In the three years since Pope Francis issued his environmental epistle Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), many Catholics have responded in a way that may be unparalleled for a papal encyclical.
Across the country, dioceses from Boston to San Francisco are developing Laudato Si “action plans,” some modeled after one the Archdiocese of Atlanta developed with the help of environmental scientists at the University of Georgia. The Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, devoted 2017 to the message of Laudato Si through a “Year of Creation” with activities that included an ecological justice conference, liturgies with creation themes and an ecological awareness and action project for Catholic schools in the state.
In 2016 and 2017, hundreds of priests and deacons received specialized training in implementing the message of the encyclical through a “Laudato Si in the Parish” program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Climate Covenant, which was formed by the USCCB in 2006 to implement Catholic social teaching on ecology. Elsewhere, “green” and “creation care” teams are springing up in parishes, and religious communities are responding with resources like Healing Earth, a free, online environmental science e-textbook developed by the Society of Jesus.
Daniel Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, said with the release of Laudato Si, his organization counted about 120 statements, articles and homilies from bishops around the country. “I think that’s pretty unprecedented for an encyclical, and, since then, it’s been gathering momentum.”
Misleh attributes the robust response to the high level of interest among those engaged with environmental issues, as well as to the popularity of Pope Francis. “He’s a pope that really is admired and is attractive to Catholics and non-Catholics. I think because it came from him, and because of his charisma, it has had this impact.”
USCCB environmental policy adviser Ricardo Simmonds, who tracked the encyclical’s reception when it was released, said, “I can’t remember a time when a papal encyclical received so much attention.” Simmonds added that perhaps the only other encyclical that had such wide appeal was Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty) in 1963.
Addressing the Skepticism
Of course, not all Catholics have welcomed Laudato Si. Writing in The Federalist, Catholic Maureen Mullarkey reflected the concerns some have expressed about the encyclical when she called it “a malignant jumble of dubious science, policy prescriptions, [and] doomsday rhetoric.”
Indeed, the encyclical’s full embrace of the science of climate change has put off some who might otherwise support its underlying and Scripture-based admonition to use the Earth’s goods responsibly. According to such critics, the encyclical overreached in endorsing the science so unequivocally and in pushing for Catholics to embrace international mechanisms intended to reduce man-made climate change.
Hal Mann of Perrysburg, Ohio, in the Diocese of Toledo, learned that not all Catholics shared his enthusiasm about Laudato Si when he mentioned the encyclical to a fellow parishioner who retorted, “Oh, Pope Francis went off the rails. This thing about climate change and global warming is just not right.”
Undaunted, Mann, a former business owner who is a master gardener and Ohio-certified volunteer naturalist, contacted his diocese to see what was being done in response to the encyclical, only to learn that Bishop Daniel Thomas was two steps ahead of him in commissioning a “Laudato Si Task Force.”
Mann, who now is a member of the task force, said that like his fellow parishioner, he had been skeptical about climate change before undergoing what he calls his “ecological conversion.”
“I used to think this environmental stuff got in the way of prosperity and jobs and really was a bunch of malarkey.”
His transformation came through an interest in native plants and the information he began gleaning from naturalists and conservationists about the importance of ecosystems for sustaining life. “You can’t destroy the environment that enables life and still say that you’re pro-life,” said Mann, a daily Massgoer who is pro-life. “You can’t destroy the systems that make the air, produce food and give us the clean drinking water that we have to have to live. … To be against the environment seems to be against life.”
Still, although Mann believes strongly in the science behind climate change, he does think disagreement about it should not keep people from protecting and nurturing God-given ecosystems. “The very fact that God made all of this means we shouldn’t plunder it and disrespect all of creation just because of controversy about the scientific aspects.”
Given the polarized nature of the topic of climate change, the Toledo Diocese’s Laudato Si Task Force has chosen to remain focused on the encyclical and its teachings without getting mired in its political components, said Rodney Schuster, executive director of Catholic Charities in the diocese. “We knew it would just be a death knell, as politicized as the nation is.”
