyond—or, in this case, below and beyond.

The promise of geothermal energy is often given scant attention in the green-energy world. That’s probably because other renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, carry significant visual firepower. Not so with geothermal, the innards of which are underground and inside buildings.

Come to think of it, what was it that Someone once said about not being so visible when doing good? Looks like geothermal may have that virtue going for it—among many others.

And if you’d like a cold beer while you read it all, I know just the place to get one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It has to go somewhere

Six days after a Nor’easter dumped one to two feet of snow on Southern New England, it rained. Hard. Roads flooded with a slushy concoction and utility crews scrambled to find and dig out thousands of storm drains buried under snow.

Each time they did the lives of pedestrians and commuters improved.

But all the grungy, salt-saturated, oily, gritty water that drained into those catch basins had to go somewhere. Most of it flowed into streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, bays and the ocean rather quickly—carrying with it a good amount of gunk and garbage.

And so we come to the big news these days in the world of water pollution control: stormwater management. It’s so important that it now has its own word; in fact, I had to add “stormwater” to my word processor’s dictionary just now.

To better understand its importance, here’s a little of the back story: For over a century, residential and industrial sewage was the big killer of our waterways. But after the Clean Water Act in 1972, billions of your tax dollars went to construct wastewater treatment facilities. In decades, the scourge of sewage waned. Now we have to deal with a more elusive pollution source: Stormwater. Because whenever it rains, collected stormwater pours out of thousands upon thousands of pipes and into a waterway near you. Or, water flows in a free-falling way directly into the nearest body of water.

The problem is so significant that the US Environmental Protection Agency has a whole program devoted to it. States and local communities are working on the issue, too. Or they should be. And for good reason. Controlling stormwater has economic benefits.

The bottom line: If you’re a municipal official, you should read up on what the feds and your state are or will be requiring. And everyone else—you and I—should keep our cars in good shape (to keep our engine oil in our engines and off the ground), not over fertilize our yards (fertilizer is not a good additive for aquatic life) and never, ever litter. Of course there’s much more we can be doing, but we’ll keep to the basics for now.

After all, if we're serious about that little line in the Book of Genesis about having dominion over creation, then we won't be using nature as our own open sewer.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Some good news for Haiti

Among all the horror and loss in Haiti this past year, scientists have made a small discovery that brings good news: the island's remaining natural ecosystem is showing signs of strength. As detailed in the above video, species long unaccounted for have been found, thanks to a recent and intense survey seeking clues about the country’s eco-health. Thank you Conservation International for the good work.

But if such a survey sounds odd, given the devastation and suffering occurring in the human population, remember that ecosystems provide food, clean water and help minimize disease. The more biodiversity, the better.

From a story reported in, Dr. Robin Moore notes the importance of finding so many more amphibians than they’d expected.
"Amphibians are what we call a species barometer of the health of our planet". The good health of forests is crucial to Haitian people, and the presence of these frogs is a positive indicator and an encouraging sign, since in Haiti, only 2% of original forest survives "We're at a point where we really must try of protect these forest fragments, to have something to build."
While the ecology of Haiti is doing its part to help human health, you can always do yours by donating to the Catholic Relief Services Haiti mission. For more information about this amazing find and what it means, or to help CI do its work, visit the Conservation International website. Oh, and as always, say a prayer or two.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

When unborn babies matter

"Pregnant women in the U.S. are exposed to multiple chemicals. Further efforts are warranted to understand sources of exposure and implications for policy-making."

This concludes a report in Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Reviewing the news stories is telling: TIME ponders the effects of these toxins on the baby. Same for the Washington Post's blog. But the LA Times wonders “about the potential ramifications on those fetuses.” Likewise, the San Francisco Chronicle notes “the potential for exposure to multiple chemicals to hurt their unborn fetuses.”

The effects of toxins on human beings is a serious topic, which forces reporters, commentators and everyone else to stop and think about what’s growing up inside a pregnant woman: is it a human being, or an abstraction? It seems the answer depends on the threat to the child's health or very life.

Such sad hypocrisy can only result in cultural madness.

As I’ve written about before, in this case about mercury, those who champion for a woman’s right to choose abortion very often feel queasy when such scientific studies land in their lap. This is to be expected. As Someone once said, the Truth will set us free.

May God bless the unborn and the mothers that carry them, and the men that fathered them. Lord, help us all to appreciate and love the miraculous gift of human life, in all its stages. And may science continue to show us what exactly happens at the moment of conception.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Climate and faith

One trend you'll see accelerate in 2011 is news of Catholic leaders—indeed, members of all faiths—warning their flocks about climate change.

