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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.


  1. I would like to cite this article. Which way would you prefer to see the citation read?

    1. Thanks for citing--and for asking how. Please include the blog name and post name, as well as a link if this will be online. Thank you.

  2. Great work! I was very surprised that the Church cares so much about the environment and cosmology - well, I was not surprised, but most definitely humbled by the fact that they considered it a matter so important they had to focus on it. My biggest wish would be if the greens/ecologists could collaborate with the Church... unfortunately at the moment they don't have the patience to wait out the search for the limited certainty we humans can glimpse from the infinite wisdom of the Lord... otherwise I really really wish everybody concerned about the planet and where we are heading would UNITE and set aside the differences. After all, LOVE is AWARENESS.

    Thank you and keep up the good work,


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