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Friday, December 27, 2013

The 2013 top ten Catholic ecology stories

It was a bit dizzying at times, wasn’t it?

Surprising, uncertain, joyful—however you describe the last twelve months in the life of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, 2013 was one for the books.

Much that happened included or impacted ecclesial activity in the eco-sector—so much so that a few items below are groupings of events that in their own right deserve more attention. But by any counting, we find a clear trend throughout 2013—an escalating momentum and a strong continuity of ecology’s presence within the Church’s internal teachings and her activity in the world.

As I am not a full-time blogger, I’m sure I missed some stories. And so I’m interested in what you would add (or subtract) to this list of 2013’s major eco-events. Feel free to put those in the comments.

But for now, here’s my top ten:

10. Scholars examine, publish on Benedict XVI’s eco-statements

This first item provides appropriate continuity with 2012, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Climate Covenant, and the Catholic University of America held a unique conference on the eco-thought of Pope Benedict XVI. "A Catholic Consultation on Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States" brought together five bishops, over a dozen academic presenters and moderators, and a great many others seeking to unpack the words of Pope Benedict XVI in the context of emerging scientific understandings of a changing climate. The event’s papers were published this spring—and they make a valuable resource for scholars or anyone interested in the impact of Benedict XVI on Catholic eco-engagement. Edited by Jame Schaefer, associate professor of systematic theology and ethics at Marquette University, and Tobias Winright, associate professor of theological ethics at Saint Louis University, Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI's Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States explores four key areas in connection with Benedict XVI’s teachings: human and natural ecology/human life and dignity; solidarity, justice, poverty and the common good; sacramentality of creation; and our Catholic faith in action. Publishers describe the work as the “product of mutual collaboration by bishops, scholars and staff, this anthology provides the most thorough treatment of Benedict XVI’s contributions to ecological teaching,” saying that it “offers fruitful directions for advancing concern among Catholics in the United States about ongoing threats to the integrity of Earth.” Ordering instructions and more information about this significant resource can be found here.

9.  Filipino bishops, archbishop demonstrate ecclesial eco-engagement

Luis Antonio G. Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila. 
Photo: Flicker/James Sarmiento
We find toward the end of 2013 a model example of ecclesial concerns over a local issue that has widespread social and ecological implications. Twenty one bishops in the Archdiocese of Manila—including its archbishop, the Most Reverend Luis Antonio G. Cardinal Tagle, D.D.—wrote to their nation’s president with their concerns over the Manila Bay Reclamation Project, a massive mixed-use development proposal that includes the construction of artificial islands in Manila Bay. While the project has stirred concern among many sectors, the Church is expressing its own particular blend of caution. The bishops' letter calls attention to scripture, Catholic social teachings, and the writings of Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It also echoes statements by Pope Francis that urge the Church to encourage economic models of development that do not bring excessive profit to some by bringing pain to others—or that have no regard for the natural world. What will happen with this proposed development is anyone’s guess. But that a local church has made this such a priority is in itself worthy of high praise and a place on this top ten listing. (It should be noted that the Filipino bishops have a history of eco-concern. In 2010, for instance, they issued this letter about mining. The letter rather emphatically concludes “reflecting on our role as Stewards of God's creation, we, the bishops of Eastern Visayas, call on to our responsible leaders in government, in the private sector and all those who harbor intentions of mining our region to listen to the voices of our people, ‘Bring back the Beautiful Land we had once; STOP MINING IN OUR REGION.’” Emphasis original.)
8. More Catholic institutions and parishes go green, raise eco-awareness

Photo: Flicker/ Andreas Demmelbauer
Whether it was because of solar installations or academic involvement, Catholic communities made news with their eco-concerns and green energy use. This spring we saw the University of Notre Dame host a conference on climate change that “aimed to understand climate change and learn how to address it with an ethical, religious, and social lens.” Conference organizers say that the event represents the beginning of more studies on climate change and social values. There was also news from the Catholic University of America. It seems they’ve been busy with extensive renewable energy projects thanks to the vision and efforts of CUA staff and students. Joining the green-energy fun has been a series of parishes and religious orders, like Blessed Sacrament Parish and its school in Scottsdale, Arizona and Mount St.Mary's Cistercian Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts. The Diocese of Honolulu takes the prize for the continuation in 2013 of an impressive program of solar installations at 22 parishes as well as at its diocesan headquarters. In all, the work accounts for a third of the diocese’s parishes. Our compliments to His Excellency, Bishop Larry Silva for this fantastic initiative. These projects add to existing green church infrastructure across the globe. No doubt we’ll be seeing more—but for now, please add in the comments any additional green energy projects from 2013, from years past, of those planned. 

