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Monday, October 31, 2011

Northeast October snow: Should we be scared?

Photo by ronk53 (Flicker)
A record-breaking nor’easter this weekend killed over a dozen people and crushed much of the Northeast’s power grid. Millions are out of electrical service and repair estimates are days or weeks away.

That this winter storm came so early has some wondering if this is proof of climate change—if we should be worried that this is the new normal.  For others, the storm showed us that “global warming” is a big hoax. After all, why would we get so much snow so early if the world is heating up?

Both views are misguided. The latter is simplistic because climate change is not about a uniform rise in global temperatures or a narrowing of the boundaries of winter. Rather, anthropomorphic climate change postulates that increased thermal energy (caused by human pollution) will alter in odd ways how the planet distributes heat and moisture, or lack thereof. The first view is also simplistic, because weather is not climate. No one weather event—or even an isolated cluster of events—can tell you much about our climate. That’s because climate changes are measured over the long haul—over decades and centuries. Climate is measured by trends, not single events.

Sure, this was an odd storm. But for the Catholic ecologist, it was also a tragic one, and no amount of bickering over climate change is doing any good for those that are suffering without power, or those who have lost loved ones.

For these millions, and especially for the souls of those killed during the storm, we Catholics must pray on this All Hollow’s Eve that the saints in heaven seek comfort for the afflicted. And on Wednesday, All Souls Day, we must pray for all the souls lost in this storm and in all the wild weather of the past year.

May God bring peace and comfort to those who need it, and may His Holy Spirit bring understanding and wisdom to the scientists and policy makers who labor to understand just what the climate is up to.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Cardinal Pell's voice welcome in climate change dialogue

Cardinal George Pell’s recently delivered concerns about the science and economics of climate change are not black-and-white, even if some news outlets (like this one) oversimplify his comments.

But while some wish to skewer Cardinal Pell for being a “climate change denier,”  in reading the actual talk that he gave to the Global Warming Policy Foundation we find a man seeking to make sense out of a complex scientific discussion that has immense implications for the poorest among us.

The cardinal’s review of the science of anthropomorphic climate change is certainly open to debate, which he admits, but his concluding words caught my attention:
The cost of attempts to make global warming go away will be very heavy. They may be levied initially on “the big polluters” but they will eventually trickle down to the end-users. Efforts to offset the effects on the vulnerable are well intentioned but history tells us they can only ever be partially successful.

Will the costs and the disruption be justified by the benefits? Before we can give an answer, there are some other, scientific and economic, questions that need to be addressed by governments and those advising them. As a layman, in both fields, I do not pretend to have clear answers but some others in the debate appear to be ignoring the questions and relying more on assumptions.
Many find it ironic that this talk came out about the same time that the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Group issued findings that seem to emphatically demonstrate the reality of human-induced climate change. (Alex Knapp at Forbes has a good overview of this story—even if you do have to get past the site’s advertising to read it.)

In another twist of fate, I first read about Cardinal Pell’s talk a day after I attended a climate-change policy seminar hosted by a local environmental advocacy group. The keynote speaker was not a climatologist. He was a mechanical engineer working for FM Global—a major insurance agency. His message was simple: Climate change is real enough for insurance companies to be paying attention and planning ahead. For me, this made more of an impact than the Berkeley study because it came from a company that has skin in the game—which is why they use the most advanced technologies to study the monetary and scientific data behind the headlines.

In fact, many of the speakers at this seminar made some of the same excellent points as the good cardinal: When climates change, there are costs. Who will pay for them? And how?

As Cardinal Pell warns, there are moral issues at play. For this reason I welcome all voices—especially pastoral ones—who remind us that human dignity and care for the poor must be factored in to the actuarial tables of insurance companies and the temperature studies of climate researchers.

Sure, Cardinal Pell is not a scientist (nor are many of the reporters who cover him) but he has great experience in the human condition—and that is a perspective that no dialogue can do without.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The agony in Goa continues

Mining in Goa. Photo by Abhisek Sarda
Last June I posted about the destruction taking place in Goa, India—an exceptionally beautiful corner of creation that’s being shredded by mining operations. The post was about a critic of the mining, Fr. Maverick Fernandes, the director of the Council of Social Justice and Peace for the Church in Goa. But little, if anything, seems to have changed since that post.

