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Monday, December 31, 2012

The 2012 top ten moments in Catholic ecology

Assisi, Italy
Whether from the Magisterium, scholars, or students, whether from Kenya, Rome, the United States of America, or the United Kingdom—whether as direct statements on science or as a teaching tool on the natural order—Catholic voices have contributed much in 2012 to matters of the natural and human environment. 

Here are my top ten:

10: Catholic ecology meets the press

I’ll get this out of the way as it is a tad self-serving. I was either interviewed for or wrote some of these pieces, so I don’t want to overstate the matter. However, it was good to see so much interest in ecology by Catholic publications—and so I’d like to begin by thanking everyone for making that possible.

First, we have The Catholic Laboratory podcasts. Ian Maxfield, the Catholic Lab’s curator and mastermind, has interviewed me in late 2011 and again in 2012. The 2012 podcast was a look at the motion picture based on the Dr. Suess book The Lorax, the creature that speaks for the trees. Ian is a wonderfully talented Catholic evangelizer in the brave new world of the internet, and he’s doing a fine service for the Church in showcasing the Catholic faith-reason link that has helped build Western Civilization.

In April, the Catholic Exchange published a piece I wrote surveying the Holy Father’s use of ecology as a tool for evangelization.

In June, Carl Olson at Catholic World Report was kind enough to run my piece on "The Orthodoxy of Catholic Ecology" and a review in July of English philosopher Roger Scruton's How to Think Seriously about the Planet. The former piece received some odd commentary from folks who did not approve of the Church’s involvement in ecology. Fortunately, a few others defended the ideas I presented. Thank you Carl for these much appreciated opportunities!

Then there was the cover story on “The Green Pope” in the July issue of Legatus Magazine. It was an overview of the Holy Father’s statements and practical applications of ecological protection. Editor Patrick Novecosky and the article’s author Sabrina Arena Ferrisi are to be commended for helping their audience of business leaders better appreciate why the Holy Father is “the green pope.”

A flurry of other eco-articles, blogs, and opinion pieces appeared in 2012. Please post your favorites that I have not mentioned in the comments below.

9. Philippine Archbishop says no to more mining

In February, the Philippine reported that Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma urged a moratorium on mining activities, tying mining practices to widespread damage wrought by Typhoon Sendong in December, 2011.

The news report (which is no longer on the BusinessMirror website), noted that  
Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ, DD, a long and staunch defender of the environment, has repeatedly called for a stop to all mining operations in the city and in the country and has scored the seeming “business as usual” stance of city government officials following the devastation caused by Sendong.
8: Ecology’s strong showing at the International Congress on Medieval Studies

Catholic ecologists should know about two papers given at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held every May at Western Michigan University.

First, Monica Ehrlich, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia, presented a wonderful paper on the seventh-century St. Giles, who was an environmentalist long before the concept came into being as we know it today. From my blog post on Ehrlich’s paper: 
The bottom line of all this is that at the core of St. Giles’ love of the land and of creatures—and of his critique of the gluttony of the wealthy—is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church. Giles understood (perhaps rather elaborately) what it meant to be a protector of the natural world and, thus, how we humans must be related to it.  
St. Giles
Catholic ecologists are indebted to Ms. Ehrlich. She has helped provide a specific example of the innate Catholic respect for ecology—which is helpful, given that some voices in the secular eco-world are known to consider the Church a later arrival in ecological protection.

On the same panel, Dr. Elspeth Whitney of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, critiqued an essay by Lynn White.

White’s essay was a watershed event in a popular—and wrong—understanding of the Church’s role in the West’s propensity for environmental harm. Dr. Whitney was not acting as an apologist for the Church, but her thoughtful, balanced presentation resonated with Ms. Ehrlich’s paper. Both helped put the Catholic perspective of nature in a more historically accurate light than White and his adherents would claim.

7. Earth Day fell on a Sunday

This may not seem like big news, but that April 22—Earth Day—was a Sunday in 2012 provided an opportunity for many pastors to preach on the Catholic perspective of ecology. (Mine did. And it was great to hear.) After all, there is a significant connection between the Sunday joy of the Resurrection and the promise made for all creation—for the new heaven and the new earth.

6.      The Joint Declaration on Life

A number of pro-life, pro-environmental voices joined forces to issue an ecumenical, “whole-life” Joint Declaration on Life. Written by members of various Christian traditions—principally Evangelical and Catholic—the Declaration saw a fair bit of interest in its initial outing. Funding and attention to other issues prevented some of the backers from continuing the momentum—but one hopes that in 2013 this document will continue to see more signatories.

5. The Dioceses of Youngstown and Cleveland show how it’s done

In late June, the Diocesan Social Action Office of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, and the Office of Social Action for the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, sponsored a unique forum on fracking—the rather troublesome technique for extracting natural gas deep below the groundwater of millions. As I noted in my posting, the dual-diocesan event was one that other Catholic institutions should abundantly replicate. Indeed, this gathering did what Catholics do in such times of crisis—what we've been doing for 2,000 years: incorporate faith, reason, and a call for a virtuous life.

