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Monday, April 29, 2013

The price of disordered leisure

Two recent and seemingly unrelated news stories are of interest to Catholic ecologists. Their intersection speaks to a host of issues related to peace, love, and seeking both through far too much consumption.

First is the news of Pope Francis’s words on the topic of leisure. A story by the New York Times about the soon-to-be-published book “Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words” (Putnam; $24.95), draws attention to a compilation of interviews of then Cardinal Bergoglio. In it, he speaks about the human need to rest.
Responding to the question, “Do we need to rediscover the meaning of leisure?” Pope Francis replies: “Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport. But this is being destroyed, in large part, by the elimination of the Sabbath rest day. More and more people work on Sundays as a consequence of the competitiveness imposed by a consumer society.” In such cases, he concludes, “work ends up dehumanizing people.”
The second story is about a local issue in Goa, India. I’ve written elsewhere about how this Indian state struggles with mining but here we find another tension between nature and business. According to The Hindu, an island community in Goa is under pressure to be developed as an upscale tropical resort. The story notes that the island
Vanxim has about 120 houses with a population of 500 to 600. Fishing is the only source of livelihood. In 2006, much of the 800,000 sq meter island was bought by a private dealer and sold to a builders’ group that was eyeing this picturesque island to convert it into a resort. The residents are deeply divided over this controversial project and the issue has been hanging fire since then.
A former panchayat member, Manuvel Furtado, says that they want firm assurances that the resort will be constructed on the barren land only and none of the houses and other structures will be affected and none will be evacuated. The group opposing the move argues that the deal is illegal because the water bodies cannot be bought and nor can the mangroves be cut.
The developers have brought out a booklet wherein they quote a resolution of Sao Mathias Gram Panchayat, under which Vanxim comes, recommending an eco tourism project. The resort promoters have promised to develop infrastructure for basic needs, generate employment by tapping the local talent and has also assured that existing homes have not been acquired and no one will be evacuated. But there is an air of mistrust. In the nearby Divar Island, where the Divaaya resort hotel was constructed some years back, people say that the owners sold their land following an assurance that a spice garden and ponds for fishing would be developed there to generate employment for the local people. However, the promoters went back on their promise apart from employing some locals at the resort. Perhaps, Divar’s experience has made Vanxim’s residents edgy about the offer.
For the Catholic ecologist, the words of Pope Francis speak to the worries over Vanxim’s future because far too many of us in the developed world overdo and corrupt the concept of leisure.

Hyper-consumption is a curse rooted in Western thought and practice. A great many resources go to vacation homes that are rather large, resorts that are rather decadent, and cruises that are rather messy.

And all this is in the name of finding bliss on earth.

St. Augustine famously noted that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” This restlessness is of course the human desire to seek God. It is the natural orientation to reclaim Eden—to find the new heavens and the new earth that St. John prophesizes and Christianity proclaims. The human urge to rest in the beauty of nature is an echo of our natural desire to join creation—and in so doing to rightly give Him praise.

None of this is bad in itself. Indeed, it is innately human. But sin disorders this quest—these urges—much as it disorders sexual desires.

Nothing of this earth can quench our true thirst to rest. True rest comes only in and from the presence of God. As Pope Francis noted in his homily at the Confirmation of some two dozen youths last Sunday,
[t]he new things of God are not like the novelties of this world, all of which are temporary; they come and go, and we keep looking for more. The new things which God gives to our lives are lasting, not only in the future, when we will be with him, but today as well.
And so as we consider our holiday plans, perhaps we should consider that our quest for the things that last doesn't require extensive international air travel—that the things of God can be found more readily outside of artificial communities, which swallow large volumes of resources from the areas in which they reside.

Certainly, much can be said about the economic benefits of the travel and leisure industry—especially the jobs it provides to desperately poor people. But much more can be said about authentically building local economies based not on foreigners consuming local resources but on a foundation of authentic enterprise and the dignity of local residents.

As we see in Goa, there is an insatiable need for new and more luxurious locales for restless travelers to find something akin to peace. But true peace comes not by constant exploration of this world—which often comes at a hefty price to ecosystems—but from God's grace, which allows us to build small destinations of the Kingdom of God in the places we call home.

Monday, April 22, 2013

When Earth Day falls on a Monday

Last year I reflected on the intersection of Earth Day and Sunday. I noted how fitting it was to focus on our life-giving ecosystems on the day when Christians celebrate the victory of love and life over sin and death.

But what significance is there for celebrating Earth Day on a Monday? Quite a bit.

While many Earth Day events were held this weekend and while many of us will be keeping Earth Day somewhat in mind today, it is nevertheless the reality that today is, well, Monday. And Monday’s are often the day we return to work and to the busy routines of the week.

