‘Love of Neighbor at a Global Scale’: Dioceses Launch Faith-Driven Environmental Programs

Laudato Si’ has had a major effect on Catholic environmental awareness around the world and in the U.S.

Solar panels on the affordable housing Bishop Valero Residence in Astoria, Queens.
Solar panels on the affordable housing Bishop Valero Residence in Astoria, Queens. (photo: Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens)

Catholic dioceses around the U.S. are setting ambitious goals and launching environmental programs inspired in part by the Pope Francis-led effort to make ecological care a priority for the global Church.

The Holy Father has made environmentalism a major focus of his pontificate. His 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ was heralded at the time of its publication as a revolutionary papal document for its emphasis on Catholic ecological responsibility and for its call for “swift and unified global action” in the “care for our common home.”

In October of last year, Francis published a new apostolic exhortation titled Laudate Deum, meant as a further call to address what he called the “global social issue” of climate change. The pope said that in the eight years since Laudato Si’ was published, “our responses have not been adequate” to address ongoing ecological concerns.

‘Our Brothers and Sisters Around the World are Impacted by This’

In the Diocese of San Diego, the diocese’s Creation Care program says it seeks to “spread the Catholic teaching” concerning “our duty to be good stewards of our common home.”

Christina Slentz, the director of the program, told CNA that the diocese launched Creation Care in 2022 using the pastoral guidelines of “See, Discern, Act” to guide its undertakings. 

Among its offerings, the program promotes the movie “The Letter” — a 2022 film that “tells the story of a journey to Rome of front-line leaders” to discuss Laudato Si’ with Pope Francis. 

Slentz said the San Diego program has offered workshops on the film and also offers twice-yearly workshops that present “the ecclesial context, the science, and the eco-spirituality of Laudato Si’.”

The diocese further gives “Laudato Si’ Action Planning Hands-On” workshops at which “parishes, schools, families, businesses, and universities” are guided through “the Vatican’s online platform for taking action to lessen your impact” on the earth. 

Slentz said the diocese also hosts an annual Feast of St. Francis Tree Festival at which saplings are distributed for planting. “I think we planted 730 acorns last year,” Slentz told CNA with a laugh. She noted that the overall program is “not about just some abstract love for trees.” 

“This is love of neighbor at a global scale,” she said. “Our brothers and sisters around the world are impacted by this so much more seriously than any of us.”

‘Excited and Encouraged by Laudato Si‘’

Laudato Si’ has had a major effect on Catholic environmental awareness around the world and in the U.S. The Archdiocese of Seattle, for instance, last month announced the launch of a new Care for Creation Ministry that will be based on the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ action platform. 

That initiative, launched by the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, promotes seven goals that “provide guidance on urgent and immediate actions each one of us can take in the care of our common home.” Among those goals is the “adoption of sustainable lifestyles,” the promotion of “ecological spirituality,” and a “response to the cry of the poor.” 

Terri Nelson, the director of the Seattle Archdiocese’s Integral Human Development and the new leader of the creation ministry, said last month that the archdiocese would “use the foundation of the Laudato Si’ action platform … so that our parishes, schools, and the people of God can learn more about this urgent crisis and take action.”

The initiative will “develop and execute a strategic plan to educate and inspire people to act — at home, in their communities, workplaces, parishes, and more.”

Similar programs have been launched in the Archdiocese of Washington, the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Diocese of Syracuse, and other bishoprics around the country.

‘Not Just Environmentally Sound but Financially So’

In New York, meanwhile, Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens is using its affordable housing portfolio to develop green energy infrastructure in line with the Church’s environmental goals. 

The diocese said the effort works to reduce carbon footprints and provide affordable and energy-efficient homes to low-income seniors and families.

Tim McManus, the senior vice president of the charity’s Progress of Peoples Development Corporation, which oversees the affordable housing program, told CNA that several years ago the charity “created a sustainable nonprofit entity [the Laudato Si’ Corporation] that is under the housing arm, from which we are launching and leading the sustainable initiatives.”

David Downs, the director of the Laudato Si’ Corporation, told CNA that the mission-aligned sustainability program is currently “utilizing our existing portfolio of affordable multifamily housing in Brooklyn and Queens by leveraging public financing resources to create new forms of renewable energy for our residents and New York City as a whole.”

About 75% of the charity’s portfolio is senior housing, typically subsidized voucher programs that assist elderly residents with rent. The charity also offers supportive housing for individuals coming from facilities such as shelters; the portfolio also includes traditional family housing. 

McManus said he and Downs “had always been looking at figuring out how to work [environmental care] into the affordable housing work we do.” 

The developers said making more of their properties environmentally friendly also coincided with increased green requirements in New York City itself. “We were trying to identify strategies and get ahead of new building requirements,” McManus said. 

Much of the effort, Downs said, is “really focusing on retrofit work on existing buildings.” 

“We’re thinking about solar,” he said. “We’re also really excited about exploring adding battery or backup power options with those solar arrays. That’s something we’ve not done to this point.”

“The goal here is producing income, credits from the solar itself — that money and those proceeds help to keep self-investing in the project as it grows,” he said. 

Then-Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in 2021 that the affordable housing initiative “rests upon the Church’s teaching and reflects the dignity of the human person and the value of the family,” while the new environmental initiative “reflects our commitment to the planet and our future.”

McManus said it was clear when the program launched that the newest green energy measures were not just environmentally sound but financially so. “From a bottom line perspective, some of these technologies started to really pencil out across our portfolio,” he said.

The Church’s new vigorous devotion to the environment underscores the sustainability work, McManus said.

“We were very excited and encouraged by Laudato Si’, to see the pope and the Catholic Church recognize and acknowledge the importance of bringing sustainability efforts to the people we serve,” he said.