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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.


  1. The first commandment in the Bible is to take care of the earth. However, satan has manipulated people to trash it, and in some instances, has fooled people into making a stand against what is good - in the US, after using it for the first flag and paper for centuries, hemp was made illegal. It takes people with insight and God's leading to make this right, and that is why there is a petition to the White House, with support from the likes of a Catholic former Congresswoman (and Green Party candidate for President 2008) Cynthia McKinney, up at
    For more info on hemp check out

    God Bless, may we take back this planet from satan.

  2. You are right Carlos, that is the first commandment, it ties in to all the others, how can we love God and our neighbour if we do not act like men here and take care of the planet? The energy issue is hurting so many people, while it makes a few rich.
    Hemp is a source of energy and the good thing with that is it is a simple molecule - a carbohydrate - that hemp produces - called cellulose. That petition you mentioned by the way I signed, and yes I saw Cynthia McKinney's signature on it. I hope more Catholics will add their voice to this one, it is one of the more sensible intiatives I have seen.


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