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Monday, January 30, 2012

The right and wrong of the Right (and Left)

A recent commentary by Steven Cohen, writing for the Huffington Post, explores the failures of many Republicans to champion the natural environment. This follows a similar piece a few weeks back by Rick Ungar, writing in Forbes, which largely takes Rick Santorum to task.

These writers, and so many others, make a good point. In catering to the far-right elements of their base, current Republican presidential hopefuls often espouse sloppy science and are irritating many in the pro-life camp.

In part, Cohen puts it this way:
The attack on climate science and regulation seems to be red meat for the Republican primary voters this winter, but that is a pretty soft target for attack. The political problem with climate change is that its cause cannot always be seen or smelled, and its impact is largely in the future. Attacking regulation is also easy, since rules may be respected and even understood, but they are rarely loved. Still, Newt and Mitt may be forgetting something pretty fundamental: people like to breathe. A Harris poll this fall reported that 75% of Americans support stricter environmental protection. While this broke down as 90% of all Democrats and 54% of all Republicans, even those opposing most government regulation understand the need for effective policing of environmental pollution.
Part of the problem, however, is that some on the right are not all wrong when it comes to big government. And remember, I write as a government regulator as well as a Catholic ecologist. Clearly, I see the value of government watchdogs that protect the public from businesses, individuals, and even other government agencies that put profit or expediency before public health or the ecological common good.

But I also cringe when people propose that a clean world will certainly come from some new legislation and more funding of regulators like me. As the saying goes, you can’t legislate good behavior.

Few put it better than Pope Benedict XVI in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Embedded in this beautiful bombshell of a papal encyclical are these words about how Church and State should relate:
The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.
Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.
It’s hard to keep typing after that. What can I add?

Well, maybe this: As a government regulator, ecologist, and a Catholic, I implore politicians and pundits of all ideologies to remember that the addition or rejection of human statutes and regulations mean nothing if humans can’t first embrace the eternal truths revealed to us by the God who is love.

As our Lord teaches us – Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, Occupiers and Tea Partiers alike – "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12)."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Roe vs. Wade vs. reason: Part 2

There’s been a backlash recently when ecology is catergorized as a life issue. This needs addressing.

Last year on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I wrote of the hypocrisy exhibited by some who seek to save seals and rain forests but not unborn people. “For Catholic Ecologists, the link between ecological advocacy and abortion is obvious,” I wrote. “And denying this link results in angst for many so-called ‘pro-choice’ environmentalists.”

It is reasonable to claim that this works in reverse, too. Those of us who seek an end to the cultural acceptance of abortion are also called to protect earth’s ecology. As noted in this blog’s masthead quote by the Holy Father, there is a link between “our duties towards the environment” and “our duties towards the human person.”

Certainly, this link is not an equivalency. Pope Benedict is teaching us that the mystery of life – of organic, living, interconnected, reproducing entities that came into existence following natural laws that were embedded in the cosmos by God at the moment of creation – is diverse and, at the same time, unified.

Put another way, all life must be in relation if it really is life. Relation is the very being of the Triune God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Moreover, we are made in the image of God and, as the Book of Genesis reveals to us, human life is the pinnacle and steward of all creation. To better explore what this all means, we ponder the words of the Holy Father:
The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature.
As millions gather in Washington D.C. on this anniversary of Roe vs. Wade – an annual act of love for life that goes largely unreported by the mainstream media – we must also pause to remember the millions of children, born and unborn, and adults, that have been damaged or killed by poisons in our water, air, and food. Such causes of death are linked to – but, again, not the same type of evil as – the killing of babies in a mother’s womb.

And so we as a people of life must also familiarize ourselves with and work to end the effects of environmental poisons such as pesticides, PCBs, formaldehyde, asbestos, lead, aldrin/dieldrin, mercury, benzo(a)pyrene, mirex, chlordane, octachlorostyrene, DDT, hexachlorobenzene, dioxins and furans, and toxaphene. To name a few.

Indeed, in working with those in the ecological advocacy world who fight to protect humanity from such poisons, we can bring the Gospel of Life and expand their understanding of what it means to be an environmentalist. We must teach that to be green means to work to save the lives of the unborn.

