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Thursday, February 28, 2013

"That respect for nature may grow"

With Pope Benedict XVI having vacated the Chair of Peter a few hours agowith the Church now in a time of Sede Vanante and our heads spinning with emotion and memories of a historic dayCatholics across the globe join in prayer for the Pope Emeritus and the election of the next Successor of Peter.

And Catholic ecologists will certainly also join in the final prayer intention of Pope Benedict XVI as Supreme Pontiff. 

According to the Vatican Information Service:

Vatican City, 28 February 2013 (VIS) – Pope Benedict's general prayer intention for March is: 
"That respect for nature may grow with the awareness that all creation is God's work entrusted to human responsibility."
And we also join in a special way in his mission intention: "That bishops, priests, and deacons may be tireless messengers of the Gospel to the ends of the earth."

God bless the Church!

Monday, February 18, 2013

A farewell tribute: The making of the once and future "green pope"

My writings on the Catholic perspective of ecology owe much to Pope Benedict XVI. This blog in particular has provided a real-time examination of the pontiff’s words and deeds related to abiding by and protecting nature.

And now—with the sudden and shocking news of his renouncing the Chair of Peter—we Catholic ecologists must say farewell to a pontiff that not only followed his predecessor’s ecological thought and practice, but escalated them well beyond what anyone had ever expected.

Indeed, Benedict XVI has been called the green pope by more than one news outlet. The question is, why this interest in ecology?

I have written many posts that examine that question. But here I think it’s helpful to examine that question by looking back on the development of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological and pastoral formation. In doing so, we find clues that make clear why this man spent so much of his pontificate speaking about a new reality for the human race: the destruction of our natural environment.

What follows is a look at a few key elements of his life and education that are important to his ecological pedigree.

The Ratzingers. Jospeh seated at left.   Photo: Ignatius Press. 
First, as a young man, Ratzinger would watch nationalist zealotry—with its hunger for an imminent political glory—attempt to sweep aside his own Catholic Christianity along with other institutions, faiths, and peoples. In doing so, Hitler’s National Socialism would view itself in religious—indeed, eschatological—overtones.  Ratzinger would witness the brutality of—and be forced to participate in—the armies of the Third Reich. National pride would swell when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland, The Netherlands, and France, when “even people who were opposed to National Socialism experienced a kind of patriotic satisfaction,” as the Holy Father noted in his biography Milestones. For others such as Ratzinger’s father, the march of the Third Reich were victories “of the Antichrist that would surely usher in apocalyptic times.”

In his humble biography, Ratzinger provides a small but telling example of the madness that his nation was undergoing: as a soldier he was forced to take part in a “cult of the spade,” a drill-like performance that he describes as a “pseudo-liturgy” meant to celebrate the redemptive power of a soldier’s work. Later, when Nazi military losses grew, the spades were used only for digging protective trenches: “[T]his fall of the spade from cultic object to banal tool for everyday use allowed us to perceive the deeper collapse taking place ... a full-scale liturgy and the world behind it were being unmasked as a lie.”

In contrast with this lie was Ratzinger’s growing relationship with a lasting truth. In recalling how as a boy he would be taught the mysteries of the Church’s liturgies, Ratzinger tells us something of how he sees the relation between the Church and history. He recalls that, as a boy learning of his faith,

it was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history. Every century had left its mark upon it ... [but] not everything was logical. Things sometimes got complicated, and it was not always easy to find one’s way. But precisely this is what made the whole edifice wonderful, like one’s own home.