Speaking at the conference was Mr. Peter MacKenzie of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, Dr. John F. Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, and Dr. Jame Schaefer, an associate professor of theology at Marquette University and author of Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts. Kudos to them all and to all those who organized and executed this important Catholic event!

4. Pope Benedict XVI’s Easter Vigil homily speaks of the cosmos, communities, and bees

The Holy Father gave an exceptional homily during the Easter Vigil in 2012. He referred to the cosmic ramifications of the Christian faith by calling attention to the humble bees that provide the wax for candles that bring physical light to our liturgies—most especially the Paschal Candle. By accident or design, this homily came at a time when scientists were studying declining populations of bees, likely due to pesticide use. Here are the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect. It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees. So the whole of creation plays its part. In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light. But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church. The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’ĂȘtre is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.

 3. A new Prince of the Church has a strong environmental justice track record

The November consistory on the Saturday before the Feast of Christ the King saw the elevation of six archbishops to the rank of cardinal. One of them has spoken refreshingly about ecological issues in his home continent of Africa. John Cardinal Onaiyekan of AbujaNigeria has participated in United Nation conferences and other forums about the impacts of climate change on Africa as well as how global industrialization increases the demand on that continent for resources, and not always with good ends.

Read the blog post for his words—and say a prayer for Cardinal Onaiyekan and the entire College of Cardinals as they engage a world increasingly hostile to Christianity—and to all of creation.

2. His Excellency Bishop James Maria Wainaina of Kenya issues a pastoral letter on caring for creation

Bishop Wainaina’s beautiful pastoral letter gives witness to the important role of our bishops in speaking on environmental issues. In his letter, Bishop Wainaina writes this: 
We invite all the Christ faithful: religious, clergy, catechists and laity; including, Youth, Catholic Women Associations, Catholic Men Associations and all other lay associations to prioritize their engagement with environmental care as a way of appreciating and advancing the creative mission of God whose image we bear.The areas of engagement include, in general: education, farming and agriculture and tree planting. Through our Catholic institutions, schools, parishes, retreat centres, pastoral centres, shrines and Church owned land, we are committed to realize this dream of building a healthy society, a healthy earth and a healthy Church.
(Note that I learned about this letter first from my friend Al Ottaro of Kenya, Executive Director of Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa. Al mentioned this letter in my e-interview and posting here).

1. US bishops and the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change convene on the Church’s role in a changing climate.

By all accounts, a November gathering in Washington D.C.of bishops, clergy, scholars, and others concerned about climate change was a grand success. His Excellency Bishop Bernard Unabali from Papau New Guinea gave a keynote address, which included reflections on the assistance his diocese provided in the relocation of many residents of the Carteret Islands. These residents, among the world's first "climate refugees," were forced to abandon their islands due to the impacts of sea-level rise.

In examining the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, the conference also showcased significant work done by the bishops and by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, which does a yeoman’s job of providing a Catholic presence to the issue of climate change. Their regular newsletters, educational activities, and encouragement of Catholics to take the St.Francis Pledge are all exemplary efforts that all should assist however we can.

For more information on the Coalition, see their 2012 annual report. And say a prayer for executive director Dan Misleh and his assistant Dan DiLeo—may they be blessed in their work throughout the coming year.

And many prayers and thanks for the leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—most especially His Excellency Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Other bishops that planned to attend the conference were Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California; Bishop Donald Kettler of Fairbanks, Alaska; Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida; Bishop John Ricard, retired bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida; and Bishop William Skylstad, retired bishop of Spokane, Washington.

A New Year Bonus:

We’ll conclude with the Holy Father, whose message for the 2013 World Day of Peace—on the Catholic Feast of Mary, Mother of God—mentions again the importance of ecology in the integral development of the human race: 
Indeed how could one claim to bring about peace, the integral development of peoples or even the protection of the environment without defending the life of those who are weakest, beginning with the unborn. Every offence against life, especially at its beginning, inevitably causes irreparable damage to development, peace and the environment.
 Amen to that.

No doubt our pontiff, bishops, clergy, and lay leaders will continue to ponder and explore the role of revelation and grace in one of the most important issues humanity has faced: the health of ecosystems that keep human life alive and at peace.

But for now, to all my long-time readers—and all those who joined me this year—may God bless you throughout 2013, and always, with abundant joy, health, and the peace that only Christ can bring—he who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for the ages and ages to come. And may Mary, the Mother of God, intercede for us always.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jackson steps down: Keeping things clean can be a dirty job

Jackson (right) at Harlem's Riverside Valley Community Garden. April 22, 2010.
Photo: Flicker/

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency today announced her resignation. There has been much speculation as to why.

Lisa Perez Jackson, who is Catholic, has a long history in the field of environmental protection and public health. She is known for her passion for protecting children’s health and greening urban communities.

