WASHINGTON — Congress is debating an ambitious climate protection bill, and Catholics are wasting no time positioning themselves to help influence the outcome.

“For us, the moral message on climate-change legislation is how it treats the least of these,” said John Carr, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, as quoted by Catholic News Service.

The Church is arguably the greenest organization on the planet: The Vatican has installed solar panels and is pursuing plans to provide 20% of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2020; Pope Benedict XVI, like the late Pope John Paul II, urges Catholics to protect the planet God created, and the Holy See has hosted conferences to discuss theories of global warming.

None of this is a fashionable new stand. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God then took man and settled him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.”

What’s best for the Earth and those it was intended to nourish, however, is seldom clear. Is it best to recycle a plastic bottle? Seems like it. But not when the bottle gets shipped thousands of miles to China, where the melting down spews toxic fumes into the atmosphere.

Environmental legislation has gradually taken on a more central focus of public debate.

Carr chairs a coalition of more than a dozen Catholic organizations that have begun working together in an effort to ensure that discussions and policies pertaining to climate change and environmental stewardship will take into account the world’s poor. The campaign will integrate prayer and specific actions intended to reduce each individual’s “carbon footprint,” the measure of the environmental toll a person takes on the Earth.

The coalition, which hopes to reach people through Catholic parishes and schools, was inspired by the debate on climate change in Washington.

“We are mostly interested in making sure that the interests of the poor are maintained at the forefront of discussions about global warming and the environment,” said Kristin Williams, a spokeswoman for Faith in Public Life, an interdenominational organization coordinating the efforts of various Catholic and Protestant organizations interested in environmental legislation.

Cap and Trade

One policy Congress is considering is known as “Cap and Trade.” It would set limits on the amount of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases that factories could emit in a given year.

Companies would be given permits, which would allow them to pollute up to specified limits. Companies that emit minimal pollution would be able to sell their excess permits to companies that need to pollute more.

“Cap and Trade is an example of why environmental policy isn’t easy for Catholics,” said Michael Miller, director of programs for the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “It’s not a nonnegotiable, like abortion or fetal stem-cell research. If we look to the Church for an answer on Cap and Trade, or other specific environmental legislation, we will be disappointed.” Miller said Catholic doctrine gives no specific information on environmental policies.

Williams, of Faith in Public Life, said most Catholic and Protestant organizations involved in environmental public policy discussions have not taken positions on the proposed Cap and Trade bill or other specific legislation that has been talked about since the fall election.

“The Christian position in any of this will mostly center around defending the interests of the poor,” Williams said. That could mean advocating for the needs of sub-Saharan African farmers, she explained, or protecting the poor in the United States from suffering too much financial strain from expensive legislation designed to save the planet.

Christians considering their positions on new standards for automotive emissions should balance the potential benefits against the potential increase in cost of buying cars and how that might overburden the poor.

“Environmental policy that’s well intentioned can be hard on the poor, and that’s certainly a major concern of ours,” Williams said. “We will push for adaptation funding to make sure the most vulnerable are protected. An example would be pushing for tax credits or rebates for weathering homes for those who can’t afford these measures.”

Joshua Harden, an environmental attorney and co-owner of Navigator Partners, a renewable energy consulting firm in Jefferson City, Mo., suggests a lot of prayer, combined with an eye of skepticism toward all that’s promoted as green.

Green Washing

Some policies and practices are environmentally friendly. Others, he says, are falsely promoted as green — a practice known as green washing. Some, such as Cap and Trade and a variety of recycling options, are hard to figure out.

He believes it’s good for Catholics to work for public policy that has a positive effect on the environment. But, he said, “You do not have a moral duty to pass Cap and Trade in order to be a good Catholic.”

Harden won’t say that Cap and Trade is green washing, and he says regional Cap and Trade programs have done a good job protecting humans from acid rain caused by sulfur dioxin and nitrogen. But he worries about the trade portion of Cap and Trade possibly causing an unfair burden on the poor.

“We may end up with big, smelly factories buying up a lot of carbon credits or renewable energy certificates, deciding that it’s a cheaper option than improving and cleaning up the emissions from their facilities,” Harden said. “In general, poor communities and low-income housing are closest to large polluters.”

“Man uses technology to extend his dominion over the world,” the Acton Institute’s Miller said. “But just because we have dominion over the world doesn’t mean we do whatever we want. We must act within the moral law. The Church is not utilitarian, in that it doesn’t teach us we can use what God created and just throw it away. Nor is the Church pantheistic in its view of the Earth. We are not a scourge on the Earth, and the Earth is not God. Man can use the Earth, but man must do so with prudence that respects virtue.”

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Colorado.