Ratzinger’s post-war return home would occur in June 1945, when American forces released him from a prisoner-of-war camp. He made quickly for Traunstein, finding his family village at sunset filled with the hymns from its church—hymns sung in honor of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

 After the war, he returned to and advanced in his theological and priestly studies. In 1949 an adviser introduced him to a key influence in Ratzinger’s intellectual and personal development: Henri de Lubac and his book Catholicism; Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. Ratzinger notes that

this book was for me a key reading event. It gave me not only a new and deeper connection with the thought of the Fathers but also a new way of looking at theology and faith as such. Faith had here become an interior contemplation and, precisely by thinking with the Fathers, a present reality. In this book one could detect a quiet debate going on with liberalism and Marxism, the dramatic struggle of French Catholicism for a new penetration of the faith and into the freedom of an essentially social faith, conceived and lived as a we—a faith that, precisely as such and according to its nature, was also hope, affecting history as a whole, and not only the promise of a private blissfulness to individuals.

In Catholicism, Ratzinger would experience a thirst-quenching expression of the Eucharistic nature of the Church—a mystical body of real people living in authentic, gritty history. De Lubac’s forays into matters such as the “Role of Time” and “Doctrines of Evasion” (that is, evasions from the sufferings of this world) will illuminate Ratzinger’s observations of the secular forces that shaped the twentieth century.

De Lubac would be a bridge connecting the twentieth century with the world of the Fathers—especially Augustine and Origen—and his eschatological worldview kept the faithful very much in, as Ratzinger put it above, the present reality and the we of the Church. De Lubac writes that “the Christian’s watchword can no longer be ‘escape’ but ‘collaboration’. He must cooperate with God and men in God’s work in the world and among humanity. There is but one end: and it is on condition that he aims at it together with all men that he will be allowed a share of the final triumph.”

Ratzinger will read such statements by de Lubac and watch Platonic circular concepts of history, per Augustine, “explode” so that “forthwith something new is wrought—birth, real growth; the whole universe grows to maturity. ... [T]he world has a purpose and consequently a meaning, that is to say, both direction and significance.” Ratzinger would turn also to de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum, which, in Ratzinger’s words, would provide “a new understanding of the unity of the Church and Eucharist opened up to me beyond the insights I had already received ... [and so] I could now enter into the required dialogue with Augustine.”

This “dialogue with Augustine” is a third influence on Ratzinger’s views on theology and history. One can glimpse the importance of Augustine to Ratzinger in his autobiographical recollection of the appreciation with which he read Martin Buber’s philosophy of personalism. Ratzinger notes that Buber roused in him the same “essential mark” as had the Bishop of Hippo, “especially since I spontaneously associated such personalism with the thought of St. Augustine, who in his Confessions had struck me with the power of all his human passion and depth.” This stands in contrast to Ratzinger’s “difficulties” with Thomas Aquinas, “whose crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.”

Indeed, when a young Ratzinger read Augustine’s study of the collapse of Rome, he knew all too well from the Nazi regime and their own inner lies about worldly domination the reason why pagan Rome suffered. They rejected revelation and refused communion with the God who is love.

Ratzinger appreciated Augustine’s correction to this refusal, The City of God—a text that would become a foundational work of Western civilization—in large part because it highlighted the humble entrance of the Word into world affairs. The City of God maintained a primacy of caritas—sacrificial love.

After his work on Augustine, he wrote a second doctoral thesis. This was required by the German theological academy for anyone seeking to teach. Ratzinger's topic for this thesis was St. Bonaventure's view of history and revelation. The thesis caused great turmoil in large part because of disagreement between Ratzinger's advisers. It may surprise some today to hear this, but some of these advisers challenged the young theologian that he would become "dangerously modern" with his work on Bonaventure's view of scripture having a "historical character." But Ratzinger (and the other advisers) won the day. The result was a substantial work that has added greatly to the Catholic academic corpus.

Something else took place in writing this thesis that is important for the present conversation. Ratzinger's study of Bonaventure was specific to an episode within the young Franciscan Order. Not long after the death of Francis, a faction of the order known as the "spiritualists" found themselves at odds with orthodoxy. These Franciscans followed and somewhat misinterpreted the writings of a twelfth century abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who seemed to have made a series of intriguing predictions about a "new age" and who saw the story of the Church as an active one because history was far from stagnant—which, by the twelfth century, seemed fairly obvious.