A chemical engineer and the first African American to take the reigns at EPA, Jackson stressed environmental justice and the inclusion of women, minorities, and the poor. She was also a voice of reason that sought not to vilify the private sector—even if critics claim otherwise. Rather, as we hear in her speech at the opening of the USRio+2.0 Conference at the Stanford Knight Management Center in February 2012, Jackson sought to include industry leaders in finding ways to attain a clean environment and a healthy economy. Mrs. Jackson is given great credit for her work on improving automobile fuel efficiency as well as taking seriously the impact of greenhouse gases on current and future generations.

As a Catholic ecologist, I am interested if Mrs. Jackson holds a whole-life ethic. But I do not know her views on abortion. Multiple inquiries today have left me with no information to report—which is odd. I tend to think that if Jackson were pro-abortion I’d find evidence of it. Given her support of curbing mercury emissions and other issues that directly support the health of children and the unborn, I wouldn’t be surprised if she is a closet pro-lifer in the Democratic political machine, which of late frowns on such views.  

Mrs. Jackson has supported the involvement of faith communities in ecological and public health issues, as we see in her speech at the “Faith Council” meeting during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which was also covered by the Catholic News Agency.

For its part, the secular media today has provided predictable coverage. We read of concerns over a “stealth” email account that Mrs. Jackson used in her official capacity (was there a federal probe on the way?), conflicts with business lobbies, energy producers, and anti-environmental Republicans, as well as frustration with President Obama’s sometimes lukewarm environmental engagement (as reported bythe New York Times!).

The most insightful piece I’ve found comes from an interview of Mrs. Jackson by a student at her sons’ Catholic high school in Washington D.C. It’s good reading, but here’s the highlight to share with you:
[Question:] Gonzaga [College High School] has been dotted with recycling bins across the campus. Are there any other ways we can make are campus more environmentally friendly?
[Jackson:] It shouldn’t come from me to say do this or that. It would be better if there [was] an interest among the students and the faculty to put together a club to decide how to do that. On the school level, I have seen some really amazing things. There is a kid who won our Presidential Award last year; he developed a process to turn used frying oil into bio fuels and they sold it.  In Philly, students went to auto shops and built hybrid cars.
For Gonzaga, going “green” is absolutely consistent with a Catholic education because of my strong belief that we have a moral obligation to take care of the planet.
Moral obligation? Amen to that! (And Amen to the student interviewer who concludes the interview with his observations on the importance of Mrs. Jackson’s statement of faith.)

I do not know everything about Mrs. Jackson—if there is more that I should know, please share for the benefit of us all—but from this quote and all else I’ve read and heard of her, the loss of Lisa Jackson at EPA is sad news.

Did President Obama keep EPA at arm's length? 
Photo: Flicker/by Barack Obama
Any government official who allows her faith to authentically guide her actions should be applauded and supported. From my own professional experience, I know many of my colleagues at the EPA are eager to support local communities and industries in making sound decisions—ecologically and economically. I can only assume that while this has always been so, recent support for a helpful, inclusive government agency has come from the top—from Mrs. Jackson’s sense of a moral obligation to seek the good.

Sadly, the rough-and-tumble world of environmental protection has taken its toll. As the news reports above show, being the environment’s voice is quite often unappreciated, especially in a time of economic difficulty.

Whatever the reasons for her departure, it seems to me that EPA and the nation are worse off for it.

May God bless Lisa Jackson in her future work. May her efforts be successful in bringing the fullness of truth and life into communities and cultures that so desperately need it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The pontiff’s Christmas challenge

When the pope speaks, environmentalists await with eager expectation for any mention of pollution or protecting nature. I know I do. These are, after all, topics that Pope Benedict XVI has become known for mentioning.

In his December 21st Christmas speech to cardinals and leaders of Vatican offices, the Holy Father did mention the environment—but not in a way that some in the eco-protection world may have appreciated.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has routinely linked human nature with ecological laws—as he did in the master quote of this blog, taken from his 2009 letter to the Church Caritas in Veritate. The link that the Holy Father speaks of between our duties toward the environment and toward the human person allows dialogue from one side of that equation to the other. This not only makes ecology a moral issue—one that Catholic social teaching can elevate to matters of human dignity—it also makes ecology a teaching tool for what it means to be human.

And so in his speech to Vatican officials, the pontiff directly linked ecology to the vital importance of the family, which has been distorted in modern cultures by a great many human desires.
Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. [Emphasis added.]
What does this imply? Simply put: Anyone who will defend the environment from those who would break the laws of nature must also defend humanity against those who would violate the natural laws of mankind—albeit in ways that popular culture may not acknowledge as a breaking of anything.