Take, for instance, the Holy Father, who as recently as October, in a speech given at a Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, said that "today we see that with the climate problems, the foundations of the earth are threatened, threatened by our behavior."

Following this were his comments in Light of the World, his book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald. When asked about the resistance that governments and cultures are demonstrating in dealing with (or even accepting) climate change, the Holy Father, in part, responded
to this extent a certain potential for moral insight is present. But the conversion of this into political will and political actions is then rendered largely impossible by the lack of willingness to do without.
And then,

The question is therefore: How can the great moral will, which everybody affirms and everyone invokes, become a personal decision?
Yes! That is the question. And to this conundrum, the Holy Father provides a solution: It will be necessary for the Church to increasingly enter this dialogue ...

For she is so close to people’s consciences that she can move them to particular acts of self-denial and can inculcate basic attitudes in souls.
Beautiful words. True words. But words that all too often fall on deaf ears within Holy Mother Church.

Gladly, others are joining their voices with that of Benedict XVI. Indeed, we applaud the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for sounding the climate alarm for well over a decade. The laity has a critical role, too. Vince Cinches, executive director of the Fisherfolk Development Center Inc., of Cebu, Philippines, is getting well-deserved attention for lobbying incoming Archbishop Jose Palma about issues like climate change.

There’s also interfaith momentum. In the United States, we have the sizable Interfaith Power and Light, a group that’s encouraging preachers of all faiths to speak this February (with the same clarity as Benedict XVI) on climate change. Clergy, check here for information on the “National Preach in on Global Warming.” (Note to IPL: It’s CLIMATE CHANGE! The term “global warming” is a popular one, but not a scientific one—never has been—and it only muddies the waters.)

And so it goes as evidence about climate change mounts... stay tuned for much, much more. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

God's Snowy Silence

After I finished tossing about a foot of snow with my snow blower earlier this evening, I stood quietly to survey my work. The day’s Nor’easter was retreating, leaving remnants of squalls far above me. They were lit with an emerging half moon, giving the sky a milky glaze. Gusts animated the snow on my roof, casting some on my front walk.

Then all went quiet, and I remembered one of my favorite sayings by Mother Teresa. 
Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart.
How true. There is a particular quality of nature’s silence that the human soul needs desperately. It is a craving that we often deny ourselves, to our peril.

That’s why I so dearly love clearing snow after a winter’s night storm. For the record, a plow service does the real work; I just finish up with my Lawnboy snow blower, which is efficient and fun but makes quite the racket. But when I switch off the ignition, the quiet is breathtaking.

Let God speak to you in the quiet of your heart. Spend time with Him without your phone, without televisions, radios, or iAnythings. Seek nature and its stillness, as Our Lord so often did. Embrace moments of quiet so that your soul can hear the constant speech of the Triune God—He who is love and relationship, and who seeks a deeper relationship with you ... now, and forever.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Notre Dame's Kristin Shrader-Frechette on Environmental Justice

Here's a very helpful 10-minute interview with environmental justice advocate, Notre Dame's Kristin Shrader-Frechette. The interview is compliments of U.S. Catholic.

Baptism, water, conflict and hope

In the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, we recognize the power and meaning of our own baptism. We also come to understand how God uses ordinary matter in His sacraments—like water, bread, wine and us—and makes it extraordinary.

From the Church's catechism (§1238) on baptism, we read that "The Church asks God that, through his Son, the power of the Holy Spirit may be sent upon the water, so that those who will be baptized in it may be 'born of water and the Spirit.'"

Sacramentally, water has become a pathway to eternal life—as here, now, in this fallen world, it is a pathway to biological life. Sadly, water is scarce in too many places, and as this report from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us, this scarcity leads to horrible human suffering.
Water is vital for sustaining the life of each person, for sustaining health and socio-economic well-being, and for making possible the very existence of life on our planet. The total amount of water on Planet Earth is fixed. Of the world’s water, only 2.5% is freshwater (i.e., not salty), most of which is locked up in glaciers or deep underground. The entire body of freshwater found in lakes and rivers makes up only 0.01% of the planet’s total 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water. With the human population at 6.5 billion and climbing, the per capita quantity of freshwater continues to decline. Yet the principal problem continues to be man-made: the inequitable access to and distribution of freshwater, which is highly variable between and within countries.

Nearly one billion people lack access to improved water. Approximately 2.5 billion people have no adequate access to improved sanitation facilities, i.e., piped sewers, septic tanks, latrines. About 80% of people with poor access to water and sanitation live in rural areas. Every year, 2.1 million people–mainly children–die due to illnesses related to dirty water, poor sanitation, and poor hygiene.