The details of the matter are too great to delve into here. What is important for understanding Ratzinger's development and his eventual championing of Catholic ecology was how he witnessed in Bonaventure a pastor who was both unafraid of worldly change and was able to lovingly find ways to call errant members of his flock home. Bonaventure was able to offer the spiritualists a way back to orthodoxy by providing a fair reading of their works and finding aspects within it that had value. As a result, Bonaventure added to Christian thought the sense of revelation interacting with history—of grace baptizing new historical realities because of what Ratzinger would describe in his thesis as the "obligation" for disciples of Christ to sacrificially "love in the present."

From such influences, we can see how a young (and elderly) Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI stresses that Christian love—acting within history—is the antidote for all that disfigures the world.

All this is important to understand his ecological interests because science and current events are increasingly demonstrating the effects that man’s consumption is having on the natural world—and on human cultures. 

For Ratzinger, man is at war with nature because we are too often at war with God. As St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, we are all sinners and we all fall short of the glory of God. For much of human history, this falling short has fueled war, intolerance, and all sorts of violations to human dignity. But such realities have been and often still are relatively short-lived or localized by cultural boundaries. Yes, they are severe and evil, but no one war or one violation of a people has ever affected the entire globe.

Until now.

Ecological issues began as rather local affairs but they are now global realities. Planetary systems of life are now compromised by man’s sin—our over-consumption, our ignoring of the laws of nature, and our refusal to seek first the Kingdom of God.

The young Joseph Ratzinger had an upbringing in his family and Church—in the stunning beauty of Bavaria—that allowed him a unique vision of the harm that man’s sin can cause and how, if we are to avoid this harm, we must accept God’s love and allow it to transform us in the actual moments of the present. For Pope Benedict XVI, a true culture of life is within our grasp only because God continually makes Himself present in the sacramental presence of the Church. The question, then, is if we accept this grace—this love—and allow it to change our inner selves, to reorient our human desires away from a consumption of worldly goods to an embracing of the God that is love.

For it is only by the grace of God that we humans will live in accord with—and thus protect—the nature of things.

Because of the presence of this man Joseph Ratzinger in the Church’s unbroken line of popes, his teachings will illuminate those of his successors until the end of time. Because Pope Benedict has made it clear that ecology is matter of magisterial importance, no future pope can now ignore the Catholic engagement of ecology. Indeed, it was ultimately the Holy Spirit that brought Joseph Ratzinger through his life and to the Chair of Peter and so has forever introduced to the Church’s teachings the place of ecology in Catholic thought and practice.

This last point is what the Holy Father has demonstrated in his departure from the role of pontiff. In his last homily on Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI said this
Our fitness will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and the more we are aware that the reward of the righteous is God Himself, to be united to Him, here, on a journey of faith, and at the end of life, in the peace light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
These words are central to the Christian view of what it means to be human. They are also words that speak to how humans can live in accord with nature and keep it safe. But these are not simply the words of Pope Benedict. They are the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Christ spoken in the present by the Vicar of Christ to a Church that is facing unprecedented global realities. Given Pope Benedict’s theological upbringing, he is able to speak of ecological issues and connect them with more basic realities of faith and reason. Thanks to his affinity for the likes of St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, Henri de Lubac, and so many others, he knows that the Church is always able to dialogue with new realities because she possess the timeless truths of God.

We can be certain that the next Successor of Peter will continue on the path that Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI has taken the Church—a path that leads to an awareness of the ecological crises that now envelope the globe and a path that leads to the answer to these crises—to Christ, who alone can take away the sins of the world.

May God bless and protect our pontiff in his last days in service to us and may he be blessed and protected in his final days here on this side of Eden.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Warmer climates, bigger blizzards, more suffering.

It's all about the timing.

On Thursday, my diocesan newspaper ran my column on climate change and what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as “the energy problem” (Caritas in Veritate, §49). In the column, I implore my fellow Catholics—clergy and laity—to heed the science and embrace the moral implications of a warmer climate.