Reacting to this speech, many in the mainstream media assaulted the Holy Father and Catholicism in general for what they saw as a specific attack on gay marriage—and thus, on homosexuals. Such is the simplicity of many in the media. In fact, Pope Benedict’s words soared above—although certainly illuminated—specific issues like the redefinition of marriage. In his words, “[t]he defense of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”

Indeed, the Holy Father has profound concerns, more than has been attributed by many commentators: 
[I]t became clear that the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself—about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human. The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment—which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering—means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child—essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.
These words are illuminated by his homily on Christmas Eve. In it, he urges us to allow God to be present in our lives and our world so that, when open to He that is the ultimate other, we can then be open to, and thus be in proper relation with, our neighbors. The problem is that our relation with God is too often threatened by the noise of modern lifestyles.  
The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist. Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the “God hypothesis” becomes superfluous. There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so “full” of ourselves that there is no room left for God. And that means there is no room for others either, for children, for the poor, for the stranger. By reflecting on that one simple saying about the lack of room at the inn, we have come to see how much we need to listen to Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Paul speaks of renewal, the opening up of our intellect (nous), of the whole way we view the world and ourselves. The conversion that we need must truly reach into the depths of our relationship with reality.
This phrase—our relationship with reality—is one that the pontiff also used in his 2011 speech before Germany’s parliament, when he spoke of the nascent Green Party members questioning the reality of a world that was destroying the natural environment. Having linked man and the environment, the Holy Father can call into question modernity’s relation with reality as it destroys the human environment—most especially the family.

Hence the challenge for us all—and here I will speak specifically of Catholic ecologists: We must first and foremost bring God to our world of ecological protection so that, in our own way, we may make the truth incarnate in conversations about life and laws. As we exhort the world to consume less and live in proper relation to nature we must also exhort the world to quench different desires that lead to the consumption of each other—of a moral and sexual license that has cast aside the place of the family, so much so that in the United Kingdom, for instance, the tenth most popular wish for Christmas is a dad.

Clearly, when so many young people wish for an intact family something is broken within our cultures and, more deeply, within the nature of man. But as Christians proclaim, it is because of this brokenness that the Word became flesh, pitched His tent among ours, and—remaining among us—reorients the human heart. The challenge for us is in how we respond and if we allow him room in our lives.

Here we reflect on scripture—specifically on the second reading of the Midnight Mass. These words precede the proclamation of the Good News of the birth of Christ—of God’s presence made visible to those on whom his favor rests. This passage is as much an anthem for Catholic ecologists as it is a foundation of Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas challenge.
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good.  (Titus 2:11-14)
May we choose to be true Christmas people! May we carry the crosses needed to commit our lives to others—as our Savior did for us. This Christmas and always, may we be eager to do what is good, trusting always that in choosing the path of Christ and remaining in communion with His Church, we will have access to His grace—His True Presence among us. Then we can then find the good, embrace it, and offer it to those we love—which, ultimately, must be the global family of the entire human species.

Having said all this, we may listen anew to this familiar Christmas hymn and ponder its weighty, beautiful Christmas challenge:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Heeding the Holy Father’s concern for “the energy problem”

Because they come with so many implications for individuals, nations, and the environment, Catholics must engage the growing questions of how, where, and in what quantities people produce energy.

The Holy Father has not only raised these questions, he has also outlined ways in which the Church can offer her voice to address them. He speaks specifically of the “energy problem” in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Love/Charity in Truth). In it he notes the need for a fair distribution of resources and for research in renewable energy technologies. In light of excessive levels of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants and from our transportation sectors—as well as local and global tensions over the production, buying and selling of energy—business as usual is not in the short- or long-term interest of the human race. Truly, the energy problem is a moral one.

Last spring, the Dioceses of Cleveland and Youngstown Ohio held a joint meeting on hydraulic fracking—a rather unpleasant technology for extracting natural gas. The event brought together energy company representatives, residents, and Catholic ethicists. As I posted at the time, I’ve been impressed with that forum ever since and I continue to suggest it as a model for other church organs to replicate.

More recently, two events at work have convinced me that now is the time for increased ecclesial responses to the energy problem—an issue that affects every person on the planet and that will affect generations for the ages to come.

Before continuing, we must first listen to the Successor of Peter in Caritas in Veritate. (Section 49; all emphasis original). 
Questions linked to the care and preservation of the environment today need to give due consideration to the energy problem. The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives. The stockpiling of natural resources, which in many cases are found in the poor countries themselves, gives rise to exploitation and frequent conflicts between and within nations. These conflicts are often fought on the soil of those same countries, with a heavy toll of death, destruction and further decay. The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future.
On this front too, there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity, especially in relationships between developing countries and those that are highly industrialized [118]. The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens. It should be added that at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy. What is also needed, though, is a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them. The fate of those countries cannot be left in the hands of whoever is first to claim the spoils, or whoever is able to prevail over the rest. Here we are dealing with major issues; if they are to be faced adequately, then everyone must responsibly recognize the impact they will have on future generations, particularly on the many young people in the poorer nations, who “ask to assume their active part in the construction of a better world”[119].
Solar Panels on the Paul VI Auditorium. 
Photo: Flicker/ by bbcworldservice
Since this letter, the Holy Father has echoed and underscored his words in other forums, as in a June 2011 talk to Vatican ambassadors. He has also overseen (and won an award for) the installation of solar panels on the Paul VI audience hall, a project that has helped the Vatican become the first carbon-neutral state. Even his new pope-mobile is reportedly the most eco-friendly yet.

