Living ‘Laudato Si’: Climate Change and the Catholic Perspective

Church leaders discuss human ecology before the Nov. 30 UN summit.

Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal-fired generator at a steel factory on Nov. 19 in the industrial province of Hebei, China. At an upcoming conference in Paris, the governments of 196 countries will meet to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change.
Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal-fired generator at a steel factory on Nov. 19 in the industrial province of Hebei, China. At an upcoming conference in Paris, the governments of 196 countries will meet to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — About 80 people attended a Catholic-sponsored weeknight forum in Providence, R.I., to hear scientists and theologians discuss and reflect on how climate change is causing rising sea levels, spiking global temperatures, droughts and extreme precipitation and weather patterns.

“This is affecting human beings. It’s impacting populations, the common good, how civilizations structure themselves. It’s all very important to the Church because it impacts human life,” said Bill Patenaude, an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, who speaks and writes on ecology from a Catholic perspective.

“This is a moment of evangelization,” Patenaude told the Register. “There’s no doubt about it.”

The Diocese of Providence hosted the Nov. 12 forum, titled “Lessons From Laudato Si: On Climate and the Common Good.” The forum was one of dozens of similar events that Catholic dioceses and institutions across the country have been organizing since Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology was released on June 18.

Through public forums and symposiums, press conferences, newspaper columns, editorials and educational programs, the bishops and other Catholic leaders in the United States are making the case for why climate change should be considered a moral issue and why individuals and nations need to take action to mitigate the effects of global warming.

“I don’t think we’ve seen this level of activity on any recent encyclical that I can remember,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.

All the activity is leading up to the United Nations’ COP21 Climate Change Summit, which, despite the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, is still scheduled to take place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris.


‘Tangible Goal’

Environmental advocates are hoping for a legally binding and universal agreement that would aim to cut global carbon emissions and keep global warming below two degrees Celsius.

“My own hope is that they will adopt a tangible goal, in terms of holding temperature increases to that level,” said Colecchi, who added that the continental bishops’ conferences, including the bishops of the United States and Canada, have “spoken with one voice” in calling for concrete outcomes in Paris.

“We’re hoping something strong comes out of Paris. We’re working hard on that,” said Patrick Carolan, the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, a member organization of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, which is circulating a petition calling on local, national and international leaders to “drastically cut carbon emissions.” Almost 550,000 people have signed the online petition, including Msgr. Guillermo Karcher, an aide to Pope Francis.

“We anticipate having 1 million signatures by the time we get to Paris,” said Carolan, who told the Register that the Global Catholic Climate Movement partners will be in France to deliver the petitions to world leaders. He also said that they will participate in a march on Nov. 29 and other events being planned around the summit.

“We’re hoping for a large turnout of Catholic organizations,” Carolan said. “And we’re hoping the U.S. delegation takes a strong position on climate change.”

Pope Francis has said that he hoped Laudato Si (The Care of Our Common Home) would influence the Paris summit. The Vatican has held conferences to build momentum for “bold action” at the United Nations’ gathering. During a June conference of mayors and governors at the Vatican, Pope Francis said he hoped the United Nations would take a “very strong stand” on climate change.


Vatican Officials Visit

Two high-ranking Vatican officials recently visited the United States for a series of talks and panel discussions on the issue.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, addressed audiences at Santa Clara University and Boston College. He has also written that Laudato Si, with virtues and principles rooted in the Church’s social teaching, can make an important contribution to COP21 in several respects.

“Without these virtues and ethical principles, as is to be feared, Paris will yield nothing new,” he said. “The summits of recent years have not met expectations, because [they] lacked the political will to make truly meaningful and effective global agreements.”

Meanwhile, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, one of the Pope’s nine cardinal advisers, described Laudato Si as a new Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical on labor written by Pope Leo XIII. Cardinal Rodriguez told reporters at a Nov. 2 roundtable discussion at Georgetown University Law Center that the world “cannot continue ignoring” climate change.

“Otherwise, I don’t think countries will have a future,” said Cardinal Rodriguez, who also called on the energy industry to abandon carbon-based fuels and embrace renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal.


Fossil-Fuel Divestment

In the United States, the bishops have not taken an official position on the best strategy to move the economy toward renewable energy. Some Catholic institutions are actively considering divesting from fossil-fuel companies. The University of Dayton (Ohio) became the first Catholic university last year to begin divesting from fossil fuels. Georgetown University has also announced that it will divest from coal companies.