Last point: Our ancient enemy delights in our internal squabbling. Satan wins when we isolate ourselves into subject-specific cliques that, while we are perhaps well-meaning, are not open to dialogue with those who fight other, similar battles. I saw a small defeat of such isolation on Saturday, as I joined a large gathering of Catholics that prayed the Rosary in front of an abortion mill in Cranston, Rhode Island during the early hours of a snowy day. For purposes of plowing, parking was restricted on the main streets. As I walked along unshoveled sidewalks towards the line of people praying the Rosary, I had to pass two pro-choice protestors. They didn’t know where I stood in the fight as I had just arrived and my rosary was in my pocket. We chatted about the snow and the parking ban. We joked about the city’s inability to plow the side streets, making those the safer choice for our cars. We laughed. Then I took out my rosary and proceeded to join my brothers and sisters seeking to save lives. The pro-abortion woman that I had been pleasantly chatting with gave a surprised look. Maybe she realized that she had something in common with one of the pro-life protesters. Either way, Satan must not have been happy, because for a moment, two people on opposite sides of the issue had been friendly. Our common experiences had brought us together. A road to dialogue and love was plowed clean and made passable, if only briefly.

If the war for life is to be won and won soon, we must sneak past the defenses of those who need a change of heart. We must be open to dialogue in whatever form it comes.

Thus, the point: If pro-life advocates cannot first dialogue with each other – with those who do and do not seek to connect ecology with all life issues – then how are we ever going to love, communicate with, and change the hearts of those many others who have fallen so deeply into the shadow of the culture of death?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Key to Keystone

President Obama’s decision this week to halt the controversial Keystone pipeline – a hyper-conduit for oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast – sparked predictable commentary from our friends on each end of the political spectrum.

Thomas Pyle, writing in, summed up much of the criticism against the president’s decision. Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that we must not only thank the president, we must also rethink how to feed our insatiable hunger for energy. For a balanced look at the decision, we find this in the Washington Post.

Such balance is important. In much of the coverage of the (temporary, politically motivated?) defeat of the Keystone project, the notion that our economy and our ecology need not be at odds seems to have gotten lost. We must reclaim and proclaim this ecology-economy link.

Indeed, the interrelation inherent within both – the fact that economies and ecologies are, in their own ways, living exchanges of resources – speaks to a similarity between them. There is a dialogue between how man uses resources and how people benefit (or are harmed) because of human choices.

This calls to mind the Catholic relational worldview. Just as God’s grace and human nature, church and state, male and female, and so much more, are meant to be in relation, ecologies and economies must speak to each other. A pristine, untouched planet is not quite in humanity’s best interest, nor is one scorched and gouged for our gluttony.

As for Keystone, the project would help resuscitate our economy. But extracting and piping oil by the millions of gallons across the nation’s heartland – and its breadbasket – would certainly be an undertaking. It would come with risks: Think offshore drilling and the BP Gulf oil spill. Still, we humans have built and managed engineering marvels before. Maintaining them becomes the question, which raises the issue of dedicated humans doing their jobs, which raises the problem of Original Sin and human greed and laziness, but that’s for another column.

For now, we should note that within hours of the president’s decisions, there is talk of alternatives. Not just sustainable alternatives like wind power and solar, but a different way of working with our Canadian cousins to safely tap their energy reserves.

Environmentalists say that this is not possible – that the wicked witch is dead and must stay so. I wonder. Because the engineer in me – and my Catholic ecological sensibilities – has me wondering if we might want to discuss this a little more, if our once great ingenuity can find a way to make this work, even if temporarily. Dialogue and reason are, after all, tools we should not so easily dismiss.

I would encourage this conversation. Because without Keystone, Canada will look for other markets and they have said something about Asia. That is uncomfortable news for two reasons: If Asia gets this fuel, the planet will still be exposed to its climate-altering byproducts – perhaps even more so – and our competitors will be promised a plentiful source of easy-to-use fuel to feed their own economies and not ours.

So before we break out the champagne, let us remember that in the real world, not everyone plays by the same rules. And so, might not it be in our best interest – and the planet’s – to commit to work with Canada to develop new ways of extracting, transporting, and using this fuel source, and to do so in clean, manageable ways?