Hartman de Souza—a long-time artist, writer and activist in Goa—recently chronicled this ecological and human tragedy in The Hindu. It’s a piece well worth reading. In it, one image tells us much:
From the top of the rise in the village, the view eastwards, where the foothills of the Western Ghats break, where, perversely, all the mining companies abound, the sight is anything but pleasant. A skeleton of hills some kilometres long, once probably thicker with trees and water than the hills of this very village, now shorn bare, and, regardless of which part of the day you view them, standing as mute as the carcass of a giant animal left to rot in perpetual sunset.
The same author has another piece in the Deccan Herald. It too is a painful read, including a brief reference to a Catholic priest who seems to have given unwanted real estate advice to Hartmann's sister, who seeks to keep her property from the hungry mining officials that have bought the land around her. Why is she holding on?
Her reason for not selling is compelling, that she would never be able to look at herself in the mirror again knowing that she had willfully destroyed forests and trees and water. When they bought the land years ago, slaving to repay the loans they took for this, they tested soil. Geologists told them they could be billionaires overnight and pointed to where the richest lode was. They built their farmhouse on that spot.
The Hindu ran a short bio of this author and fighter for Goa. He seems quite the exceptional man and we should keep him, and the people and the ecology of Goa, in our prayers.

In learning about and praying for Goa, we should also pay heed to what unbridled industry can do when economies accelerate and demand for natural resources reaches critical levels. Gluttony, it seems, can take on terrible forms in the modern world.

While I will have other posts on Goa as I learn more—perhaps with the input of Hartmann de Souza—for now I’ll conclude (as I so often do) with words from Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate:
Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God's creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God's creation.
Addendum: I emailed Hartmann de Souza and he's provided the following links, and has put me in touch with others who can provide more information. So stay tuned. But for now, feel free to read this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blessed John Paul II: A voice for all and for all creation

On the first feast day of Blessed John Paul the Great, we remember that his pontificate placed ecology within the vernacular of the Magisterium in new and profound ways. Explore more about John Paul II's ecological statements at the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center.

May Blessed John Paul II pray for us as we seek to better steward of God's glorious creation!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hunger and interior attitudes

Pope Benedict XVI this week issued his statement for World Food Day. As usual it had much to say, most of which went under-reported.

My friends at the Catholic Climate Covenant sent word of the statement, calling attention to the pontiff’s mention of “climate changes.” But the Holy Father modified the term with the adjective “sudden,” which may or may not be a diplomatic way of staying out of the climate-change debate. Still, he did make mention to a changing climate.

The more impressive term that the Holy Father used (and reiterated from elsewhere) is the reminder that humanity and individuals must grow with an “integral development.”

Indeed, in his thousand-or-so-word document, the pope gave a nod to the universality of Christian revelation, to the New Evangelization, and spoke specifically about “an interior attitude of responsibility, capable of inspiring a different style of life, with necessary sobriety in conduct and consumption, to thus favor the good of society.”

In other words, the document is a beautiful summary of what Catholic ecology is all about.

Moreover, what Benedict XVI said bolsters a recent statement by Archbishop Timothy Dolan regarding, in part, bringing back the full meaning of the Friday fast, which has been recommended herein, and will continue to be. The return of meatless Friday's would, as the Archbishop writes, be an external marker that relates to (and helps bring about) the very interior attitude that the Holy Father noted in his World Food Day message.

In this regard, Pope Benedict writes in a way that connects what we do with who we are. And that connects how our real choices can benefit others:
Given the magnitude of the tragedy of famine, it is not enough to invite reflection and analyze the problems, nor even the willingness to intervene. Too often these factors are useless because they are reduced to the sphere of emotions, without being capable of moving the conscience and its search for truth and goodness [ . . . ] On the contrary, the purpose of this Day should be a commitment to modify behavior and decisions, which ensure today rather than tomorrow, that every person has access to the necessary food, and that the agricultural sector has a level of investments and resources capable of giving stability to production and hence to the market. It is easy to reduce discussions to the food requirements for an increasing population, knowing well that the causes of hunger have other roots and have caused so many victims among so many Lazaruses who are not allowed to sit at the table of the rich Epulon (cf. Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 47).
Well, there you have it. Read the document. Ask yourself, what’s my interior attitude? I know mine is far off the mark. I do not know if I can live a "different style of life, with necessary sobriety in conduct and consumption." And so I pray for the great strength to do so.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Keystone Pipeline and Occupying Hope

Courtesy of NWFblogs
It’s not every day that the Tea Party and the Sierra Club  join forces. But the growing debate over the Keystone oil pipeline expansion has done just that. Others are taking their protest to the streets.