The next day, the Blizzard of 2013 hit Rhode Island. As I write this on the night after the storm, many thousands in my state and many more thousands across New England are without power—and the temperatures tonight will hover around ten degrees Fahrenheit.  

For critics of the science of climate change—most especially non-scientists—this blizzard and bitter cold offer proof against the theories of a warmer globe. Their logic is similar to that of Christianity’s critics, who point to perfectly happy, healthy, wealthy, attractive atheists to demonstrate that one does not need God to live well.

In both cases, people miss the point. And they see only what they wish to see.

Science tells us that  the atmosphere now holds greater amounts of thermal energy because of the presence additional heat-retaining “greenhouse” gases, like carbon dioxide, which comes from burning fossil fuels and other factors. This retention of thermal energy will only increase as we pump more carbon into the atmosphere. This does not imply that the planet will never again see temperatures below the freezing point of water. But it does mean is that the atmosphere will (and does) hold more energy and moisture—which both have to go somewhere.

As seen below, the Blizzard of 2013 shows that when tropical systems of wet, warm air intersect with very cold arctic air, the resulting “bombogenesis” (yes, that’s a meteorological word) creates strong winter storms that release the tropical moisture in intense bands of snow. Likewise, the tropical thermal energy breaks free as it collides with colder air. This creates high, hurricane-force winds. 

Image: NWS/Boston
Here's the rub: as there is more thermal energy in the atmosphere, there will be greater amounts of energy and moisture in more frequent tropical storm systems.

The science is not all that involved and there are resources to better educate ourselves on exactly how a warmer climate fuels bigger storms—even in winter.

Most recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued this document. Other resources include information from the US EnvironmentalProtection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

There’s more, I’m sure. Please share any resources that you know of in the comments below.

For now, as those of us with electricity and heat read these reports, let us pause and pray for those in the dark bitter chill of New England—those who wait in anguish as crews restore main distribution lines that went down in last night’s storm. And indeed for all those affected everywhere by more powerful storms, let us pray this prayer, adapted from a prayer for bad weather.

Father, all the elements of nature obey your command. Calm the storms that threaten us and turn our fear of your power into praise of your goodness. Protect and bless all those suffering from the effects of storms and bless and strengthen all workers struggling to restore power, light, heat, and hope. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

UPDATE: Here's what the blizzard looked like as it began moving off shore early Saturday.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

UPDATE 2: Here's what the Northeast looked like on the day after the storm.

Source: NWS/Boston

Friday, February 1, 2013

Reason, faith, service—and lots of energy—at CUA

Photo: Flicker/Chase McAlpine
Brian Alexander knows that the best source of power at the Catholic University of America comes not from the local power utility or even from the school’s array of solar panels—the largest in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Rather, what really powers CUA is its students.

“They keep you young,” Alexander said.

Alexander is CUA’s Director of Energy Environmental Systems. I chatted with him today to learn about the many eco-projects at this significant American Catholic institution. This conversation between engineers quickly showed that the real story here has more to do with soul than with reason—although both are evident in this Catholic university’s quest for sustainable living.

Chiefly in response to a growing awareness of human-induced climate change, the university has installed solar panels on seven buildings throughout the campus. The school has even built parking lot structures to host additional panels (and provide the added benefit of shielding cars from the weather). The solar installations have been the handy work of Maryland-based Standard Solar, but CUA’s students, faculty, and administration have been working alongside the firm in the full spirit of true, Catholic, relational partnership.

The school now receives some three percent of its power from its solar grid. That may not sound significant, but given that the school’s annual energy bill is some $5.5 million, a savings of even a few percent is welcome—to say nothing of the reduction in carbon emissions. These savings have caught the US Environmental Protection Agency, which ranks CUA eighteenth in institutions of higher education that use green power.