7. Growing Catholic opposition to fracking

Photo from @dpoliti
2013 also saw a growing Catholic wariness over hydraulic “fracking”—that under-regulated technique of drawing out natural gas from fragile shale deposits across the globe. The process uses millions of gallons of water to shake things up underground. One of the problems with fracking is what to do with the polluted wastewater—water that’s filled with proprietary chemicals and anything it picks up in its journey into and out of the depths of the earth. Then there are issues of groundwater contamination. The list of concerns with fracking goes on. While the Church seeks to balance any good that can come from technological breakthroughs to help lower energy costs, we know that the ends don’t justify the means. And so we’ve seen members of the Church step up and say no to fracking. In Kentucky, for instance, the Sisters of Loretto and Our Lady of Gethsemani have refused to grant an easement for a natural gas pipeline on their property. There is also the now famous photo of Pope Francis holding an anti-fracking t-shirt. The pope did not appear pleased in the photo, and there is no official word yet on what any of this means. But there is talk of an encyclical on ecology, or at least one about social issues that would include ecology. If so, we’ll likely hear about this from the pontiff himself. For now, Dennis Sadowski at Catholic News Service has an in-depth series on the Church and fracking. It makes for good reading and explains in detail why the Church-fracking link is on this list.

6. Ghana's Cardinal Turkson continues to highlight ecology

Photo: Flicker/Catholic Church (England and Wales)
We’ve already heard about Filipino bishops and their own Cardinal Tagle. 2013 also saw the Australian bishops’ council add ecology and stewardship to their voting guide. But few bishops, archbishops, or Princes of the Church have expressed ecclesial eco-concerns as clearly, boldly, and as often as Peter Cardinal Turkson of Ghana. Continuing a history of statements about the natural environment, the cardinal spoke at 2013’s World Youth Day by linking ecology and human life (as had Benedict XVI). “We cannot show concern for the earth and not show concern for human life,” Cardinal Turkson said. “Neither can we show concern for human life and not show concern for the environment or the earth. The two go hand-in-hand.” The cardinal also noted that it would take a sincere “conversion of heart” to bring about authentic and meaningful changes to the way humanity relates to its natural, life-giving environment. Later in the year the cardinal spoke in the United States regarding transgenic crops. He may have upset those opposed to genetically modified organisms in the food supply, but his words nonetheless were those of a Prince of the Church applying Catholic teachings on faith and reason for the benefit of the common good. (One of the arguments made by Church leaders in support of transgenic plants is that they require less pesticides and herbicides, which come with their own ecological and human health impacts. Such endorsements come, of course, with caveats that no research or technology can override moral laws.) No matter where you stand on a particular ecological issue, you can be sure that Cardinal Turkson will either comfort or challenge you as he continues to provide an inspired magisterial voice for the good of people and the planet.

5. African Catholics seek sustainability

Archbishop Peter J. Kairo (right) and Allen Ottaro
Other African voices are also sounding the eco-alarm—and in doing so they are being rather constructive in how they offer the Gospel of Jesus Christ to efforts in environmental planning and policy. Kenya’s Archbishop Peter J. Kairo has offered a particularly steady voice for the environment. Most recently he spoke at an interfaith eco-gathering in Nairobi titled “Faiths care for nature and protect wildlife.”  According to conference attendee Allen Ottaro, executive director of the Conference of Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability inAfrica (CYNESA), half of the participants at this event were Catholic, indicating the growing Catholic involvement in the ecological issues of Kenya in particular and Africa in general. Ottaro’s group itself highlights the growing concerns of African youth—especially within the Church—for the continent's social and environmental challenges. You can read much more about the interfaith gathering, Ottaro, and CYNESA in an interview with him here.

4. Growing bonds between faith and secular policy makers

The secular world is increasingly looking to faith communities to help right the societal and ecological ills of our day. In part this comes from the realization that faith speaks to the heart in ways that secular environmental advocates cannot. For its part, the Catholic Church brings a proven track record of placing faith and reason into dialogue. The Church also brings a rather large, well-organized structure to local and international matters, a point that Allen Ottaro notes in his interview noted above. And so in 2013, there have been increased efforts by secular entities to work with the Church on matters of environmental protection and sustainability. Dr. Robert Brinkmann, a sustainability expert at Hofstra University, expressed this in opening remarks of his interview of me in August. He notes that “science and policy can only do so much to try to deal with the environmental issues we are facing. Our broader culture has a great influence on the planet in ways that transcend any type of policy directive we can try to bring forward.  Religion is a great way to examine the environment and the human condition.” (I had also interviewed Dr. Brinkmann on the current status of sustainability studies. It’s one of the most popular posts at Catholic Ecology in 2013.) I’ve also seen this desire among the secular world to work with the Church in my professional activities with climate-change policy makers—locally and nationally. Internationally there is the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, founded in 1995 by His Royal Highness Prince Philip. The group seeks to help secular environmental efforts benefit from the enthusiasm and moral teachings of faith communities. In July, ARC delivered a letter to Pope Francis asking him to call special attention to issues in the Amazon Basin. The letter preceded by a few days the Pope’s attendance at Rio’s World Youth Day. And indeed, the pontiff did exhort the bishops of Brazil to protect Amazon—and by extension its ecology and peoples. In doing so, the pope was able to elevate the issue in ways that secular organizations could not. (While the Church must be cautious that its primary mission entrusted to it by Christ is not cast aside for secular interests, the Church’s work with the secular world is a means of New Evangelization, a reality that Benedict XVI proved more than once. But again, as we see in the next item on this list, the Church must be cautious.)