Haven’t heard of Keystone? Wikipedia has a good summary of the proposed pipeline, and Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson at the Washington Post have an excellent summary of the eco-political debate about it. From their story comes the following snippets to show us a little of the Keystone fallout: 
In mid-October, [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton told an audience at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club that she and others in the administration were “inclined” to give TransCanada the permit [to construct Keystone], adding, “We’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada.”
In many ways, her comments were simply a blunt version of the argument made by TransCanada and U.S. oil producers and refiners: The pipeline will secure a more reliable source of petroleum.
Over the next months, Canadian officials continued to press for approval of the permit [. . . ] At the same time, an unlikely coalition of farmers, ranchers and other residents along the pipeline’s route from Nebraska to Texas stepped up its opposition. The Sierra Club joined with tea party activists to protest the pipeline, while Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman said it threatens his state’s Ogallala aquifer.
By August a group of environmental leaders [. . .] was able to enlist more than a thousand opponents willing to be arrested outside the White House, including actresses Daryl Hannah and Margot Kidder. The two-week demonstration prompted a flurry of calls between White House offices and State, sources said, as administration officials asked to be briefed about the project’s status.
[. . .]
Some major Obama donors have threatened to withhold campaign contributions unless the president kills the project; both environmental and labor activists have raised the issue with his campaign staff.
Both publicly and privately, however, Obama administration officials have told environmentalists they are better off with the president in office than without him. 
"When Americans compare the president’s record promoting clean energy and America’s energy security to those of the leading Republican candidates, who don’t even believe that climate change is an issue that we need to address and would cede the clean-energy market to China, there will be no question about who will continue our progress,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt wrote in an e-mail.
From this one, if massive, proposed project comes massive, if predictable, battles along eco-political-industry divides. We see such debates often. But this one seems different. It’s generating searing passion. The question is, why? What’s got everyone fired up? There are many reasons: the size of the project, the memory of the BP oil spill, the certainty that other, safer sources of energy should be our focus. But there's another facet to this story: We live in a new age of protest. The Occupy movements assembled across America and, indeed, the globe, are symptoms of unrest and anger over a crumbling world that seems to offer no real hope.

But there is hope for those who seek it.

In his second letter to the Church and the world, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI writes that 
day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain. In this regard our contemporary age has developed the hope of creating a perfect world that, thanks to scientific knowledge and to scientifically based politics, seemed to be achievable. Thus Biblical hope in the Kingdom of God has been displaced by hope in the kingdom of man, the hope of a better world which would be the real “Kingdom of God”. This seemed at last to be the great and realistic hope that man needs. It was capable of galvanizing—for a time—all man's energies. The great objective seemed worthy of full commitment. In the course of time, however, it has become clear that this hope is constantly receding. Above all it has become apparent that this may be a hope for a future generation, but not for me. 
[. . . ]
Let us say once again: we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. 
People who have lost hope are standing up and marching together on the streets of the world. Some of these gatherings have turned violent—some have struck at the very truth that can offer the world true hope. While anarchist opportunists may seek to hijack the Occupy movements, among the protesters are also many human souls striving for a world of justice, goodness, equality and fairness.

But as the Keystone project reminds us, we do not live yet in the Promised Land. Here, outside Eden, the designs of men are never failsafe. A pipeline to provide oil from North America—and in so doing create jobs and release some of our attachment to the Middle East—is resisted because it may do great harm to real places, real people, and, perhaps, encourage harm to the very climate that sustains us in its global distribution of moisture and thermal energy. And indeed, the project's method of extracting oil comes with even more risks. In short, a project with so much potential for good brings with it so much potential for evil. 

