Pope Francis and 21st-Century Stewardship

If it’s consistent with both the papacy of Pope Francis and the legacy of his saintly namesake, Laudato Sii, the encyclical to be published on June 18, is likely to make a strong connection between the environment and the poor and the vulnerable.

(photo: CNA/Bohumil Petrik)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — With a title drawn from a prayer praising the splendor of God’s creation and a June 18 publication date, Pope Francis’ environmentally focused encyclical — the subject of worldwide speculation for the past year — is coming into clearer focus.

Given the title Laudato Sii (Praised Be You), a recurring line in St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun,” the papal document will undoubtedly describe the relationship between God and his glorious creation. But if it’s consistent with both the papacy of Pope Francis and the legacy of his saintly namesake, it’s also likely to make a strong connection between the environment and someone else: the poor and the vulnerable.

Church leaders prepared to deliver this message as the encyclical’s expected release date of June 18 drew near. With the text of the document completed, talking points and guidelines for homilies were delivered to bishops across America, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops led an “explainer” webinar on the encyclical for Catholic organizations and dioceses.

Prominent clerics have shared what to expect in the encyclical at recent events, and the connection between exercising environmental stewardship and care for the least among us, a relationship captured in the term “human ecology,” has received continued emphasis.

The Church’s environmental concern, said Cardinal Peter Turkson at a recent gathering in Rome, is “not just about statistics and graphs — it’s about those who are being thrown out of their houses, who cannot feed themselves” because of ecological degradation.

“So that’s why, from the point of view of the Church, the discussion has never been purely climate and science, but it has been about the human person,” added the Ghanaian cardinal, the president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and the author of the initial draft of the encyclical.


The Connection Illustrated

For those who already work at the intersection of social justice and environmental stewardship, the connection is nothing new.

“How we take care of the poor is directly related to what we are doing to the environment,” said Katelyn Roedner Sutter, the environmental-justice program director at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Stockton, Calif.

Roedner Sutter points to examples in her own diocese to illustrate the connection. The San Joaquin Valley is home to some of the worst air pollution in the country, a product of industrial pollution that she says affects the young and the elderly at an elevated rate.

The distribution of water, a scarce commodity in present-day California, provides another example of the connection between stewardship and poverty. With a record-setting drought in full force, water in the San Joaquin Valley is being sucked up by suburban housing developments at the expense of small rural farmers.

“It’s these tiny rural communities, who are already poor and very vulnerable to poor health and job loss, that are bearing a disproportionate burden of our environmental problem,” said Roedner Sutter.

Of course, this phenomenon has a sizable international dimension as well. In a resource developed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to provide background on Catholic teaching on stewardship, an entire section is devoted to answering the question, “What effect is climate change having on the world’s most vulnerable people?”

“When natural disaster strikes, people living in fragile homes and those whose livelihoods depend on nature are the most devastated,” states the CRS publication, highlighting research that indicates how predicted changes in the climate will disproportionately affect peoples in the developing world.

“This is a life issue,” said Roedner Sutter. “It’s hard to live a healthy and fulfilling life when you don’t have access to basic human needs. Caring for creation and environmental justice is part of respecting life.”


A Different Perspective

The ecological challenges facing the world are numerous and complex, but much attention is being given to changes in the climate linked to man-made carbon emissions. It’s no coincidence that the Pope’s encyclical is being released only months before a United Nations conference on climate change that will take place in Paris at the end of 2015.

In his recent speech, Cardinal Turkson pointed specifically to the use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels as a top ecological threat, stating that if we continue using them “at the current rate, we are on the road to ruin.” Curbing their usage, he argued, would benefit the health of the world and in turn the livelihoods of the global poor.

But not every Catholic agrees that this is the best way to support the poor and vulnerable.

“Lifting people out of poverty requires ready access to energy, and fossil fuels will continue to be the major source of energy for the next century,” Tom Sheahen told the Register. “Keeping energy away from the poor keeps them in poverty.” He added that a lack of efficient and cheap energy actually promotes other forms of ecological degradation, such as deforestation and over-farming.

