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Sunday, December 25, 2011

God and sinners, reconciled

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
R. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
(Responsorial Psalm, 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13, Midnight Mass)

This painting by Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556) reminds us that Christ’s cross is not detached from His crib of hope. As the Christmas hymn refrains, God and sinners require reconciliation. And so today, on the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we celebrate the great moment when God came among us, visibly—born to Mary in poverty.

At Christmas—especially the powerful liturgies of Midnight Mass, from which I’ve just returned—the sinful nature of man is contrasted with the self-revealing humility and stunning love of our Creator. Indeed, while celebrating the birth of Christ, we cannot forget exactly why we sinners needed, and need, his salvific entry into human history.

Modern culture doesn’t encourage talk of sin, but I often refer to the sinful nature of man to explain why I have a job. As an environmental regulator, I am employed to ensure that people do what needs to be done to be good stewards of a tender natural order. Sin, however, often makes people do otherwise.

This struck home a few weeks back when at work I attended a presentation on the latest issue confronting many environmental regulators: hydrofracking.

Hydrofracking is a method to free up natural gas from shale deposits deep underground. The process requires water—lots of it—that is enhanced with chemicals and injected deep below the earth’s surface. The resulting pressure opens new pathways for natural gas to escape, be collected, and used for human consumption.

Proponents of the process celebrate hydrofracking’s ability to offer homemade, relatively clean natural gas, rather than importing it from overseas—especially from politically volatile regions. The jobs and the resource it produces are real—which benefit many.

But not everyone is celebrating.
Photo: Flicker/Adrian Kinloch

Critics of the process—ecologists across the globe and many who live in areas where high levels of natural gas deposits have captured the attention of energy companies—claim that fracking contaminates drinking water aquifers, pollutes surface waters, and generally makes life unpleasant. You’ll hear the word “poisoning” often from critics of hydrofracking, and perhaps for good reason.

In the upper mid-Atlantic region of the United States, in an area known as the Marcellus Shale deposits, local governments and homegrown activists are seeking to reign in the damage being done from fracking and things are heating up as people get impatient.

And so we have the classic conflict between jobs, energy, and profits versus local ecologies, homeowners’ rights, and public health—and it’s all making lots of news.

One significant problem is that environmental regulators seem to be in catch-up mode with the natural gas industry.

For instance, because so much water is needed for high-pressure injection, companies are hiring a good many local haulers who may or may not be trained in disposing of the collected, soiled water. Or the occasional hauler may struggle with ethics. And that’s where sin comes in: It is conceivable that local truckers may seek to forego long drives to water treatment facilities because dumping their contents into a local stream allows them to make more runs and pocket more money than they could if they followed the rules.

Then there’s the science behind the interplay of fracking with drinking water aquifers. A recent EPA report seems to justify the concerns of many neighboring residents of fracking operations, but more research is needed to know how to better regulate the industry.

I could go on—and I will as the story unfolds. But for now, I’d like pull back to the topic of the day: Christmas.

Photo: Flicker/Thomas Hawk
The need for a savior—for our King of Kings—is apparent when we witness firsthand the weakness of other human beings, and of ourselves. Sometimes evil seems to be unstoppable, or it seems to lurk within what should be a positive development for local economies.

But Christmas reminds us that sin has a divine, invincible opponent. As the Holy Father noted in his Christmas Eve homily:
For the people of pre-Christian times, whose response to the terrors and contradictions of the world was to fear that God himself might not be good either, that he too might well be cruel and arbitrary, this was a real “epiphany”, the great light that has appeared to us: God is pure goodness. Today too, people who are no longer able to recognize God through faith are asking whether the ultimate power that underpins and sustains the world is truly good, or whether evil is just as powerful and primordial as the good and the beautiful which we encounter in radiant moments in our world. “The kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed”: this is the new, consoling certainty that is granted to us at Christmas. In all three Christmas Masses, the liturgy quotes a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, which describes the epiphany that took place at Christmas in greater detail: “A child is born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace. Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end” (Is 9:5f.).
And so let we sinners rejoice at the coming of Christ into human history, because as this environmental regulator can attest to from the shortcomings of others—and most especially my own—we need Christ.

