Javascript Redirect

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Catholic Consultation: The Church probes climate change

Faith and reason shared the spotlight in Washington D.C. last week at a conference examining justice, ecology, and climate change—all through the lens of Catholic thought, most especially that of Pope Benedict XVI.

"A Catholic Consultation on Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States" brought together five bishops, a dozen academic presenters, renowned moderators, and a great many others seeking to unpack the words of Pope Benedict XVI in the context of emerging scientific understandings of a changing climate. [See a listing of conference presenters and talks at the close of this post.]

Dan Misleh, Executive Director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, described the tone of the conference as grateful for the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI but also urgent.

This urgency was underscored by the event’s keynote address, the Most Rev. Bernard Unabali, Bishop of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Bishop Unabali has assisted in the relocation of men, women, and children from the Carteret Islands, which have been loosing ground—literally—to rising seas. It is estimated that the islands will be entirely submerged by 2015. The fifty-mile relocation of the Carteret Islands' inhabitants to the larger island of Bougainville is an ongoing process and one in which the Church is actively engaged.

The Most Rev. Frank J. Dewane, Bishop of Venice, Florida, and representative of the Committee on International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, introduced and welcomed Bishop Unabali, who since the conference has visited New York and Boston to speak about matters back home—news that surely resonated with audiences of the post-Sandy East Coast.

The presence and contributions at the conference of so many clergy and successors of the Apostles added greatly to discussions about the present Successor of Peter, especially given his engagement of ecological ills and the moral realities that they present to the Church and all people of goodwill.

In noting the gratitude for the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI shared by conference presenters and guests, Misleh said that the Holy Father “has been a leader not only in speaking such wonderful words with dynamism, but also in practice—especially in working to make Vatican City carbon-neutral.”

Misleh added that “we recognized that [climate change] is something we must continue to understand—especially the causes and the consequences—and we need to consider what people of faith can do.” He noted that the conference’s academic papers “can’t just sit on a shelf” but must enter into the Church’s liturgical and pastoral life.

He’s right. Moreover, discussions on the impacts of climate change must also enter the public square.

In my professional work as an environmental regulator, the need for understanding and dialogue—for the sharing of information and support—about climate change is a growing reality. Planning the locations and technologies for water pollution control infrastructure, for instance, has already been impacted by real-world information on rising sea levels, increasing storm surge, and more intense rain events. All this translates into new sorts of decisions for state and local officials.  

There is also the matter of energy—how much we use and how we produce it. Again, here I think of my own experiences. My office has been fortunate to work with the local energy utility (National Grid) and the state’s largest wastewater treatment utility (the Narragansett Bay Commission) in a joint effort to reduce the energy used by statewide wastewater treatment infrastructure—all of which uses lots of electricity to move millions of gallons of water every day, not to mention great quantities of air that many facilities use to help microorganisms purify the wastewater. To reduce electricity usage generated by fossil fuels—and to save on their electric bill—the Narragansett Bay Commission has installed three wind turbines that will generate about forty-percent of one of its facility’s electricity. I’ll write more on this later—it deserves its own post—but for now it must be stressed that this story of industrial-sized renewable energy is just one example of how we can change the way we do business so that we don’t change too much of how the climate goes about its own.

Such real-world issues underscore the need for—and appreciation of—academic conferences like the one held last week by bishops and scholars. Both vocations have a teaching authority and both have a unique responsibility to do exactly what Pope Benedict XVI has been doing: calling attention to how human activity can flaunt, impact, and be impacted by the natural order.

“I was thrilled to be able to converse with the bishops who were truly open to listening and responding,” said conference participant Jame Schaefer, Ph.D., Ethics Director and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Marquette University. “We have a treasure chest of sources to retrieve and much work ahead as theologians to help the bishops, priests in our parishes, and catechetical organizers of youth and adult education programs when they want our input.”