Approximately one third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed countries, primarily in Asia and Africa. By 2025, the proportion of the world’s population living in water-stressed countries is set to increase to two-thirds. Accordingly, water-related conflicts are expected to intensify in such areas. Absolute water scarcity already affects more than 500 million people in more than 30 countries. The role of water scarcity in creating preconditions of discontent and desperation—precursors to violent conflict—is widely acknowledged. 
And so, let us pray for those suffering now, and, as a community Baptized into the People of God, let us add to our prayers the support needed to help the many millions suffering right now as you read this sentence.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The nature of authentic civil service

Working in government allows one to see Original Sin in dreadfully evident ways. As we read too often in the papers, careers in “civil service” can easily become a means to selfish ends. As a government official myself, I can attest firsthand that many who make civil service a vocation on any level could learn a thing or two from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know I can.

But then there are the often under-reported stories of someone doing something right.

My agency, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, recently saw its director, Dr. W. Michael Sullivan—who was appointed by Governor Carcieri some five years ago—step down for Governor Chafee’s choice for the position. Changes in leadership can be exciting for staff staying on, but for the person saying goodbye, such transitions might be distressing, a time of turning inward or walking away in a huff. This possibility makes the story of a last official act by Dr. Sullivan one worth telling.

On a recent cold winter’s night, he roused himself from a warm fire in his home in Richmond and drove to the West Warwick Town Hall for a sparsely attended Sewer Commission Hearing. There he sang the praises of a group not generally known for their glamour or prestige: wastewater operators.

During his tenure at DEM, Dr. Sullivan was an unwavering supporter of this rarely supported group: the men and women who run the state’s nineteen major wastewater treatment systems. These professionals are responsible for the operations and maintenance of thousands of miles of sewer pipes, as well as for treating what those pipes transport: some 100 million gallons of residential, commercial and industrial sewage produced every day in the Ocean State. Wastewater operators use ingenuity, super-high-tech equipment and all-natural biological processes to turn such dangerously polluted wastes into clear water that meets increasingly stringent state and federal discharge limits.

Last March, statewide flooding made all this a bit more complicated—especially for Rhode Island treatment facilities in Warwick and West Warwick, which went under water without warning in a matter of hours.

Because of the great efforts of the wastewater staffs during and well after the floods—indeed, even until today—the DEM, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Save the Bay have been lauding the efforts of the men and women at Warwick and West Warwick, as well as the profession statewide.

This brings us to the West Warwick Town Council chambers and that meeting a few days before Christmas—a rather glum government gathering with about four residents in attendance for one sewer issue or another. Present also were the town’s wastewater superintendent, Peter Eldridge, as well as the town’s engineering consultant and members of both crews. A representative from EPA and Save the Bay were there to present awards to these men, as was I, representing the DEM.

But then entered my soon-to-be former director, who made the trip up from Richmond to speak very kind words on behalf of the State of Rhode Island at a meeting he didn’t have to attend about people that have no way of advancing his career back at the University of Rhode Island. The wastewater crews were honored and thrilled.

I thought Dr. Sullivan deserved to be recognized for making his first priority that night a group of men and women who too often are the least among the glitterati of government. Acting thus showed a particular quality of character that Our Lord calls us to.

And for those other public officials who over the years have taken the time to support wastewater operators—Warwick’s Mayor Scott Avedisian, West Warwick’s councilman Angelo Padula and Rhode Island Secretary of State Ralph Mollis are three that come to mind—thanks for showing by example that civil service sometimes means eschewing the limelight and the earthly illusion of power and prestige and embracing the men and women who do the dirty work of keeping civilization free from filth.

Friday, January 7, 2011

B16's "In the Beginning" is a must read

Every so often does me a favor. While ordering books for school last year, the website suggested an obscure little book by Joseph Ratzinger--now His Holiness Benedict XVI. Written in 1986, it's based on a series of homilies on the creation accounts of the Old Testament. It sounded interesting, it's a subject I'm fascinated with, and figured for $10, how could I go wrong?

Well, I was right. This book is a must read. (And it fits perfectly in a section of my thesis on B16. Praise God!)

First, this little book asks a big question: Why don't more catechists teach about creation and what Genesis is telling us? If you teach religious eductaion and this topic seems unimportant, or too high a hurdle to jump, read "In the beginning." You'll not only have a better appreciation for creation, but you'll get answers to a good many questions, ones that many of us carry around, too afraid to ask.

Happy reading!

Oh, and here's the most important link of all.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Looking for a fight

Very often the Holy Father says one thing, and the media reports something else. Or they take one line of a lengthy homily or text and make that the center of their conversation.