And for all those suffering from the ills of fracking, let us again pay heed to the Holy Father’s Christmas homily:
And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they – and we – may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of his Son in a stable. Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Archbishop Dolan, Frankincense, and marriage

While I was busy with Christmas preparations and year-end parish and diocesan work, a few big news items came along that need to be acknowledged.

The happiest of news is that this week, the Holy Father accepted a miracle attributed to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1880), placing her on the list for elevation to sainthood. Bl. Tekakwitha is the patron for all things ecological, and we are much in need of her intercession.

 I also came across insights on a growing environmental issue here in the US—one that, like what I'll be discussing below, has something to say about our need for a Savior. More on that in an upcoming post.

For now: Kudos to Archbishop Timothy Dolan for eloquently explaining the Holy Father’s ecological mindfulness. Here’s a sampling:
As the Holy Father teaches, just as disturbing the environment outside of us has dire consequences, so does contradicting the inner ecology of our very person harm ourselves and others.
Sadly, at the very time more and more people are realizing that the environment of nature and creation demands respect and protection, fewer and fewer people acknowledge that the ecology inherent in the human person needs reverence as well.
When the environment of the human person is “polluted” by disobedience to the natural law protecting it, there is, literally, “hell to pay,” for that individual, and for the common good.
As I’ve posted about herein (here, here, and here, for instance) the use of the term “human ecology” continues to unpacked by Church leaders—and rightly so. It is one that can help evangelize, catechize, and, thus, save souls.

Two recent news stories—one cultural, one ecological—make this point.

A report out on marriage by PEW Research Center notes that just under “half of all adults in the United States—a record low—are currently married, and the median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7).”

The report isn’t all bad news, but it does seem to show a cultural change in the way we in America view this ancient cultural foundation—which mirrors trends in other Western cultures, too. What are the societal impacts of all this? The report doesn’t dig deep into that question, but this line is telling:
Younger generations are more likely than those ages 50 and older to hold the view that marriage is becoming obsolete. Some 44% of blacks say marriage is becoming obsolete, compared with 36% of whites. Adults with college degrees (27%) are much less likely than those with a high school diploma or less (45%) to agree that marriage is becoming obsolete.
Interestingly, the report later notes that just under half of those who say that marriage is becoming obsolete also said they would like to be married. Clearly, a cultural conversation of epic proportions is taking place, a dialogue that is convincing people that a new age of freedom is approaching and that the old ways are dying. This, of course, is a lie. The only age that’s growing is a culture of death, one which seeks to undo the place and beauty of committed relationships between men and women.

In the eco-world, a Christmas report on the apparent demise of Frankincense shows us a natural-world example of what happens when cultures cooperate with death. Particularly, this is an example of what happens when people take what they want at unhealthy rates from unhealthy ecosystems. The reported reasons for the decline in the resin-producing trees are many, which demonstrates the interlocking nature of ecology and man’s impact on it.

In short, whether you’re speaking of Frankincense or marriage, there are ecologies in nature (human and natural) that we humans must respect. This “must” is not some sort of ethical nicety, but a hardwired reality in the fabric of the cosmos. We ignore such laws at our peril.

Which is why, quite obviously, we need help in saving ourselves and our ecology. And so we pray,

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Our purchases and our prayers

Published November 2011

In December 1958, Pope John XXIII denounced China’s treatment of Roman Catholics. At a consistory for the elevation of cardinals, the Holy Father noted, "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. Last year, Father Bernardo Cervellera, an observer of relations between Rome and China, pointed to a number of troubling activities. He noted that in many ways "we are back in the 1950s.”

Also troubling are China’s ecological and public health issues. Massive levels of pollution continue to be a deadly byproduct of the nation’s hyper-industrialization, which has grown out of the West’s love of paying low, low prices.

When we add everything up, we soon realize that something is wrong with China. And so we ask ourselves, should we be enabling these great ills?

No, we shouldn’t, which is why Catholics should stop buying religious goods from China. Low prices for crucifixes and statues are helpful to those here of little means, but the price being paid by the real people, families, and ecology of China is quite high. And remember, some of those real people are Chinese Catholics faithful to Rome, even if in doing so they find themselves persecuted.

In another troubled region there is a group of men and women who may provide us with a different sort of alternative to China’s factories—besides, of course, the important buy-American option.

The Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans is a business community rooted in the Holy Land that abides by “fair trade” philosophies and business practices. In part, that means they’re environmentally friendly. “Fair trade” means they seek to do business in a sustainable manner in areas where economies have failed the poor.

Originally comprised of mostly Christian families, the BFTA now has many Muslims working for and alongside Christians to make Christian religious items and many other goods, like jewelry, fine embroidery, soaps, and more. There’s a website below to browse and order from these women and men who seek to provide unique merchandise at competitive prices—and in so doing help maintain a healthy standard of living for places like Bethlehem and other areas of the Holy Land.

Suzan Sahori, the executive director of the BFTA, explained to me some of the struggles that the group faces: “Restrictions from nearby governments and the importing of very cheap replicas from foreign governments have caused a huge financial burden for the local artisans. While they continue to produce high quality handmade treasures, they are being outsold and undersold by cheap labor.”

Sahori mentioned the Israeli separation wall and other realities that make production and sales difficult for the artisans. But she noted optimism in her certainty that the principals of fair trade policies, as well as international support, can help. In time, she hopes that many small successes will show a growing audience how the fair trade practices can continue to benefit places like Bethlehem.

You and I can help this work. Our purchases and (especially) our prayers will go far to help the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans help their homes and families. Indeed, we should pray fervently for the intercession of St. Joseph, not just for these artisans in Bethlehem but also for the factory workers in China; both groups struggle for dignity and a fair wage in an uncertain world.

Our boycott of Chinese religious goods and our purchases from the BFTA can discourage bad practices while encouraging good. And our prayers for both peoples will be in good hands with the patron of workers. Moreover, such prayers will remind us that we share a common humanity and the same Lord, who came among us to shepherd home the many peoples of the human race.

Visit the BFTA web site here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Immaculate Conception: A reminder of God's primacy

Father, the image of the Virgin is found in the Church. Mary had a faith that your Spirit prepared and a love that never knew sin, for you kept her sinless from the first moment of her conception. Trace in our actions the lines of her love, in our hearts her readiness of faith. Prepare once again a world for your Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Carbon, climate, and ongoing criticism

First, I’d like to thank Ian from the Catholic Laboratory for interviewing me as part of his series on the Catholic engagement of science. Visit his site here and access the interview here. It was an honor to chat about the Catholic perspective of ecology for his listeners.

One topic discussed was, of course, climate change. Since recording this podcast, a few items on the topic have come to light that are worth sharing.

One is a recent study published by the United States Department of the Interior. It looks at how the natural world stores carbon. This is knowledge that may very well be helpful in understanding how we can live and work on Earth in better balance with the created order.

According to the Department of Interior:
“This report will give tools to the policymakers, land managers and the public to make sound decisions, such as whether to restore wetlands, harvest trees, develop agricultural lands, or consider no-till farming practices,” said [Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J.] Hayes. For example, a community might need to decide whether to convert grasslands and forests to croplands or urban areas to meet the demands of a growing population. Such decisions have varying consequences related to carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions.
Changes in carbon storage are driven by both short- and long-term changes to the landscape. In the Great Plains, carbon storage is expected to increase based on near-future land use and management practices such as decreased timber harvesting and changes to crop management, including expanded fertilizer applications and no-till farming. The rate of increase is projected to slow somewhat over time due to climate change and land-use transitions such as grasslands or forests conversion to croplands or urban areas.
For engineers, planners and regulators, this is a meaningful study. For all of us, it simply shows that we are not always at war with nature, and vice versa.

Sadly, Catholic leaders are often criticized when they speak of such science. While I’ve posted on this just recently, I have to once again note my dismay at how some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are responding to Catholic concerns on ecology—especially climate change.

Here we get to another item in the news: As reported by Vatican Radio, Caritas Internationalis President Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga described any failure of recent climate talks in Durban, South Africa as “moral apartheid.”