What we need to remember is that all this is equally true for our political, economic and regulatory designs. There can be no new-world order, no overthrow of the current systems, that will usher in an age without human failing and many crosses.

Welcome to life in a fallen world.

Thus, we heed the Holy Father’s words above: This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. 

Let us pray, then, that the youth of this world seek first the Kingdom of God, so that all good things may come to them and to all people. May their hopelessness and righteous anger be transformed to great joy—a joy and a peace found only when one loves God and neighbor in the most radical, hopeful and real way. 

And if there's something about the Keystone debate that I've left out, please share it in the comment section.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Made in China religious goods: To buy, or not to buy?

On December 16, 1958, five years to the day before I was born, Pope John XXIII denounced China’s treatment of Roman Catholics. At a consistory to elevate new Cardinals, the Holy Father noted that
"for a long time Catholics throughout China have been living under the most difficult circumstances. Missionaries, archbishops, and bishops have been accused of false crimes, thrown into prison, and finally sent into exile. Even bishops who are Chinese by birth have been put into places of confinement, and not a few have been expelled."
Little has changed in five decades, as we read below from this Catholic News Service story:
Rome, Italy, Dec 10, 2010 / 05:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Father Bernardo Cervellera, a longtime observer of Sino-Vatican affairs, is deeply troubled by recent moves made by China’s communist authorities.

"We are back in the 1950s,” said Fr. Cervellera, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and editor of institute’s influential Asia News website.

"Honestly, I would say that with these elections we are taken back to the time of Mao Zedong and the foundation of the Patriotic Association,” the state-authorized Catholic Church established by the communist ruler.

Fr. Cervellera has for many years been a sharp critic of the regime in Beijing and a cautionary voice on the Church’s relations with the regime. In a Dec. 9 interview with CNA he said recent developments do not offer much cause for optimism.

The troubles began Nov. 20 when communist authorities appointed Father Guo Jincai a bishop, in express defiance of Vatican wishes and without the Pope's approval. In a gesture that sparked further outrage from the Vatican, authorities forced at least eight bishops loyal to Rome to participate in the rogue ordination.

This week, communist officials again forced bishops loyal to Rome to take part in elections for the government-run Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church.

Neither institution is recognized by the Vatican.

While others see recent developments reflecting a more delicate political balancing act by the two sides, Father Cervellera believes many in the Church are being overly optimistic about the intentions of the communist government in Beijing.

Fr. Cervellera said Chinese officials are sending a clear message that the communist party — and not the Vatican — is in charge of the Chinese Church.

He said the recent elections to the Patriotic Association and the so-called Bishops' Conference were meant "to wound the Vatican" and set up obstacles to unity in the Church.
There’s more to the story, but you get the idea.

All this has me wondering about the support that so many Catholics across the globe, and certainly in America, give to the Chinese government—mostly unwittingly. It seems that much of the religious items I find in Catholic gift stores and supply firms are made in China—and so our funds are helping build a nation that is persecuting our brothers and sisters loyal to Rome.

There are also ecological facets to this concern. China has serious pollution and public health issues due to an economy in overdrive fueled in large part by the West’s desire for low, low prices. We read this from China Daily:
BEIJING - China has lost ground on its resolve to emit less nitrogen oxide this year.

Even though the country planned to reduce its annual emissions of the pollutant by 1.5 percent in 2011, it in fact released 6.17 percent more nitrogen oxide in the first six months of the year than it had in the same period a year ago, according to statistics from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

The failure to control nitrogen emissions, which are a large cause of acid rain and smog, shows the difficulties the country will face in its attempt to battle pollution without shifting away from its reliance on heavy industries, environmental experts warned.

Nitrogen oxide, which stems mainly from coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions, canirritate the lungs and lower people's resistance to influenza and other respiratory infections.
And from the Wall Street Journal:
BEIJING—Hundreds of people in eastern China carried out sometimes violent protests over pollution they blame on a solar-panel maker's factory, the latest example of unrest spurred by anger over the country's environmental problems.