In Sunday's homily for the solemnity of the Epiphany—the visit of the three wise men—Benedict XVI reflects that all creation resonates with the beauty of the creator; that a true exploration of nature is a pathway to know God. He notes that

the universe is not the result of chance, as some would have us believe. Contemplating it, we are invited to read in it something profound: the wisdom of the Creator, the inexhaustible imagination of God, his infinite love for us. We must not let our minds be limited by theories which come only to a certain point and thatif we look wellare not in fact in concurrence with the faith, but do not succeed in explaining the ultimate meaning of reality. In the beauty of the world, in its mystery, in its grandeur and its rationality we cannot but read the eternal rationality, and we cannot but let ourselves be guided by it to the one God, creator of heaven and earth. If we have this look, we will see that He who has created the world is he who is born in a cave in Bethlehem and continues to dwell in our midst in the Eucharist, it is the same living God who interpellates us, loves us, and wishes to lead us to eternal life.
Here we encounter many themes common to Benedict XVI: his agreement with St. Bonaventure that there are echoes of the Triune God in creation, as well as the need for the transcendent to ennoble human reason, so that reason is not limited to only what humanity can conceive. And, of course, the primacy of love.

But some in the media, as if looking for a fight, sought to portray this beautiful homily as a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of science, which is just not the case. In Catholic thought, faith and reason have always had a gentlemen's relationship.

If you don't want to read the entire homily, Zenit News has a nice summary here. And for a great forum to track how the news covers matters of faith—all faiths—visit It's a blog run by real journalists, who cover real religion stories; the blog name comes from a quote by William Schneider, "The press ... just doesn't get religion."

I'd have to agree.

Sadly, too many of us only get our news about faith, the Church and Benedict XVI from a mainstream media that hasn't the time or the interest to showcase the treasures around them. Instead, they take something like the beautiful quote above—one that sees nature as a means to knowing God, and which shows the Holy Father's love of human expression and growth—and they write a headline like, "Pope challenges Big Bang theory."

Sheesh. And the media wonders why people are loosing confidence in it. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The ecology of evangelization

News that the Holy Father has made appointments to his Council for New Evangelization brought to mind that there are connections between ecological realities and the call to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. These connections shouldn’t come as a surprise.

After all, the truths we proclaim come from the same God who created the laws of life. One such law is the reality that organisms benefit from proximity—indeed, an intimacy—with their own kind as well as other species.

Groupings of plants or animals (or even bacteria) very often form “micro-environments” that assist each individual organism. For instance, in the case of plants, a cluster of foliage creates a shelter that protects the ground from scorching sun, helps retain moisture, and provides physical support in times of stormy weather.

Human cultures act the same way. People grow together in micro-environments called families, parishes and communities. We share each others’ burdens and bounties, and protect each other from harm. A community can absorb injury to its members when survivors respond with acts of corporeal or spiritual charity—when we respond with love.

Within the church, we ennoble each other’s existence by sharing the Truth that has been revealed to us by God himself. From generation to generation, we pass on sacred Scripture and tradition. But we are called to do so not only for subsequent generations; we must bring the Gospel to those around us here and now.

Again, this sharing of the Gospel to our neighbors should not be a surprise, since the very foundation of all existence and life is the Triune God, who is love and relationship. Hence, the great Christian truth that the Word of God became flesh and made its dwelling among us confirms for humanity that the true enemy of civilization (and marriages and families) is not hate, war or disease, but isolation and apathy. Ignoring our neighbors comes at our peril.

But thanks to some very dedicated Catholics, especially members of the Legion of Mary—and many others who have done similar work within this diocese and elsewhere—this ecological character of evangelization is rousing. In my home state of Rhode Island this past June, some fifty pairs of mostly inexperienced evangelizers went door to door to door within the boundaries of St. Timothy’s parish in Warwick. The results were powerful and are still being felt. No doubt that day souls were saved.

A similar day—filled with amazing stories of encounters—took place at St. Joseph’s parish in Woonsocket, RI. The pastors of these parish families are to be applauded for their foresight and trust in the people they shepherd, as well as in the Shepherd himself.

Not everyone who helps at such door-to-door campaigns needs to be on the front lines; men and women are needed to help tally records, prepare meals for volunteers, and, most especially, to join in prayer. Like any good ecosystem, everyone has something they need to contribute.