Clearly, the efficient and ethical use of energy is not merely a theoretical question for the pontiff. It is a practical matter—and should be for us all.

My own thoughts on this energy problem were spurred on by back-to-back events in my role as an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. On a recent Friday I presented to a group of journalists at the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute on the impacts of climate change on water-pollution control infrastructure. Also presenting were representatives from the state’s transportation and planning sectors. Our common message was that because of observed (not simply projected) increases in sea levels and rainfall, expensive infrastructure is not only threatened, but has occasionally been inundated.

Wind Turbines at the Fields Point WWTF, Providence.
Photo Courtesy of the Warwick Beacon
On the following Monday I attended the commissioning of three impressive wind turbines at the Fields Point wastewater treatment facility in Providence. In total, the trio will produce about forty percent of the facility’s electrical needs, saving it and ratepayers about $1 million annually. The turbines will offset energy generated by fossil fuels (which, in Rhode Island, comes mostly from natural gas) and annually reduce the plant’s carbon emissions by some 3,000 tons.

As I watched the three turbines tumble gently over the wastewater facility—their blades creating a rhythmic “flicker” of shadow that eventually became unnoticed—I was struck with how right these structures looked. I have had the same reaction when standing beneath other turbines, such as a smaller one at the Benedictine Order’s Portsmouth Abbey, also in Rhode Island. By “right” I mean that in pondering these turbines there is an evident alignment between man’s creations and the laws of Creation. Indeed, I pray that many more of these devices are built worldwide. Certainly, wind power is not—nor can it ever fully be—the only solution to the energy problem. But it is a piece of the puzzle. We are foolish if we do not embrace the taking of the energy that surges freely overhead.

Catholics, then, should support wind power as we should support many renewable energy sources—assuming that they are morally justified and do not deprive local communities of their homes or ways of life.

In saying this, I am not referring to problems such as a spoiled vista—if one thinks wind turbines spoil vistas. I live near infrastructure (a highway and a wastewater facility) and accept it as necessary for the good of my community. But there are places where renewable energy projects have inflicted great harm to human dignity and caused deep pain to whole communities. Relocating peoples for hydroelectric projects, as has happened in China, shows that even the green world can harm some for the good of others.

Then there are the technical problems of consistent supplies, which wind power cannot typically offer. This brings into question the need for maintaining existing energy production facilities—and citing new ones with current technologies—regardless of how many turbines or solar panels are erected in a local power grid. There is also the issue of solar panel production creating toxic side effects and wastes—a threat that can arise from most industrial processes. 

Then there is the use of fossil fuels. While they come with their own set of ills, they also employ a great many people. What is to become of their livelihoods should we phase such industries out of existence? 

Thanks to sin, the solutions we attempt in our fallen world won’t come without well-planned and clearly understood technical, ethical, and pastoral guidance. Thus there is a place for local and national Catholic voices to follow our Holy Father’s lead. Like few in the public square, the Church can provide powerful pastoral direction and, as appropriate, foster technical discussion on the problems of energy.

Certainly, we live in an age with many pressing issues. Our shepherds are now furiously protecting their flocks from attacks on religious freedom, on human life, and on the foundational institution of marriage. Given such realities, one is right to ask if the problem of energy is a crucial one giving such dark times.

Add my voice to those who say that it is.

Engaging the energy problem is not only the right thing to do on the basis of faith and reason, it would also be a tool for the New Evangelization. Anytime the Church engages an issue, there the Church can bring the fullness of the Gospel, which has been elevating human hearts from two millennium.

Indeed, given the history of Church communities over the centuries in dealing with resource and engineering issues—for instance, the Cistercians’ reputation for designing and building cathedrals, as well as their water use and farming practices—now is the time for Catholics to engage a new problem of resources and engineering. With guidance from our bishops and the embedded brilliance of clergy, religious, and lay members, the Church can—and must—enter the issue of energy for the good of all and for generations to come.

May Our Lady of Guadalupe—the patron of the New Evangelization—pray for us. May the Church enter into and soothe the worldly problem of energy, bring order to man’s affairs, and, through our presence, baptize the nations with the presence of your Son—Our Lord—who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Immaculate Mary: An end to earthly corruption

I spent the day tending to my mom. She has a few ailments that sapped her energy during the night and this morning. Today for the first time she began using a walker. A sad sight indeed. But she recovered to almost normal as the day progressed—fitting, because today is the vigil of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

At Mass tonight, I was delighted to pray for my mom while celebrating with my parish family this most profound intervention in history by God: The conception of Mary unstained by original sin.