But if we are to truly make every day Earth Day—if we are, as Benedict XVI had once said, to change our “inner attitudes” to be better users and tenders of God’s creation—then what we do on Mondays, Tuesdays, and so on is just as important as those moments on transcendence during Earth Day cleanups, rallies, and tree plantings.

My friend Robert Baxter wrote a great little book, “The Sunday/Monday Paradox.” He has spent many years in the corporate business world. His book applies his experiences and observations about the way we work with the message of the Gospel. It turns out that those who live by the Gospel and maintain a graced, sacramental relationship with God are often better, team-oriented workers that make organizations excel. It also turns out that many of us keep the lessons and grace of our Sunday sacramental worship confined to that day.

In seeing Monday and the rest of the work week as offering their own encounters with God—and in acknowledging what that requires of us—we become disciples of Christ even when we’re not in Church. And that simple rethinking of our lives can change businesses and the world.

“The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence,” wrote Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate. He went on that when ‘human ecology is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature."

The pontiff continued with these essential thoughts (with all emphasis original): 
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.
And so the challenge before us in the matter of ecological protection is the same we hold in all matters of morality and faith: giving our entire lives to Christ and living His truths every day. This is not some simple platitude that sounds fitting for an Earth Day blog posting—it is a necessary reality if we are to slow the present and rapid global ecological decline.

The work of ecologists, then, is first the changing of hearts. Our task is the offering of Christ into the everyday. It is the reorientation of the human heart toward a culture of temperance, peace, and life rather than of consumption and conflict—which both slowly kill the world, one soul and one ecosystem at a time.

May our Earth Day Monday make us mindful of this truth: that only in rooting our everyday decisions in Christ will we see the elevation of who we are and what we do. After all, it is He who takes away the sins of the world. All we need do is keep Him close by every day and hour of the week.

Friday, April 12, 2013

An introduction to the Franciscan Action Network

Thank you Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, for bringing a fine Catholic perspective to a conference held last night by Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light.

The gathering at the stately old “Casino” at Providence’s Roger Williams Park provided an opportunity for many faiths to share their perspectives on creation—and how to protect it. Patrick’s wonderful witness on the orthodox Catholic perspective of ecology was much appreciated, especially by me—the past president of RI IPL—because at last year’s conference the keynote speaker launched into a clichéd and errant attack on Catholicism’s history of ecological insights.

Meeting Patrick allowed me to learn a great deal about the Franciscan Action Network, especially their eco-efforts. (The group is involved in a great many issues related to Franciscan mission and spirituality.)

To better appreciate the group and its work, here’s a section of their discussion on climate change by a network researcher, Ríobart É. Breen, SFO Ph.D.: 
Franciscans have had a centuries-old tradition of explicitly integrating science, and using science as a means of exploring and coming to know our created world.  Knowing the science of ecology helps us to read the Book of Creation, and to know the Creator.  Franciscans also emphasize haeccitas or “thisness,” the unique specialness of each particular living and nonliving thing, loved individually and particularly by God. Every person, every tree, every pond, and every member of every species is uniquely special, is uniquely known and loved by God, and is uniquely imbued with the presence of God.  Integrating Climate Change science into our considerations is essential for Franciscans, as is an understanding of the impacts of Climate Change on every individual creature that is part of the ecosocial system.
Perhaps the most important Franciscan aspect for Climate Change is the Franciscan conversion process.  Franciscan penance is a person’s process of conversion or transformation that results in ametanoia, or new way of seeing.  This metanoia results in a new way of being, and a new way of living in right relationships in the world.  This Franciscan conversion process is a deepening cycle; by changing the way a person sees Climate Change, there is a change in personal and community lifestyle that reduces Climate Change impacts, which in turn further changes the way the person sees Climate Change.  This Franciscan conversion or transformation process attunes the person and the community to the presence of God in Creation, and brings people into a more intimate relationship with God. 
There is a lot in those two paragraphs. Much of it reverberates with the current pontiff and his successors. Indeed, the process of conversion is very much a penitential transformation that has as its ultimate goal a right relation with creation and “more intimate relationship with God.” And that is precisely the equation that will bring about more sustainable lifestyles, a well-tended planet, and souls who seek first the Kingdom of God.

So spend some time at the Franciscan Action Network webpage—there is a lot to peruse!—and in the meantime, we pray for Patrick as he heads off to Rome for a meeting of other Franciscan leaders involved in issues of justice, peace, and ecological protection.

Stay tuned for his reflections on that trip and its gatherings when he returns.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Divine mercy: Forgiving those who doubt

Photo: Flicker/

Today, Divine Mercy Sunday, we should consider the place of mercy in environmental science and advocacy.  

Many of us who accept, for instance, that the climate is changing—that science overwhelmingly shows that this is the case and that man’s activity is a substantial cause—have been questioned, sometimes rather rashly, by climate-change critics. Our characters and loyalties are called into question and our intelligence lampooned. I’ve experienced something like this in the comments on this blog and in other publications—such as an essay about ecology in Catholic World Report and one about energy.