Authorities detained several demonstrators for alleged theft and vandalism in the protests, which began Thursday and continued over the weekend at the Zhejiang Jinko Solar Co. factory in the city of Haining in Zhejiang province, according to state media and the local government. The company is owned by New York Stock Exchange-listed JinkoSolar Holding Co.

After more than 500 people gathered outside the gates Thursday, demonstrators stormed the factory compound, according the state-run Xinhua news agency, where they flipped over company vehicles and damaged the solar company's offices before police arrived to disperse the crowd. Villagers had complained last month about the deaths of a large number of fish in a nearby river, according to Xinhua.

Chinese citizens have grown increasing bold in challenging the country's widespread environmental woes, despite the threat of government punishment of protesters. While maintaining a tight grip on dissent, authorities have increasingly tried to appear responsive to such complaints, although critics say the ultimate problem is the leadership's emphasis on rapid economic growth and industrialization.
Given all this—the Chinese government’s continued persecution of the Church, its ecological struggles, and its civil unrest over the health of its people—it seems to me that Catholics the world over must give up the low, low prices afforded by China’s super-manufacturing prowess and buy its crucifixes, rosaries, and other religious goods elsewhere.

This raises a question: Is there such a place? Certainly, sin is within all nations and peoples. And, as we see in America, once predominately Christian governments can quickly violate Christian tenets.

But the universality of sin and the inevitable conflicts between the cities of men and the City of God does not undo these questions: Should our religious items be imported from China? Should we send our money there? I fear that there are no easy answers, because real people and families depend on the resulting manufacturing jobs. Indeed, such questions result in moral and ethical questions that far exceed my talents or the purpose of this blog. But for the good of China’s ecology, its people, and their souls, such questions must be asked by Catholics everywhere. And so I ask: To buy, or not to buy Chinese?

I’m interested in what you think.

(One reader chimed in already. She tries to purchase religious items from the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans, as do I. They're a good group doing good work.)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A little Lectio Divina: from creation to the Creator

Today’s Mass readings show us the great influence of creation within Holy Scripture. From the first reading’s intertwined use of the natural world and agriculture—that which is physical, which allows us physical life—to the Psalm’s imagery of all creation rightly giving Him praise, we hear that ancient refrain of our relation with creation speaking of our relation with God.

But wait, there's more: Both in the reading from Joel and the Psalm we hear of a connection between the ordered beauty of the cosmos and the characteristic of being just.

This prepares us for the Gospel, which points us beyond the natural world. A woman praises Jesus’ mother, the natural, human mother of the Christ. But Our Lord reminds the woman, and us, that what is ultimately more important is the Word that brought creation into existence and the invitation it offers—which, of course, asks for a response.

Read through these readings and ponder their stunning imagery and their momentum. Allow them to lift you from the known world to a conversation with a higher, greater glory.
Reading 1 (Joel 4:12-21)
Thus says the LORD:
Let the nations bestir themselves and come up
to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
For there will I sit in judgment
upon all the neighboring nations.

Apply the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe;
Come and tread,
for the wine press is full;
The vats overflow,
for great is their malice.
Crowd upon crowd
in the valley of decision;
For near is the day of the LORD
in the valley of decision.
Sun and moon are darkened,
and the stars withhold their brightness.The LORD roars from Zion,
and from Jerusalem raises his voice;The heavens and the earth quake,
but the LORD is a refuge to his people,
a stronghold to the children of Israel.

Then shall you know that I, the LORD, am your God,
dwelling on Zion, my holy mountain;
Jerusalem shall be holy,
and strangers shall pass through her no more.
And then, on that day,
the mountains shall drip new wine,
and the hills shall flow with milk;
And the channels of Judah
shall flow with water:
A fountain shall issue from the house of the LORD,
to water the Valley of Shittim.
Egypt shall be a waste,
and Edom a desert waste,
Because of violence done to the people of Judah,
because they shed innocent blood in their land.
But Judah shall abide forever,
and Jerusalem for all generations.
I will avenge their blood,
and not leave it unpunished.
The LORD dwells in Zion.