As I prayed and decompressed from the stress of the day, I couldn’t help but ponder how my mom’s age and ailments are taking her independence and vigor—how sin is corrupting her earthly body, as it does to us all. Our world, too, has a habit of decaying even without the intrusion of the fallen human race. As St. Paul tells us, all creation is groaning (Rom. 8:22). But it groans even more so because of us. Indeed, it is telling that in the covenant with Noah, the Lord God specifically states that all animals will have “fear and dread” because of the rule of sinful man. (Gen. 9:2)

Old age, cosmic groanings, human pollution—they’re all the result of sin but they are all ultimately impotent in light of the Immaculate Conception.

Catholics are often criticized by our Protestant kin for devoting so much attention and liturgical energy to Mary, who is not God. And yet ecology helps us grasp the importance of celebrating and loving the great Mother of God, Mary, Most Holy. For it is exactly because she is a creature that she gives the rest of us great hope. It is because she offered herself to God that God prepared her conception unlike any human before of after. In doing so, the salvation of man and all creation was set in motion by the God who is love.

And it is this salvation that will mend and recreate not only corrupt, deceased human bodies, but all creation.

The relation between people, sin, the planet, and pollution was profoundly stated by Pope Benedict XVI in a welcoming speech for his 2008 trip to Sydney’s World Youth Day. In reflecting on the now common experience of air travel, the Holy Father noted that his trip to the land down under was a demanding one.
Yet the views afforded of our planet from the air were truly wondrous. The sparkle of the Mediterranean, the grandeur of the north African desert, the lushness of Asia’s forestation, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the horizon upon which the sun rose and set, and the majestic splendour of Australia’s natural beauty which I have been able to enjoy these last couple of days; these all evoke a profound sense of awe. It is as though one catches glimpses of the Genesis creation story - light and darkness, the sun and the moon, the waters, the earth, and living creatures; all of which are “good” in God’s eyes (cf. Gen 1:1 - 2:4). Immersed in such beauty, who could not echo the words of the Psalmist in praise of the Creator: “how majestic is your name in all the earth?” (Ps 8:1).
And there is more—something hardly perceivable from the sky—men and women, made in nothing less than God’s own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). At the heart of the marvel of creation are you and I, the human family “crowned with glory and honour” (Ps8:5). How astounding! With the Psalmist we whisper: “what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps 8:4). And drawn into silence, into a spirit of thanksgiving, into the power of holiness, we ponder.
What do we discover? Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption. Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought. God’s wondrous creation is sometimes experienced as almost hostile to its stewards, even something dangerous. How can what is “good” appear so threatening?
And there is more. What of man, the apex of God’s creation? Every day we encounter the genius of human achievement. From advances in medical sciences and the wise application of technology, to the creativity reflected in the arts, the quality and enjoyment of people’s lives in many ways are steadily rising. Among yourselves there is a readiness to take up the plentiful opportunities offered to you. Some of you excel in studies, sport, music, or dance and drama, others of you have a keen sense of social justice and ethics, and many of you take up service and voluntary work. All of us, young and old, have those moments when the innate goodness of the human person - perhaps glimpsed in the gesture of a little child or an adult’s readiness to forgive - fills us with profound joy and gratitude.
Yet such moments do not last. So again, we ponder. And we discover that not only the natural but also the social environment – the habitat we fashion for ourselves – has its scars; wounds indicating that something is amiss. Here too, in our personal lives and in our communities, we can encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created. Examples abound, as you yourselves know. Among the more prevalent are alcohol and drug abuse, and the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation, often presented through television and the internet as entertainment. I ask myself, could anyone standing face to face with people who actually do suffer violence and sexual exploitation “explain” that these tragedies, portrayed in virtual form, are considered merely “entertainment”?
There is also something sinister which stems from the fact that freedom and tolerance are so often separated from truth. This is fueled by the notion, widely held today, that there are no absolute truths to guide our lives. Relativism, by indiscriminately giving value to practically everything, has made “experience” all-important. Yet, experiences, detached from any consideration of what is good or true, can lead, not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair.
Dear friends, life is not governed by chance; it is not random. Your very existence has been willed by God, blessed and given a purpose (cf. Gen 1:28)! Life is not just a succession of events or experiences, helpful though many of them are. It is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this—in truth, in goodness, and in beauty—that we find happiness and joy. Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.
Christ offers more! Indeed he offers everything! Only he who is the Truth can be the Way and hence also the Life. Thus the “way” which the Apostles brought to the ends of the earth is life in Christ. This is the life of the Church. And the entrance to this life, to the Christian way, is Baptism.
Before there was baptism, there was a singular moment of baptism that God Himself administered to the future mother of Christ. This was the moment of Mary’s conception. And because of this moment, the Son of God became flesh in a womb fitting for the King of Kings. With Mary’s Immaculate Conception comes the promise of a new heart for us all and a new, immaculate earth. Because of this grace of God, humanity was given the opportunity to cooperate with His plan and to live in accord with His natural laws. The question is, will we?