It’s also been my experience that when scientists, planners, and policy makers discuss climate change (and other eco-issues), they often consider how to change the minds of skeptics but they don’t speak of how to love them.

As Catholics know, today’s feast was decreed by Pope John Paul II in May 2000 after decades of growing devotion to the visions, writings, and images of the Polish nun (and now saint) Faustina Kowalska. Her visions were of Christ’s desire for all souls to know His mercy. Faustina wrote that Christ communicated to her that 
My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to Me will I contemplate My love and mercy throughout eternity.
Photo: Flicker/
Faustina had an uphill climb to convince others of this personal revelation. But her visions could not be contained nor her sincerity questioned. And the Lord’s mercy could not be ignored. Today, divine mercy is celebrated with a unique feast that closes the great Octave of Easter. 

Of course, the mercy of God is at the core of apostolic revelation. From Genesis chapter three (when God relents on his warning that “you will surely die” for touching the fruit in the center of the garden), throughout the history of the Nation of Israel, to the very incarnation and crucifixion of Christ, to the coming of the Spirit, and to the forgiving of sins in the life of the Church, God’s underserved mercy has showered onto us sinners—we who so desperately need it.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we are asked to seek God's mercy by connecting this petition to our own forgiveness of others.
 ... and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
There is, of course, a place for all this among you and I who—in this particularly crucial and dangerous time—champion a better relation with the natural order of things. In large part because of our age of hyper-technology, the gluttony of man—our desires, appetites and, as we hear at Mass, “disordered affections”—now threatens global ecosystems with ruin. The next few decades will be times of important choices if we hope to leave for future generations a planet that looks and works pretty much like the one humanity has known from the beginning.

Thus the consequences of not changing our ways are frightening and the changes required to avert them are daunting. Confounding matters is that changing our ways for the good of the planet’s life-offering ecosystems has been an issue voiced at length (for various reasons) by the political left. This has turned a scientific discussion into an ideological one.

And so out of fear of what seems so difficult and out of dislike for political ideologies that—besides championing the environment—champion issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, some of our brothers and sisters push back when they hear the prophetic warnings of ecologists. Such doubters are, like all humans at times, a bit like Thomas, who doubted the words of his friends when they spoke of the return of the Lord of life. But our Lord loved Thomas nonetheless—and He provided all the empirical evidence that Thomas required.

And therein lies the lesson for us: to love and teach those who doubt.

I know firsthand that the words and taunting of those who doubt issues like anthropogenic climate change can rouse a desire to strike back—to demean those who demean us and diminish those who diminish objective observational data. Some of us may even gloat (oddly enough) when current events prove our points.

But we cannot succumb to such temptations.

Catholic ecologists should be well aware that our ancient enemy looks for any means to create division and discord—especially when the stakes are high. Seeking unity must be one of our goals and the chief means to achieve this is love.

It is not enough to present people with graphs and photos of flooded neighborhoods if we do not love. Indeed, we cannot champion life if we refuse to first love.

As St. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians
if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing  [...] 
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
 Love never fails.
If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:2-13)
One might ask, then, is love the greatest of our motivations? I don't know that it is for me. This requires serious thought, because we may hasten ecological destruction if we don't present truth with certainty and love—if we do not forgive when at first we are doubted, or worse. As Christ has taught us (and Benedict XVI reminded us), truth and love must never be isolated.

And so, we champions of sound ecologies must commit this Sunday and every day to offer the mercy that we ourselves so desperately need. Let us bring with us the gospel of forgiveness as we prophesize about the harm in violating God’s laws. Let us resist despair, anger, and gloating. For in the end, we will build up the good of our neighbors and of all creation—and help save souls, including our own—if we truly love and forgive those who trespass against us.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The eighth anniversary

 "The complexity of the ecological question is evident to all. There are, however, certain underlying principles, which, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and the specific competence of those involved, can direct research towards adequate and lasting solutions. These principles are essential to the building of a peaceful society; no peaceful society can afford to neglect either respect for life or the fact that there is an integrity to creation."  Bl. John Paul II. 1990 Message for the World Day of Peace.
In this paragraph, John Paul II made the life-ecology-humanity connection that is summed up in his term "human ecology." These are concepts that Benedict XVI carried in full form and that Pope Francis will expand and exhort in his own way.

As we close this eighth anniversary of the death of Bl. John Paul II, there is very little that can be added to the reams that have been written and said about him, so I will not carry on. The video tribute below by YouTuber Penn BC will do that for me.

Suffice to say Catholic ecologists owe much to him, his work, and to the Holy Spirit, who gave us such a wise, loving, and powerful pontiff.

May Bl. John Paul II pray for us.