Alexander said the solar panels have “worked famously” but that the school has loftier plans. “Our goal is to increase our use of renewables to about five to ten percent of total usage,” he said.

In working with Standard Solar, CUA has also benefited in the classroom as well as on rooftops from the firm’s expertise. The firm works with the school’s already robust engineering department to provide students with a different kind of experience than can normally be found in the classroom.

The result of such collaboration has been cultivating students (from many disciplines) with energy- and eco-smart worldviews. And that can only mean a better equipped nation as the world competes to find cleaner and cheaper ways to fuel industries and homes.

Recognizing this, the school has teamed up with two other area schools—George Washington and American universities—to enter the 2013 Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. This is the first time that CUA or any DC area school has participated in this event.

Brian Alexander, center, with students at 
O’Boyle Parking Lot Solar Panel Dedication
 Photo: CUA.
CUA students have already designed—again with the help of Standard Solar and Washington Gas Energy Services—solar-powered picnic tables. These ingenious campus additions provide a place to sit, have a meal, and charge your electronics.

By now you can tell that the engineer in me is excited by these techno issues. But as a Catholic, I am equally if not more delighted in how these successes at CUA are models for Catholic institutions everywhere. Such work not only makes a difference in how we humans light our world. It also helps showcase the value of Catholic thought for the common good.

For instance, in the Washington Gas Energy Services website, a story on the solar picnic tables has this quote from CUA’s president: 
"Our Catholic faith calls us to be good stewards of the environment," said Catholic University President John Garvey. "Today we are celebrating two forward thinking examples of how we are doing that. One—the installation of additional solar panels—is focused on making our University's infrastructure more 'green.' The second is a collaborative teaching moment that has given our students the opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom to actually building something that is environmentally friendly."
In other words, building a world that powers itself cleanly is consistent with the Catholic view of creation and our relation to it—to say nothing of our relation with each other and with the Triune God. This truth—presented in an energy utility’s website—will help many in the secular world come to know the Gospel—and that coming to know can only help to save souls.

Indeed, redemption is already part of the CUA eco-story. Alexander admits this when he contrasts his experiences at the school with his time employed by private energy companies. “I spent years drilling and burning gas,” he notes. “Now, working with these students gives me a chance to clean up some of all that.”

A green roof and solar panels at CUA. Photo courtest of CUA.
The work done by the school and its future leaders provide a broad range of eco-sustainable projects: improved recycling, less toxic forms of pest control, and better stormwater management, including the introduction of modern stormwater cisterns—a term that derives from the eco-friendly Cistercians of centuries past and the present.

Like the solar power arrays, projects like improved stormwater management come about by a combination of what is right and just in both moral and economic practice. When the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority utility began surcharging water bills based on impervious surface areas—that is, large, flat rooftops or land used for asphalt parking lots, which do not absorb rain water but instead send small rivers of polluted stormwater to overburned sewer systems—the school sought to reduce this surcharge by decreasing the amount of such surfaces. That brought another engineering challenge: increasing the amount of urban rainwater and snow melt that seeps underground.

Here again, CUA students are helping. Their designs and economic modeling are not only making this engineering issue a reality, they are providing them with practical experiences that make the world better for everyone.

Elsewhere, students studied ambient lighting in buildings to better time electric light usage. This provided an annual savings of $7,000. Not bad for one study by one group of sharp students.

And then there was the dumpster diving. When students sought to understand just how—or if—people were recycling, CUA students began exploring and cataloging the wastes in school dumpsters. The audit’s result was an improved recycling program (and, I’m sure, an appreciation for the important work done by sanitation workers).

It’s no wonder that Alexander—who heads the CUA’s energy services—gets most energized by the young men and women at CUA. “This is their future,” he said. And given the many eco-realities faced by today’s students—both economic and ecological—it is understandable and good to see them placing this Catholic institution on the sustainable-living map.

May God bless them all.

To learn more about CUA's solar program, visit their website here.