Dr. Schaefer added that as she participated in the conference, she grew in appreciation that “the bishops [are] key messengers whose encouragement and affirmation we theologians need and want as we struggle to respond to human-forced climate change from the Catholic theological tradition. Yet we too are messengers of our research and reflections, catechists are messengers to Catholic youth and adults, and priests have the most expansive opportunities as messengers through their homilies. Thus, there is much for all to do, and we theologians need to help them when asked to the best of our abilities.”

Dr. Schaefer is correct that there is much work for all to do—and hopefully this conference is the first of many. 

Going forward, I will share as many specifics as possible about the presentations as they come my way. But for now, let us pray that God blesses all those who participated and organized this conference, and all those who will benefit from the good work done by the participating scholars and the bishops.  

The conference's sessions included:

Human and Natural Ecology/Human Life and Dignity. Presenters: Br. Keith Douglas Warner, OFM, Ph.D., Associate Adjunct Lecturer, Santa Clara University: “Bonaventure in Benedict: Franciscan Fingerprints on 'Human Ecology' in Papal Teaching.” Mary A. Ashley, Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Theological Union: “If You Want Responsibility, Build Relationship: A Personalist Approach to Benedict XVI’s Environmental Vision.” Michael Baur, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Adjunct Professor of Law, and Director of the Natural Law Colloquium, Fordham University: “Natural Law and the Natural Environment: Pope Benedict XVI's Vision Beyond Utilitarianism and Deontology.” (Moderator: William D. Dinges, Ph.D., Ordinary Professor of Religious Studies, School of Theology and Religious Studies, The Catholic University of America.)

Solidarity, Justice, Poverty and the Common Good. Presenters: Scott Hefelfinger, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Notre Dame. “Human, Social, and Natural Ecology: Three Ecologies, One Cosmology, and the Common Good.” Christiana Z. Peppard, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Theology & Science, Fordham University: “Commodifying Creation? Benedict XVI's Vision of the Goods of Creation Intended for All.” Matthew P. Whelan, Ph.D. Candidate, Duke University: “The Grammar of Creation: Agriculture in the Thought of Pope Benedict XVI.” (Moderator: Tobias Winright, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, St. Louis University.)

Sacramentality of Creation. Presenters: Elizabeth Groppe, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology, Xavier University: “The Way of Wisdom.” Rev. Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, M.Div., S.T.D., Ordinary Professor of Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology, The Catholic University of America: “The World as God’s Icon: Creation, Sacramentality, Liturgy.” Jeremiah Vallery, Ph.D. Candidate, Duquesne University: “Cosmic Liturgy: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States.” (Moderator: Jame Schaefer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology, Marquette University.)

Our Catholic Faith in Action. Presenters: Fr. John T. Brinkman, M.M., Ph.D., Historian of Religions: “Discernment of the Church and the Dynamics of the Climate Change Conferences.” David Cloutier, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology, Mount St. Mary’s University: “American Lifestyles and Structures of Sin: The Practical Implications of Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the American Church.” Anselma T. Dolcich-Ashley, Ph.D., Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow, University of Notre Dame: “American Nature Writing As a Critically-Appropriated Resource for Catholic Ecological Ethics.” (Moderator: Fr. John Haughey, S.J., Ph.D., Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.)

A wrap-up session, moderated by Br. Keith Douglas Warner, OFM, Ph.D., Associate Adjunct Lecturer, Santa Clara University, included presentations by Dr. Schaefer and Dr. Winright.

Mass was celebrated on Friday evening by the Most Rev. William S. Skylstad, Bishop Emeritus of Spokane and Honorary Chairman, Catholic Coalition on Climate Change. Past President, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Most Rev. Donald J. Kettler, Bishop of Fairbanks, Alaska, was the homilist.


  1. As a participant in the conference I was energized by the dialogue which was honest and challenging. It was refreshing to hear such depth of theological thinking on such a critical area. One take away for me was Dan's response to some in the group who said change takes time in the Church. Dan said "we don't have time." He is right on! Thanksm Dan!


Thanks for commenting. No input or question is too small. You're encouraged to be passionate, feisty, and humorous. But do so with civility, please.