The key to Keystone, then, seems to be our American ingenuity, one that can fuel American jobs today as it helps us transition to a clean, prosperous future for Americans not yet born.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Today at work, my state agency opened its doors to local environmental groups, researchers, and others whose mission is ecological protection. Also attending was the Gospel, although it may have been easy to miss if you weren't paying attention.

The event's purpose was to encourage partnerships between the government and the advocates that want to help. In these days of reduced government budgets, the need to partner with others is necessary, even if it is something we should have been doing all along.

As a person of faith – which I shared in the introductions, that I was not just an engineer with my agency, but that I also worked with “faith-based groups” in the area of ecology – I listened intently as everyone shared in the conversation.

There was the schooled eco-advocate and nurse – a delightful, dignified, smiling woman who labors to build a healthy world, and so reduce the suffering she sees all too often at her job. There was the eco-lobbyist who asked for my card because she wanted to work with people of faith. There was a young man dedicated to issues of environmental justice who offered to help with an upcoming talk on the ethics of climate change.

And there was the Gospel of life, present in a small but real ways among people fighting specific battles in the greater war for life. Sure, we may not all be in agreement on every issue that I as a Catholic profess, teach, and defend. But that’s the point. We’re nonetheless building alliances and friendships and, in doing so, living in the same community, making eye contact, and shaking hands. 

Such interaction is the stuff of being Catholic because it invites strangers into friendships that encourage a greater communion.

One last observation: I was struck with what one local ecological veteran shared as he spoke about many relevant and weighty issues. He noted that for a “green economy” to be fostered there is need for a “civil renewal.” This thread of conversation didn’t receive the attention it deserved – the time was meant to begin, not complete, conversations. And anyway, I don’t think many knew what he meant by the term, nor do I for sure. But “civil renewal” did sound something like what the Holy Father has been speaking of in the use of the term “inner attitudes,” and how we must change ours if we are to confront the starvation that is killing millions.

I am always sad when Catholics or those of other faiths criticize ecology. As today’s gathering has shown me once again, ecology is a graced way of blending science, faith, and life – and in so doing, helping to bring about an authentic “civil renewal” needed for the good of all mankind.

May Saint Francis and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha pray for all ecologists, and may we all work to offer a clean, healthy, and sustainable global community for many, many generations not yet born.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Epiphanies: Seeking God in the natural order

Column published: January 5th, 2012

As we approach the Feast of the Epiphany—when the Magi discovered God’s unexpected revelation in the newborn Jesus Christ—two news stories demonstrate humanity’s need for a savior.

A report on marriage by the PEW Research Center finds that marriage rates in America dropped 5% from 2009 to 2010. From a wider perspective, only 51% of those ages 18 and older are married today, a stunning figure compared to fifty years ago, when 72% of all adults were married.

The report isn’t all bad news, but it does show a shift in how Americans view this ancient cultural foundation. What are the societal impacts of all this? The report doesn’t dig deep into that question, but this finding is telling:

“Younger generations are more likely than those ages 50 and older to hold the view that marriage is becoming obsolete.”

Interestingly, the report later notes that just under half of those who say that marriage is becoming a thing of the past also said they would like to be married. These responders seem to be like the Magi—living in one world while seeking the certain presence elsewhere of a greater truth.

In fact, the PEW report shows us that a cultural conversation of epic proportions is taking place, a dialogue that seeks to convince younger generations that the old ways are dying while a new age of freedom approaches. This, of course, is a lie. While a new age does seek to supplant the tried and true, its nature is not one of freedom but of death—one which, in part, seeks to undo the place and beauty of graced, committed relationships between married men and women.

In the eco-world, a December 20th report published in the Journal of Applied Ecology examines the apparent demise of Frankincense. In short, the study provides a natural-world example of what happens when cultures cooperate with death.

Specifically, news of declining numbers of Boswellia tree species—from which comes the resin that that gives us Frankincense—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, but in all they demonstrate the interlocking nature of ecology and man’s impact on it.

In short, whether you’re speaking about the decline of Frankincense or marriage, there are laws in nature 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.