The task force’s activities so far have concentrated on helping parishes form creation-care teams, making sure diocesan schools are recycling and reducing waste, and partnering with the National Wildlife Federation’s “Sacred Grounds” program, which helps religious groups create rain and pollinator gardens and other sites as “Certified Wildlife Habitat” spaces and engage their members about environmental stewardship. Toledo’s task force also asked the Catholic Climate Covenant’s “Catholic Energies” program to conduct an energy audit of the diocesan pastoral center, cathedral and bishop’s residence.
The task force did, however, vote to sign the Catholic Climate Covenant’s declaration affirming the “Paris Climate Agreement” and opposing U.S. withdrawal from it. Nearly 600 Catholic institutions, including 37 archdioceses and dioceses, religious communities, health care systems, universities, parishes and schools, have signed the declaration, which is in line with the position of the U.S. bishops.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, R.I., which did not sign the declaration, drew a distinction between it and the message of Laudato Si in a June 15 tweet. “… One can support the faith-filled vision of ‘Laudato Si’ without necessarily endorsing the Paris Climate Accord,” Bishop Tobin wrote. “The first is a comprehensive statement of faith; the second a political agreement. Let’s set partisan politics aside and protect our common home.”
Although the Catholic Climate Covenant’s Misleh thinks the science of climate change is clear, he does believe Catholics with differing views can come together to clean up the planet and that most can agree on the need to do so. “I do think the climate issue is still a little bit neuralgic for people. They see it more as a political issue than a moral issue. I wouldn’t pretend that it’s uniform across the board, that people are engaged, but we can bring people together, particularly when they think about how it impacts them or will impact their children in the future.”
Indeed, action plans like the one adopted in the Atlanta Archdiocese offer practical things anyone can do regardless of his or her views on the science of climate change, although Atlanta’s does contain a political action section that suggests lobbying elected officials and supporting candidates who support the environment.
The Atlanta plan, which has been adapted for use in the Archdioceses of New Orleans, Boston and San Francisco and the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, lists “easy,” “moderate” and “advanced” ideas for parishes, parishioners, homes and families in the areas of energy conservation and efficiency, purchasing and recycling, transportation, water conservation, buying and sharing food, creating sustainable landscapes and assisting climate-vulnerable populations. The plan also contains a section on Laudato Si and young people and has been incorporated into the science and religion curriculum in all Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
Additionally, as part of the plan, many parishes are establishing creation-care green teams, and an annual “Green Mass” is celebrated in the archdiocese for those who volunteer or work in “green jobs” or environmental sustainability and “for all who love planet Earth.”
The archdiocese also has attempted to respond to what Laudato Si said about population growth and the environment by offering a workshop for clergy on giving spiritual guidance to help couples understand human ecology and natural family planning according to Church teaching. Although limiting population growth is a popular tenet of the secular environmental movement, Laudato Si said, “To blame population growth, instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” The encyclical goes on to say that failure to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a human embryo, for example, makes it difficult to hear the cry of nature itself, because everything is connected.
Paula Gwynn Grant, archdiocesan spokesman, said in offering multiple options, the Atlanta plan is a place where everyone can come together, no matter what side of the political aisle they are on. “We can all agree there’s something you can do to make the community and the world better, in terms of taking care of the environment.”
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.
Other dioceses and archdioceses that have responded to Laudato Si include:
- Chicago, which has started a “Care for Creation Ministry” and is tracking energy consumption in its 2,700 buildings.
- Cincinnati, which has a “Climate Change Task Force.”
- Monterey, California, which has partnered with the Romero Institute’s Greenpower program to set up teams to decrease electricity usage and increase the use of renewable energy.
- San Diego, which recently held a “teach-in” on Laudato Si and climate change featuring environmentalist Tom English and leaders from parishes with creation-care teams.