Responsorial Psalm (97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12)
R. (12a) Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice;
let the many isles be glad.
Clouds and darkness are round about him,
justice and judgment are the foundation of his throne.
R. Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the LORD of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
R. Rejoice in the Lord, you just!
Light dawns for the just;
and gladness, for the upright of heart.
Be glad in the LORD, you just,
and give thanks to his holy name.
R. Rejoice in the Lord, you just!

Gospel (Luke 11:27-28)
While Jesus was speaking,
a woman from the crowd called out and said to him,
"Blessed is the womb that carried you
and the breasts at which you nursed."
He replied, "Rather, blessed are those
who hear the word of God and observe it."

Catholic Ecology Home

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

St. Francis: beyond the garden statues

At a Franciscan Transitus ceremony at my parish this evening, it struck me that St. Francis—the patron of ecology and animals, as well as people who promote ecology—is not quite the romantic figure that is portrayed in so many backyard shrines. Those loveable garden statues and birdfeeders tell us little of the man and the interior and exterior struggles he fought during his journey to the Triune God.

And so as we celebrate the feast of this great saint and Doctor of the Church—one to whom I give thanks for helping me in my road back to the Church some twelve years ago—we should know him for who he truly was, as best we can.

Let us begin at the end, at an account of his death from a text by Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure:
St. Francis spent the last few days before his death in praising the Lord and teaching his companions whom he loved so much to praise Christ with him. He himself, in as far as he was able, broke out with the Psalm: I cry to the Lord with my voice; to the Lord I make loud supplication. He likewise invited all creatures to praise God and, with the words he had composed earlier, he exhorted them to love God. Even death itself, considered by all to be so terrible and hateful, was exhorted to give praise, while he himself, going joyfully to meet it, invited it to make its abode with him. "Welcome," he said, "my sister death."

When the hour of his death approached, Francis asked that all of the brothers living with him be called to his death bed and softening his departure with consoling words, he encouraged them with fatherly affection to love God. He spoke of patience and poverty and of being faithful to the Holy Roman Church, giving precedence to the Holy Gospels before all else. He then stretched his hands over the brothers in the form of a cross, a symbol that he loved so much, and gave his blessings to all followers, both present and absent, in the power and in the name of the Crucified. Then he added: "Remain, my sons, in the fear of the Lord and be with him always. And as temptations and trials beset you, blessed are those who persevere to the end in the life they have chosen. I am on my way to God and I commend you all to His favor."
These words greatly affected me when I heard them read this evening. I will be giving a talk tomorrow on St. Francis and ecology for my diocese. I’ve been asked to speak about carbon footprints, using my local environmental regulatory background to teach listeners about local and global ecological issues. But with the experience of the Transitus still stirring within as I left my church this evening, I confessed to one of the lay Franciscan organizers that I doubt I could speak merely of science and about romantic notions of St. Francis. I will have to speak also of sin and the Cross, of sacrifice and Christ. How else could I speak of what it means to be an admirer of St. Francis and a lover of creation?

Francis’ growth from a rowdy young man to an itinerant preacher, beggar, and lover of Christ and His Church all occurred with much turmoil, rejection, suffering and doubt. His choice to live as Christ did was bold and, at first, unappreciated. But in time, that he lived by choice in radical poverty and self-denial attracted many in his day and still does in ours. Indeed, his example, and that of his nascent order, truly helped rebuild Christ’s Church. Whereas some would later appeal to the Gospels and to Church fathers to flee the Church and found others, Francis sought to repair the damages of sin within Holy Mother Church, and he did so through utter humility.

In reflecting on the many examples of Francis’ radical poverty, one might be tempted to find in him an unorthodox dualism—a desire to see creation as evil and, thus, something to reject. But Francis did quite the opposite.

Francis saw God within all creation. He followed a long line of Catholic thought that taught that knowledge of God can be found (if imperfectly) in knowledge of—or, in Francis’ case, love for—the created order. Where scholastics would baptize the world of the intellect, Francis (and those who came after him, like Bonaventure) found in the beauty and majesty of nature the answers to many of the theological arguments of their day, and those to follow.

