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Friday, October 11, 2013

Opening our doors, fostering dialogue

A grainy picture of St. Francis overlooking local climate scientists
at the Diocese of Providence's St. Francis Feast gathering.
A week ago tonight my diocese observed the Feast of St. Francis with a special evening of faith and reason. (I should have posted on this sooner, but it was one of those weeks.)

Some fifty people came to hear local scientists and policy makers speak about climate change and how it has impacted—and how it will increasingly impact—Rhode Island and Rhode Islanders. It was a wonderful evening that brought together my friends and colleagues in the Church with my friends and colleagues in environmental professions. The event also allowed me to meet some fine folks that came by to listen in.

The intent of the gathering (held at St. Paul’s school auditorium in Cranston) was not to win converts to climate change or to Catholicism. Rather, the goal was simply to allow the Church to demonstrate its proper role of bringing moral arguments to worldly matters. In this case, the matter happened to be the highly polarized subject of climate change. But in doing this—by allowing the Church to provide a forum for a climate change talk—some of those who showed up for the science were also introduced, perhaps for a first time or in a new way, to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

The result was, by any account, an overwhelming success. I encourage all my Catholic brothers and sisters to do something like this for any sort of environmental issue. It’s not hard to do. And you don’t need to be a scientific expert to do it. In fact, there are many resources available to help, most especially at the Catholic Climate Covenant.

Here’s the basic recipe:
  • Choose your eco topic—preferably one of some local interest.
  • Reach out to experts, local ones particularly but national ones if you can. Chances are they are looking for community venues to share the fruits of their efforts and the findings of their profession’s science.
  • Find a parish that’s willing to host the event—preferably one that serves a community affected by the issue at hand.
  • Schedule.
  • Advertise.
  • Reach out to the media—reporters are typically intrigued when the Church offers these sorts of events.
  • Bring food.
  • Prepare a free handout or booklet on science of the topic at hand and on the Church’s teachings on ecology. (Again, there are some great resources at the Catholic Climate Covenant as well as at the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)
  • Open with prayer and an overview of why the Church desires to help in such worldly matters; let the experts speak for most of the event; wrap up with prayer; then let the informal conversations take whatever form they will. And, of course, trust always in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
A great example of a Church-sponsored eco gathering took place in 2012 when two dioceses from Ohio sponsored a public meeting on fracking—an issue of great local concern. It was by all accounts a fantastic success in bringing various parties to the table and allowing the public to have access to the conversation.

I’ve been thinking of that event a lot lately. Now that my diocese’s gathering on climate change has come and gone, I’d like to work to up the ante by planning earlier, providing more outreach, and bringing in some nationally known names. After all, the topic of climate change is not going away and Rhode Island will experience the certain effects of rising seas, increasingly strong coastal storms, and heavier inland rains. This makes it a moral necessity to get information to the public and to foster a dialogue that maintains the dignity of the human person and the importance of the common good.

I also appreciate the effect that such events have on those who may know very little about Catholicism—about the Church that instituted universities, hospitals, orphanages, and the scientific method. Indeed, from my own experiences, those entrenched in the secular world of environmental policy—whether in government or academia—are getting worried. Human policies and efforts seem to be taking things only so far—and not far enough.

And so, perhaps, secular scientists may notice that the Church is offering an alternative to the policies of human thought. Perhaps they hear within the Church’s teaching a voice of reason guided by morality, one that transcends human opinion and exhorts virtuous behavior.

All this makes the hosting of such eco events more than a nicety that can be done if time allows. As Pope Francis has been showing and urging us, the Church must insert her voice and activity into the human condition. This includes matters of serious ecological realities—for these directly relate to the common good and they impact individual lives.

And so let us pray for and help each other make these gatherings happen. Let us invite scientists and our neighbors to our Church halls and to our cathedrals. Let us support each other in bringing the Catholic voice to eco issues (and others)—and in doing so let us introduce our neighbors directly (that is, unfiltered by the media or past perceptions) to the Church and her quite necessary truths.

I look forward to hearing from a great many of you as you consider, plan, and implement your local eco gathering(s). After all, as more of these events are held, we can, by the grace of God, help in our own small ways to renew the face of the earth. 

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