In his impassioned homily on the Second Sunday of Advent, given at Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban, Cardinal Maradiaga preached the following:
The first Reading already called on us to “Console my people, console them”. Barely a week ago, torrential downpours caused a great deal of suffering and death in Durban. Don’t we realise that the climate is out of control? How long will countless people have to go on dying before adequate decisions are taken? It’s true that in faith we wait “for the new heavens and the new earth” as the second Reading told us, but this does not mean indifference or complicity with those who destroy this land where we live. “Living holy and saintly lives” means living in justice with creation and the environment, and especially with the poor people who are the primary victims of this serious problem. In the desert John “cried out” the need to prepare a way for the Lord. Today, in the desert of our planet Earth, and in the desert of our hearts, the same voice is ringing out. This conference of delegates from so many countries cannot remain as a voice silenced by economic power. It’s a voice that cries out and calls on us to: “Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” At least for the moment, we should set aside our lists of pending tasks to listen to this voice that is clamouring within us: “Console my people, console them.” Powerful nations of the world, we are expecting from you the courageous decisions the world needs to live in peace and solidarity.
He then goes on to explore the personal, inner struggles each of us have in clearing a path for God, but his focus returns to the issues of the human suffering caused by a changing climate, and, thus, the importance of the UN climate conference.

News of the homily did not sit well with some. Postings at the Catholic World News site, for instance, were mostly critical of the Cardinal, and harshly so.

Here’s a sampling:
  • Your Eminence, the climate has always been and will always be out of control! The entire program of those who claim we are ruining the climate is to limit development by limiting energy production -- this is the worst thing that can happen to poor people. The people behind the panic are the anti-population, anti-development nihilists who are no friends of the poor.
  • The more Cardinals talk this way about socio-political topics, the less trust I put in their judgment. Cardinals would do better to build up the Faith and restore Tradition rather than offering oblations to every sacred cow of this benighted age.
  • Well, when it comes to green issues, count me an advocate of moral apartheid. It is becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously much of anything that comes out of the Vatican on economic or environmental affairs.
Once again we see the unfortunate and unnecessary war between political ideologies fouling the dialogue between faith and reason. I know that this is to be expected in our fallen world and with our fallen human nature, but I don’t have to like it.

I discuss some of this in the Catholic Laboratory interview, but I’ll repeat a brief bit here. Our understanding of anthropomorphic climate change is as about as sound as one can get in the world of science. And what the science implies is this: Existing patterns of water and food supplies will alter as does the climate, and this will bring hardship to populations that can’t easily move with such shifts. The science is also telling us that weather patters, thermal energy, and moisture concentrations will also shift as does the climate. Again, this will cause harm to people. Harm will also come from rising levels of the world's oceans, seas, bays, and estuaries—rises that are already being recorded and noticed.

One can understand some of the points made by critics of Cardinal Maradiaga’s homily. It is not appropriate to equate individual weather events with climate. But it seems that what the Cardinal was referring to is not individual events, but patterns of events experienced and communicated to him by many in his care. And climate is about patterns.

I commend the Cardinal for his homily and his passion. As a good pastor who has most certainly learned at thing or two from his time hearing confessions, sometimes we really can see the patterns of sin in the world. And when we do, we must respond, repent, and change our ways so that we can prepare the way for the Lord—even if such repenting, changing, and preparing is painful.

And so here at this contentious intersection of faith, reason, carbon, and climate, I’ll end on a happy note—with an Irish blessing sent to me just today by a wonderful woman in my parish. In her Christmas note to me she wrote this, which I wish now to you, to Cardinal Maradiaga, and to those who criticize him:
May life gently lead you through its lush fields of good fortune, and always may God fill your heart with peace and understanding.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Isaiah and the nature of holiness

I’m back from Rome and have much to share from news in the eco-world. But before getting mired in anything too scientific, let's first look to today’s Mass readings—especially this passage of Isaiah, which is rich with natural imagery. Clearly, this inspired author meant to convey the important place of the created world in God’s plan.

Reading the prophet’s words reminds me of a moment I had while in Rome. After five days in the city—with its often frantic sounds and bustle—I was delighted to visit the Abbey of Tre Fontane, the site of St. Paul’s beheading. While it is home to a terrible event in our history, it is nonetheless a wonderfully peaceful oasis, as this picture attempts to show. Such is the nature of holy places. Indeed, as Isaiah tells us, where God is present . . .
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
They will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water;
The abode where jackals lurk
will be a marsh for the reed and papyrus.
A highway will be there,
called the holy way;
No one unclean may pass over it,
nor fools go astray on it.
No lion will be there,
nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it.
It is for those with a journey to make,
and on it the redeemed will walk.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
They will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
Is 35:1-10