3. The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade

The fortieth anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the United States is on this list for interrelated reasons. As noted by Cardinal Turkson and by Benedict XVI, and many others, there is an inextricable link between abortion and ecological issues. This does not imply an equivalency between these realities. But abortion and ecology are connected. (When a cardinal and a pope can be called upon to make such a point, the point is valid, even if many do not wish to admit it.) The anniversary of Roe v. Wade makes this list because the decision (and the culture of death that it signifies) must warn Catholic ecologists against aligning ourselves too closely with those who support the “right to choose.” I say this because this self-imposed “right” is a symptom of a cultural inability to sacrifice for the good of innocent life. And if a culture cannot sacrifice for the good of others—if it will not encourage and support the life of unborn children, no matter the stage of growth—then that culture ultimately will be of no help in championing ecological issues (which, I argue, is why (whether they know it or not) so many secular groups are looking to the Church for help). After all, conservation and stewardship require sacrifice and self-control. This is also true for a culture that supports so-called same-sex marriage. We threaten all life when the desires of individuals—biological, emotional, or otherwisetrump the needs of the greater good, such as nurturing a culture of fertility and family cohesion. “Choice” as it is understood by many today ultimately justifies any choice to meet any need, desire, or whim. This regressive understanding of “choice” comes from the same source as modern pathologies that encourages the over consumption of the planet’s resources and the pollution of its water and air. This is why Pope Francis, as did his predecessors, links a culture of disposability and consumption with a culture of death. It is no coincidence that in the forty years since the United States Supreme Court paved the way to the death of tens of millions of unborn children, the United States and the world has also seen rampant, widespread, and often irreversible ecological damage. If disposing of babies can be justified, so can the disposal of other forms of life. Thus 2013 was a learning opportunity—a year to reflect on exactly who our allies in ecological protection are and who are not, no matter how much they believe otherwise.

2. Benedict XVI, the “green pope,” retires

Photo: Flicker/ Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Many of us will never forget where we were when the news sunk in—after we made certain that the reports were true, that Benedict XVI was indeed stepping down from the Throne of St. Peter. There is much to say about this moment in Church history. The humble abdication of power is in itself a lesson to the faithful and the world. But our task here is to focus on the ecological. Benedict was called the “green pope” by the faithful and the secular media for a reason. He boldly carried the eco-concerns of Bl. John Paul II deeper into the twenty-first century. But his championing of the environment was not mere theory. He put his words into practice. In all, he continued to ingrain them into magisterial teachings. No longer would pontifical eco-statements be considered the whim of one pope. Benedict XVI made certain we knew that the world’s ecological wellbeing concerned the Church deeply—and, professor that he was, he also taught us why. And so many Catholics and those outside of the Church worried that the retirement of Benedict XVI meant the end of powerful pontifical statements and actions that championed life on earth. But as I noted in the period between pontiffs, after Benedict XVI it would be impossible for any pontiff to ignore the cries of the earth. While I was correct, I underestimated what would happen next …

1. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio elected pontiff, takes name of St. Francis 

Photo: Flicker/ Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Habemus Papam! Francisco! With those words, the eco-sphere lit up and flooded social media. Catholic ecologists and many others shouted a collective Alleluia! While some wondered early on which Francis had been the inspiration for the name chosen by Cardinal Bergoglio, the obvious choice was the patron saint of ecologists. The name fit for many reasons, especially for a man who saw much work ahead to rebuild the Church with building blocks that his predecessors had provided him—we can’t overlook that. We also can’t overlook that St. Francis was not just known for his love of creation, but also for the virtuous lifestyles needed to protect creation—and souls. Nor can we forget that St. Francis knew the importance of the Cross. Thus taking the name of Francis of Assisi was an inspired choice on many levels. Since he first stepped onto the balcony overlooking the many thousands in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis has done and said much that has challenged every sector of the Church. (As I said to a friend recently, if your Catholic faith never challenges you, something is wrong.) This new pope—the first from the New World—has brought to the Throne of St. Peter an Ignatian spirituality and a practical background that not only eschews thrones (even if he understands why they are needed) but that uniquely champions the least among us—including the goodness of all life. Pope Francis has already said much about human consumption and life on earth. As we’ve seen already, he seems to condemn fracking while supporting the protection of the Amazon Basin. He exhorts us all to consume and discard less. He asks us to live simply and care for creation. One can be sure that much more ecologically themed statements, magisterial documents, and environmentally important actions will be coming from this pope. Fortunately, with the secular media enamored by his simple and dramatic ways, his words on the link between virtue, grace, and ecology will be heard by many millions. 

And so what exactly awaits the world of Catholic ecology? One can only wonder. My guess is that with Pope Francis continuing his predecessors’ eco-interest, the 2014 top-ten list will demonstrate once again the acceleration seen already in the historic 365 days that made up 2013.


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