And so like so many throughout history, we must turn to Immaculate Mary and beg her intercession so that we may fulfill our baptismal promises to reject sin, embrace God, and live in hope for the coming of Christ, who alone takes away the sin of the world.

May Mary, Queen of the Universe, pray for us!

(And for a wonderful look at another intervention in human history, this one by Our Lady, watch this clip from Fr. Barron's Catholicism.) 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hope in Africa: Catholic youth work for sustainability

Allen Ottaro of Kenya is Executive Director of Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa. At 28, he’s traveled and done more than many twice his age. Allen (or Al, as his friends call him) is the face of the African continent’s future—a future of thriving economies and cultures as well as the preservation of its identity, its abundant natural, beautiful resources, and its soul. 

Al is a true Catholic ecologist. Because he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and experiences, I am delighted to share them with you.

[Update (December 4): The following interview takes on even more value given recent statements by Bishop Bernard Kasanda of Mbuji-Mayi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bishop Kasanda has condemned the international community for failing to react to unrest and invasions caused by factions seeking control of mineral and oil resources. Read here for more.]

Allen Ottaro
What have been some of your experiences in working to promote ecology in Africa?

During my time in primary school (1990-1997), we were often required, as pupils, to participate in an annual tree planting day. This was in line with the government policy at the time, which was summarized as “for every tree you cut, plant two.” Of course, as primary kids, we were not involved in tree cutting, but there was plenty of evidence around us of this activity. In my home town of Njoro, saw-mill business was booming and tractors pulling loads of logs could be seen on our roads every five to ten minutes heading to and from the forests.

While in high school, I did a great deal of farming, besides class work. Our school placed a great emphasis on food self-sufficiency. We grew our own vegetables and looked after dairy cows for our milk, chicken for our eggs and pigs for our pork. Agriculture was not only a subject on the school’s timetable, but a way of life.

After high school studies, I was admitted to Kenyatta University, to pursue a degree in Environmental Planning and Management. Environmental issues were only beginning to take a central place in national discourse. Still, there seemed to be little connection between my academic work and the concepts I was learning in class and the reality in Kenyan society. I then had an opportunity to do my field work with the Justice and Peace office of the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya (AOSK). It was a hands-on experience, which exposed me to concrete ecology projects and activities that were happening in and around Nairobi. I was asked to prepare an environmental exhibition for World Environment Day, 2007. We got in touch with other Church departments, parishes, government agencies, civil society organizations and schools, many of whom partnered with us to set-up the one day exhibition within the grounds of the Cathedral in Nairobi. The whole experience was intense, at times exhausting, but it left me with a deep sense of fulfillment and a desire to do more for the environment. Later, I worked as an intern for the National Environmental Management Authority, a government agency based in Nairobi. A key highlight during my work there, was participating in a two-week United Nations conference on biodiversity, organized by the Convention on Biological Diversity secretariat. It was interesting and occasionally disappointing to see how UN negotiations work, but I had a great opportunity to network and access material on the state of the world’s biodiversity.

Last year, I spent about 8 months as a volunteer for an ecological association in Torun, northwest Poland. The association runs a “forest school,” which provides ecological education to children and young people. With the assistance of a translator, I occasionally offered presentations about Africa and its physical features, flora and fauna, to groups of school elementary and high school children, who showed great interest in the subjects that they had only previously had sneak previews of on National Geographic channels. This experience greatly enhanced my understanding of the environmental issues facing both Africa and Europe, and of how education and awareness activities are conducted in other countries.

Soon after my return to Kenya, I got involved in a Kenyan Youth Strategy meeting that was supported by UN-Habitat. The meeting brought together representatives of Kenyan youth organizations, to prepare a position paper as input for the Rio+20 process. I was nominated by the youth department of my home diocese of Nakuru, and ended up as the only representative from a faith background, something which seemed to perplex some of the delegates. When I reported back to my colleagues about the outcome of the meeting, we saw a need to involve young Catholics in a deeper and stronger way, to promote ecology. While the initial idea was to set up a network in Kenya, we eventually decided to broaden it to include Africa, as the ecological issues are often trans-boundary and interrelated.

What do fellow young adults and teens in Africa consider as the best ways to encourage an ethic of environmental protection in their own communities and nations, and in the world?

Changing attitudes towards the environment is a key concern for many. In many African countries, young people find themselves confronting a culture where environmental protection is considered as a responsibility for local or national authorities. Education is therefore seen as a key intervention in helping both communities and individuals understand their rights and responsibilities towards the environment. Weak or non-enforcement of existing environmental regulations is a major challenge too. Some countries such as Rwanda have registered major accomplishments in areas such as waste management. The capital, Kigali, is certainly one of the cleanest cities in East and Central Africa. This can be attributed to the strict enforcement of laws on littering and a ban on plastic bags. For example, while traveling by bus from Nairobi to Kigali via Kampala, passengers undergo thorough inspection of their luggage at the Uganda-Rwanda border, to rid them off any plastic bags.