And so it is important to remember that what took place at these two parishes—and what will be taking place at two other parishes in Rhode Island that are planning similar days this spring—is really nothing other than the ecology of evangelization. It is the interaction of living beings for the betterment of the species and the salvation of souls. Most importantly, this work is the simple response to our Lord’s command to “Go” and make disciples—and in doing so, wage war with a culture of death by offering our neighbors the great gift of finding the way to eternal life.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The nature of a mystery

The very day violent storms hit Arkansas, thousands of birds--mostly red-wing blackbirds--tumbled from the sky. Elsewhere in the aptly nicknamed "Natural State," a major fish kill also has scientists and residents scratching their heads. Of course the media is in a frenzy, and the conspiracy theories are, well, about what you would expect.

While all available evidence points to "natural" causes for the rather spooky bird kill, the fish kill is still more a mystery--although a single-species fish kill is usually caused by disease.

The problem is, while qualified scientists seek answers, it's easy for the less informed and those prone to drama to see evidence of secret military testing, or alien invasions, or that illusive end time.

But a mystery does not imply a supernatural (or extraterrestrial) cause. Sometimes, very natural events occur in a sequence that is partially hidden.

That some of us seek to fill in the missing links with epic, sci-fi or conspiratorial details shows how deeply the human person is hard-wired for seeking transcendence. And this is a good thing. The quality of the human person that seeks to understand mystery also makes us open to it--and that makes us open to Revelation.

Not only that, but by adding reason to our searches of the great mysteries of the universe, we can better isolate that which is unusual but naturally occurring, and that which is naturally beyond our reasoning, but, out of love, seeks to reveal itself to us whenever possible.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Epiphany, ecology and the fourth verse

The opening words of We Three Kings are fond, familiar ones. They recount the star, the gold, the frankincense ... but then comes a dark fourth verse, one that few of us sing, or few liturgies allow us to ...
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light
There, in the middle of what we often see as a charming Christmas carol, is the Cross of Jesus Christ, illuminated even at the Nativity by that cosmic sign from above. Yes, the Cross that, as the center of world and Salvation history, changed everything for the better--the Cross we should keep close to, so that we may find our Savior on our own pilgrim journeys. Instead, we very often flee from it. After all, the Cross of Christ reminds us of that command to pick up our own cross(es) when following Him. And anyway, who wants to sing about it, especially at Christmas, or the Epiphany, that Feast of the coming of the Three Wise Men?

And yet, in scripture and in the hymn derived from it, one of those Wise Men brings myrrh as a gift to that babe in swaddling clothes--the resin used especially by the Egyptians for embalming the dead. Why?

For the ecologist, myrrh's reference to death calls to mind the cycle of life and death that fuels Earth's ecosystem. It is a cycle we can not ignore, nor can we flee. New life requires the death of existing life. The food chain, and all that. And so what we learn from science is that all physical life forms, like you and me, are temporary.

But humans shouldn't be looked at as a food source for other life forms. There's more to the story of this babe in a manger.

Theologians remind us that the gift of myrrh shows us that even these pagan travelers knew that the Messiah was born not to just to live and teach, but especially to die. He was meant to experience the worst effect of sin--death itself--so to overcome it. For Him and for us. Or, using those scientific words above, new life requires the death of existing life.

And so we, as people of faith, who proclaim that Christ is Risen, look beyond what science alone can tell us. After all, ecology can explain only so much about life. The Gospels teach us the rest. Which brings us to the last verse of We Three Kings, the one that reminds us what Christmas is all about--a lesson taught to us by a stranger from a strange land. After all, it is a lesson that resounds throughout all lands for all people.
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and sacrifice,
Heaven sings, "Hallelujah!"
Hallejujah!" Earth replies.

Happy 1.1.11 ... and forget the fuddy-duddies.

I hope your New Year's Eve was spectacular. And I hope it included fireworks. If not, enjoy this beautiful little video, compliments of "aaronisnotcool," Austin, Texas. (Thanks, Aaron!) 

Oh, and just so you know, there are some radical environmentally minded folks around--the kind that give a bad name to savvy environmentally minded guys like me--that would like to see fireworks outlawed. Everywhere. No, seriously. It seems the pyrotechnic creations cause too much pollution--although the Disney Corporation figured out a way to lower the pollution levels, and they shared the info widely. Kudos to them. But still, other voices among us are not amused. One put it this way:
In creating and spectating pyrotechnic displays, though, few seem to consider the rather obvious link between fireworks and air pollution. The result is an environmentally irresponsible form of entertainment. 
Okay, so there's some truth to their argument. But in a way, isn't every form of entertainment environmentally irresponsible? Should we outlaw concerts, ball games and Broadway? And anyway, aren't people the real cause of all pollution? Shouldn't we outlaw us? (Oh wait, we've opened that door with the unborn.)

And so my response to these eco-duds is simple: Chill.

For the rest of you: Sit back, enjoy the show, and Happy New Year!