Francis is known famously for his Canticle of Brother Sun. While this title may flame the hearts of naturalists, pagans or new-agers, one learns quickly by the opening words what Francis held to be most important:
Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Yes, for Francis, God comes first. For Francis, who received the stigmata praying at Mount Alverna, the crosses of this world are not to be rejected. Like the leper that a young Francis passed by then hugged, giving him all his belongings, we too are called to give radically to those in need, to hug the wounded and diseased.

Giotto's Stigmata, courtesy of Slices of Light Images.
If we are to revere Francis, then we—those who seek to promote ecology—must consider anew what sacrifices and what love we can offer the world, its people, and its Creator.

If we can do anything, we should bring back the Friday fast. By reducing our consumption of what-have-you by close to 14% (1 day out of 7), we Catholics—and those who wish to join us—would reduce the gluttonous use of our planet’s resources. Reducing our intake of meat and poultry alone (as did the Church for many a century until recently) would have a profound impact on the world’s ecology.

Beyond that, of course, we must acknowledge that our use of electricity, automobiles, lawnmowers, snow blowers and many other creature comforts—when added up globally—really do significant damage to our land, water and air. Like Francis, then, let us try slowly to reduce our creature comforts, to live more simply, to love silence more readily.

And lastly, as the days shorten here in the northern hemisphere, let us consider Francis’ love of Christmas. Legend has it that Francis brought to the Church the popular devotion of the Crèche, for, as we read in the Gospel of John, the Word becoming flesh was quite the momentous occasion in salvation history (although, perhaps it would be better if our celebration of the Annunciation was just as grand a celebration of Christ's entrance into humanity). At Christmas, we see an infinite, humble mingling of divinity and the created world. In the Incarnation we see the very being of God’s self-giving grace. Let us then consider an authentic rekindling of Francis’ devotion to Christmas by spending less on material goods and diverting our treasures, time and talents to the good of others and to ecological protection. Whether through supporting local farmers, funding local environmental groups, or teaching others about something as simple as organic gardening, the great good we might do at Christmas could radically alter the way the world sees this great event. And we’d be helping “Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”

(I just realized something as I’m typing. Note the words that Francis uses in his Canticle: that the earth, “governs us.” This intersection of ecological awareness and human nature is exactly what Benedict XVI has been talking about throughout his pontificate.)

In closing, because I must close eventually, let us remember the real life of Francis, the suffering, joyful mystic. Let us give thanks to God for the man who did his part to change the world and his Church, not by seeking fame or power, but by doing what all Christians are called to do: to live as Christ did, so that in dying we may be born to eternal life.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The quest for truth and meaning

September 2011

Pope Benedict XVI had a few surprises when he spoke to Germany’s parliament last week. One was an apparent reference to the Green Party to illustrate the human quest for truth and meaning.

During the grandfatherly discussion on law and politics, Pope Benedict XVI said that “the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s . . . was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives. In saying this, I am clearly not promoting any particular political party—nothing could be further from my mind. If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture.”

In praising as noteworthy the views of a political party that may otherwise not be enamored with the church’s teachings on abortion, same-sex marriage and the like, the Holy Father made a number of points. Two require examination.

First, Pope Benedict XVI is and always was certain that dialogue among peoples is central to being human, and thus to evangelizing. We find this in his early seminary studies, in his doctoral work and in his many writings. It does little good for one to demonize those who do not agree with you on every point; in doing so one merely closes doors and isolates human from human, which is antithetical to the incarnational, sacramental nature of Christ’s church.

As he made clear in his third major letter to the church, charity and truth must be intimately united.

Beyond that, Pope Benedict XVI finds evidence in places like the Green Party of a nascent yearning for truth, order and justice. This does not surprise the Holy Father, who knows that one can not genuinely seek what is good without stumbling into Christianity. Again, we find in this discourse those key elements of relation, dialogue, truth and charity that undergirds Pope Benedict XVI’s (and Blessed John Paul II’s) New Evangelization.

We see this as the Holy Father continued his discourse with an explanation about how discussing ecology is ultimately a discussion about what it means to be human.

“The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

Certainly, as the pontiff makes clear, he has not joined the Green Party. But in dialoguing with it, he can offer its members and their sympathizers a better direction to eternal truths—and thus assist in the salvation of souls. This is typical of Pope Benedict XVI, who truly is a missionary of Christ in the world of ideas.