The level of environmental activism in America and throughout the world runs the gamut from earnest college students who gladly spend their spring breaks laying down in the middle of logging roads to save ancient trees to inside-the-beltway lobbyists garnering support for the latest clean-air initiative or trying to add another species to the endangered list.
Much as we may sympathize with the cause — who wants to say they’re in favor of dirty air or of hunting animal species to extinction? — the mere mention of “environmentalism” is enough to make most faithful Catholics raise an eyebrow in suspicion.
This suspicion is not without warrant.
“The main problem with the secular environmental movement is that the groups concentrate on animals and nature but fail to see the impact on human beings,” says Sister of Charity Mary Katherine Breidt.
Sister Mary Katherine holds a degree in biological engineering from Michigan Technological University. Before joining the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, she worked in the groundwater-protection program at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for 10 years. Now, as a sister at Little Portion Hermitage near Eureka Springs, Ark., she uses her scientific knowledge to help her religious community run their monastery as an ecologically sensitive, sustainable agrarian community.
“Mainstream environmental groups lack a healthy balance that honors all life, in every form,” she says.
A casual perusal of the published literature and websites of well-known environmental organizations reveals that these groups blame the planet’s woes on human overpopulation. This explains why they frequently espouse deliberately “pro-choice,” pro-contraception agendas and tactics. Sierra Club and National Audubon Society, for example, promote anti-natalist strategies.
Secular, mainstream environmental groups simply do not value human life the way Catholics do. “We need to honor and protect rainforests and wild animals,” says Sister Mary Katherine, “but not at the expense of people.”
As Australian Cardinal George Pell observed in a February opinion column: “We have been subjected to a lot of nonsense about climate disasters, as some zealots have been presenting extreme scenarios to frighten us. … What we were seeing from the doomsayers was an induced dose of mild hysteria — semi-religious if you like, but dangerously close to superstition.”
What is a faithful, conservation-minded Catholic to do, other than run from a movement that is so pro-earth that it’s anti-human, anti-Catholic and anti-God?
First, be assured that environmental concern, ecology and conservation are truly Catholic issues that good Catholics can wholeheartedly endorse. The teaching authority of the Church mandates proper stewardship of the created world.
Old Testament Scriptures declare that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and that “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Genesis 1:31).
New Testament Scriptures proclaim that there will come a time “for the dead to be judged” and for God “to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18). St. Francis of Assisi is famous for reverencing every thing God created, viewing creation as a ladder a soul uses to ascend to God.
The Catechism encourages a proper attitude toward the created world. “Man must … avoid any disordered use of things that would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment,” we read in No. 339.
Pope John Paul II also encouraged ecological sensitivity. “There is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustice among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature,” he said in his 1990 World Day of Peace message. “Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.”
Such concrete programs and initiatives should include the two hallmarks of authentic Catholic environmental awareness: stewardship and justice.
Father Thomas Loya, pastor of Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Ill., says that human beings should neither take a back seat to the environment nor dominate it.
“We must strive to co-exist with nature,” says Father Loya, “respecting what nature is and respecting what man is.”
In accordance with this vision, the priest and his parishioners have devised a “landscape master plan” for a “green” retrofit of the parish grounds. This includes water gardens, a living prairie and a permeable-pavement parking lot.
The parish’s efforts to contribute to the good of the environment have not gone unnoticed. In November of 2006, Chicago Wilderness, a regional nature reserve organization, awarded Annunciation Parish its Excellence in Conservation Award. Annunciation’s plan was chosen for its “exceptional contributions in protecting biodiversity and supporting the concept of sustainable development.”
Says Father Loya with a laugh: “They’re awarding us for our Catholicism without even realizing it.”
Seeds and Souls
St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Wyandotte, Mich., also has a vision — not just for its future but for the future of nothing less than the entire planet. Father Charles Morris, pastor of St. Elizabeth’s, concentrates on reducing the parish’s energy usage as a direct response to global warming.
Father Morris has a master’s degree in urban planning and is a board member of Michigan Power and Light, a division of Interfaith Power and Light. Interfaith Power includes member congregations of all Christian denominations and also non-Christian religious groups. Unlike the secular environmental groups, Interfaith makes no statements about nor takes any position on the issues of human population or family planning. Interfaith limits its focus to helping churches and religious organizations reduce their energy usage.
“Our parish began our journey almost 10 years ago with an energy audit,” says Father Morris. The audit, which took place in 1997, was an exhaustive study that examined the physical plant in detail. It cost $5,000. The result? The parish replaced its boiler at a cost of $50,000, but since the new boiler was energy-efficient, it used less energy and saved the parish $7,000 per year and paid for itself in seven years.
St. Elizabeth’s is now partially “off the grid,” which means they generate a lot of their own electricity. They have solar panels, a wind turbine, a solar collector for heating hot water and a solar attic fan. The parish saves $20,000 per year on utility bills and, as a result, reduces its impact on the environment.
“When you do the right thing for your budget and the right thing for your utility bill, that turns out to be the right thing for future generations and for God’s creation,” says Father Morris.
Any church can join Interfaith Power and Light, and begin implementing strategies similar to the ones in place at St. Elizabeth’s. One of the benefits of membership is a comprehensive energy audit.
For Catholic individuals and families who want to respect and preserve God’s creation, the answer is not to write a check and send it to Washington.
“The best way to help the environment is by our own efforts, not by joining a group such as Sierra Club or the World Wildlife Fund,” says Sister Mary Katherine. “Act as locally as you can. You can start literally in your own back yard.”
Clare Siobhan writes from