“I think more importantly than divestment is investment. In other words, how can the Catholic Church, dioceses, colleges, universities, hospital systems — really, any Catholic facility or institution — begin to invest in the clean technologies that we know are out there?” said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant.

Misleh told the Register that there is a “real opportunity” for Catholic leaders in the United States to step up and “really try to live Laudato Si” by investing in and utilizing clean-energy technologies.

“Now that we know what we are doing to the planet, we have a responsibility to amend our ways,” Misleh said. “I think we need to think about how we do that as a Catholic community in the United States.”

Colecchi spoke at a Dayton-hosted conference in early November for organizations that were considering changing their investment goals in line with Laudato Si. Colecchi told the Register that he affirmed in his Dayton talk that the Church is a “big tent,” where institutions can use a “range of strategies” to best figure out how to become more “green” and environmentally friendly.

“The key is that all Catholic institutions need to become more energy-efficient,” Colecchi said. “The Holy Father is asking us to live more simply, but also more fully. People understand that our current rates of consumption are not sustainable. Changes will be necessary for us to live in harmony with nature in ways that do not harm nature.”


U.S. Bishops’ Positions

Colecchi added that more than 120 bishops have written about Laudato Si. He also said the Catholic community in the United States “is on the ground,” with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development funding 50 local low-income community groups that are working on various aspects of environmental degradation and power-plant emissions that disproportionately harm poor communities. Catholic Relief Services is also working overseas to help communities and individuals become more resilient to climate change.

The U.S. bishops’ conference has also lent its support to a federal government plan that would limit carbon emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels. The bishops also support the international Green Climate Fund, a program aimed at helping developing nations shift toward low-emission and climate-resilient development.

“The bishops have been exercising their voices in the public square, speaking on the importance of a national carbon standard, to limit carbon pollution here in the United States,” said Cecilia Calvo, head of the U.S. bishops’ Environmental Justice Program.

Calvo told the Register that the bishops are also stressing that “the ways in which we respond to climate change must be based on social and economic justice, doing that in ways that protect workers, the poor and the vulnerable.”

“I love how Pope Francis is calling us to work together toward a framework that links economic prosperity with social inclusion and with respect for creation,” Calvo said. “To me, that really sums up a great challenge we have before us.”


Role of the Free Market

Shifting from an economy based on fossil fuels to one that increasingly embraces renewable energy raises significant challenges, especially for workers, who would be displaced as carbon-based power plants and other energy facilities are shuttered. The role of the free-market economy, and whether it is capable of supporting environmentally sustainable development, will be the focus of a Dec. 3 conference that the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is organizing in Rome.

The conference will feature Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, and Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, among other participants. Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, told the Register that the conference’s goals are in line with Pope Francis’ call for dialogue on the climate-change issue.

“We want to bring in the theoretical and the practical issues that are raised in the encyclical and see where we can deepen and broaden the discussion,” said Jayabalan, who noted that there are many complex economic factors to consider.

He added that emerging economies, especially in China, will not simply close their factories because the advanced, developed countries of the West want them to. Jayabalan also pointed out that many countries that signed the “Kyoto Protocol” have not lived up to their commitments.

“With wealth comes the ability to afford more technologically advanced and cleaner-burning plants and cars and those kinds of things,” said Jayabalan, who suggested that technology and existing laws can help solve some problems related to the need for clean air and water. He also said that the inability to find an adequate alternative to fossil fuels is not necessarily a moral or spiritual failure.

“It’s quite easy to take the moral high ground and say something needs to be done,” Jayabalan said. “But when you ask what needs to be done, in concrete terms, things get a little more shady. It’s much more difficult to work out the exact compromises.”

Meanwhile, Colecchi referenced Pope Francis’ statements on how an unregulated free market, if focused only on maximizing profits, will fail to protect the environment.

“What you need is a strong juridical framework around the market that creates a level playing field for all businesses and gives incentives for renewable energies to move from a carbon-based intensive economy to a renewable and sustainable economy,” Colecchi said.


Local Example

Patenaude, the Rhode Island environmental regulator, who holds a master’s degree in theology, said he knows a group of local Catholic business leaders who are investing in renewable energies because they see a real business opportunity.

“That’s how America jumps ahead. We find the new opportunity. We seize it, and we make it work. This is a wonderful opportunity. It’s clean, and it’s sustainable,” said Patenaude, who believes that it is important for the Catholic Church to remain engaged on these issues.

“The conversation on climate and energy will be happening with or without our presence,” Patenaude said. “So it makes sense for the Church to add her voice — because that brings the Gospel to the conversation. And that’s important.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.