Young people across Africa view the lack of opportunities to earn a living in their countries as a setback to promoting an ethic of environmental protection in their countries. Africa is blessed with immense natural resources. Many communities depend directly on these resources for their livelihoods, as farmers, fishermen and women or as pastoralists. However, over the years, the pressure on these resources has continued to increase, necessitating the need for alternative income generating activities, and making the existing ones more sustainable, through practices such as organic farming and eco-tourism. For many youth struggling to get their communities out of poverty, green jobs can be the key to creating income generating opportunities, while promoting responsibility for the environment. An example is the use of solar technologies to provide energy while offering young people a chance to train and work as technicians in installation and maintenance of such technologies.

What seems to be of critical importance, is the example that is set by adults. While it is all well and good for adults to educate the young about environmental issues and the need to treat nature with respect, it is the example that they set that is bound to make a profound impact on how young people choose to act.

How can people in other nations help the African environmental movement?

Mining for Coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Photo: Flicker/by Responsible Sourcing Network
Learn about Africa: This seems to me to be the starting point for people looking to partner with and support the African environmental movement. During my visits in Europe, I was often surprised at how little Africa was covered in the media, except when famine or war broke out. Even in those exceptions, one hardly read about stories of hope. For any genuine partnerships to take shape, I feel that exchanging knowledge and a genuine desire to learn and be aware of the issues is of paramount importance. People in other nations can help by creating awareness in their communities about what is happening in Africa. For example, several reports have shown that the conflicts in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have claimed more than five million lives since 2000, are fueled by the sale of minerals such as coltan. Now, coltan is used in the manufacture of tantalum capacitors, used in electronic equipment, especially in mobile phones a device which many people in the modern world own. Other examples include the cut-flower industry in Kenya, which has caused serious environmental damage to Lake Naivasha in the rift-valley. Europe is the leading market for these flowers. There are many more examples in a globalized world, hence the need for awareness, as a first step to contributing to concrete change. (For more information on coltan, visit here, here, here, and here.)

How important is your Catholic faith in your work to protect the environment?

My Catholic faith is really at the core of my work to protect the environment, as it has helped me to realize and understand that creation is a gift from God, and that therefore, I have a responsibility towards caring for it. This is the basis and the motivation behind the setting up of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability for Africa. My Catholic faith is also continuously making me aware of the needs of those who suffer the most from the effects of environmental degradation, including climate change, and moves me to make a contribution towards improving the situation. More importantly, prayer and the support of a faith community, both locally and that of the Universal Church, gives me the strength to continue, knowing that I am only an instrument in the hands of Our Lord.

How has your local churches or dioceses helped the environmental movement?

Sunrise in Tanzania. Photo: Flicker/by JUAN-VIDAL
The Kenya Episcopal Conference published a pastoral letter in June 2012, in which it invited all Catholics to “prioritize their engagement with environmental care as a way of appreciating and advancing the creative mission of God whose image we bear.” In December 2011, a national consultative meeting to draw up a long-term plan on the environment, was held in the Diocese of Malindi, Kenya, for the Catholic Men and Catholic Women Associations. Some of the proposed project activities in the plan include; awareness and education on environmental stewardship based on Catholic social teaching; engagement of stakeholders and church-owned institutions/land: targeting shrines, diocese, parishes, Catholic schools, pastoral centres, retreat centres and church owned pieces of land; supporting the institutions to love and protect their living and working environment in a way that is consistent with their faith.

While environmental action seems to be a relatively new priority for the Catholic Church in Kenya, the new long-term plan will be implemented within the Church structure, from the Catholic family to the parish to the national level. The involvement of young people in my view, will contribute to the sustainability of such plans, and it is wonderful to note that schools and other institutions that serve the youth and which are run by the Church, are included in this long-term plan.

What else would you like readers to know?

There are certainly many complex challenges in Africa. However, as noted by the Synod of African Bishops in 2009, Africa is also a continent of hope. The Church is growing in Africa and provides many important social services, in some remote areas, being the only presence. The voice of the Church is widely respected on the continent and this witness presents a unique opportunity for making interventions with respect to environmental challenges both at home and abroad. This is the opportunity that CYNESA has seized and looks to build on-creating a network of young Catholics all across the continent to be a voice for change.

And as the Church is universal, we are also very open to networking and linking with others in parts of the world where the Church has made progress in promoting environmental stewardship.

May God bless Al and all those engaged in environmental awareness and protection in the nations of Africa! May Allen's example, and that of his colleagues, inspire us all to protect and preserve our own corners of creation so that we too can foster the great Christian virtue of hope!