This is the very point made by the Holy Father whenever he draws attention to the relation between natural ecology and “human ecology.” That is, just as the pagan Magi of old found the true God in Christ, so secular naturalists today who search in ecosystems for the truths of life can find divinity, if they wish, when they discover how other natural laws foster, nurture, and protect the fragile gift of human life and the even more fragile necessity of the family.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ecology and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Photo By Lawrence OP
The Fall 2011 edition of the journal Communio has a wonderful essay by Stratford and LĂ©onie Caldecott. “Divine Touch: The Laying on of Hands” explores beautifully the place of the human body in salvation history. The essay may eventually be online, but for now I will try to do it justice with a few quotes. I hope what I’ve selected shows how this work speaks volumes about the meaning of this day – the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God – and about ecology.
All religious traditions try to read the body symbolically, and the various schools of traditional medicine are based on imagined correspondences between each part of the body and some element or component of the universe at large. The human body is like a very dense, very complex poem. We know it is dense with meaning because it is made by and in the image of God. Our attempts to decipher it in the past may have been crude, but they were based on valid intuition. In recent times, we have neglected the symbolic dimension almost completely, to our loss. As Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1989, “bodiliness reaches the metaphysical depths and is the basis of a symbolic metaphysics whose denial or neglect does not ennoble man but destroys him,” Among other things, a blindness to symbolism and its “metaphysical depths” renders Scripture almost unintelligible. The “theology of the body” developed by Pope John Paul II was precisely an attempt to read Scripture and the human body as two books that illuminate one another, revealing what it means to be human.
Indeed, as Catholic ecologists know well, there is a truth to the order of all creation that speaks to us – that reveals to us – something about our Creator.
Becoming incarnate, God respects the natural symbolism of his own creation, and uses it. Christ walks on the water, raises his gaze to heaven, rubs spittle into a man’s eyes to heal them, breathes on the disciples to communicate the Holy Spirit, and lays his hands on people in order to bless them.
The wounds of Christ’s body are sacramental, and have inspired particular devotion. They are not simply washed away by the resurrection, but glorified.
Truly, the Caldecotts give us much to relish. The incarnation of God – the Word becoming flesh as a human person – elevates our expectations and appreciation of the human body and, indeed, the whole being of humanity.

Contrast this to the place of the body in popular culture and in pornography. In those spheres, the body is seen in a raw, meaty way, devoid of any cosmic significance or connection – sort of like the way we humans can sometimes look at creation, as a heap of resources to use as we wish. Of course, our human evolution has certainly endowed us with lust so that the species can procreate, and do so with those who (for better or for worse) attract us the most. But with Christ, we are no longer limited to seeing bodiliness simply as biology. With Him, we enter into a deeper relationship and companionship with creation – with our bodies and our cosmos.

This is why the dogmatic proclamation of this feast day is so important. This is why the residents of Ephesus cheered through the streets on that day in 431 A.D. when the church’s bishops declared that, yes, Mary is truly the theotokos – the God bearer, the Mother of God.

Indeed, for Christian theology to lift up the human person in the manner in which God has revealed, the Word-becoming-flesh required the human cooperation of a mother, of a womb, of DNA, of organic molecules, of sub-atomic particles, of living, human, motherly matter and will.

Likewise, in the proclamation that Mary is the Mother of God, all creation is elevated by Christ. After all, through the Word of God, all creation came from nothing, detonated outwards and mingled for billions of years to bring into existence our sun and our planet and our carbon, nitrogen, iron, and so many other elements, that build us up from the inside. And now, this creation keeps us alive with ecologies that circulate and exchange oxygen and water and thermal energy. This is why ecology is a matter of vital importance to Catholics. As was Mary to Christ, the cosmos and especially our planet provide the human race – and especially the Body of Christ – an earthly womb to grow and a home for salvation history to unfold.

What a miracle and a blessing it is to be part of this great and wonderful race of creatures – a race so loved by God that he joined it to save us.

And so we entrust 2012 and all our lives and souls, our intentions and our great joys and thanks to the Blessed Mother as we pray

Hail Mary,
Full of Grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of death.