Sheahen, an MIT-educated physicist, who teaches theology and science at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., is associated with the Heartland Institute. The Chicago-based think tank denies the existence of man-made climate change and has publicly urged Pope Francis to avoid supporting restrictions on the use of fossil fuels, which they argue “would make the plight of the world’s poor even worse.”

Though he denies the existence of climate change caused by human use of carbon-emitting fuels, Sheahen recognizes the reality of widespread ecological challenges, many caused by the “consumerist” mentality that Pope Francis has condemned.

But instead of imposing policies that cut off access to oil and gas, he advocates the widespread usage of energy-saving techniques, from weather-stripping around entryways to cut down on heating costs in the winter to carpooling to the kids’ soccer game.

“If it was up to me,” he told the Register, “the forthcoming encyclical would include an appendix with my ‘Top 20’ list of ways to save energy.”

And while he doesn’t buy into claims that fossil fuels will soon be depleted, Sheahen says that alternatives like solar and nuclear power will be in place to replace them when they are.

“[Thomas] Malthus [and his theories of unsustainable consumption] again bites the dust because of human ingenuity.”


Directing the Conversation

In addition to the Vatican’s perceived acceptance of climate-change science, Sheahen is wary of the Holy See’s close collaboration with the United Nations on environmental matters.

“Extreme caution is necessary when getting chummy with folks who have benignly accepted the brutal forced-abortion policy of China,” he said.

Bill Patenaude of CatholicEcology.net agrees that the U.N.’s approach to curbing ecological degradation and poverty is not the same as the Catholic Church’s, but he says people shouldn’t be worried about the Church’s proximity to pro-abortion international organizations; instead, they should be hopeful.

“So many people get concerned because they think the secular ecological movement is changing the Church or affecting the Church,” he told the Register. “It’s the other way around: The Church is entering the conversation so it can change that conversation.”

Patenaude says that it may be the case that groups like the U.N. are using environmental concerns as cover to advance an anti-life agenda. But that’s not the problem.

“The problem is that Catholics who have different views on how to engage these very real ecological issues are not being serious about it,” he said. “They’re not getting involved in the discussion, and they’re looking silly.” Patenaude added that international bodies are “going to do what they’re going to do,” and the Church would miss a golden opportunity to help shape the debate if it sat on the sidelines.

“And just because someone you’re talking to has a certain position doesn’t always mean they’ll always have that position,” added Patenaude, who was pro-abortion before he converted to Catholicism. “If people didn’t have those conversations with me because I was pro-abortion then, I wouldn’t be pro-life now.”


Transitions Critical

Although Patenaude, a founding member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, disagrees categorically with Sheahen on climate change and believes that dependence on fossil fuels needs to be cut, he is also mindful of how sudden shifts could impact the poor.

“You don’t want a repeat of Appalachia,” he said, referring to how the sudden decline of the coal industry decimated the region’s economy, affecting the poor, who relied on coal for jobs and cheap energy most perniciously.

Roedner Sutter says California can offer a good approach for those looking to curtail fossil-fuel use without hanging the poor out to dry. The state’s decade-old cap-and-trade program, which taxes industries’ carbon emissions beyond a certain threshold, has generated billions of dollars. By law, 25% of this money goes to disadvantaged communities in the form of funding solar panels, free transit passes and quality low-income housing. The tax money is also used to support sustainable-energy programs, which lead to new jobs.

“The money is funneled right back into communities that are impacted by pollution, leading to real structural improvements,” she told the Register. “We can improve air quality and make the quality of life in disadvantaged communities better.”

And while he sees no ethical dilemma with the use of fossil fuels, Sheahen says that developed countries should aid in the transition to renewable energy in poorer nations — not through imposing regulations, but by “generously fund[ing] the installation of such power systems.”

“Foreign aid always looks like charity at the outset, but as the standard of living of the indigenous people rises, the Western countries will get their money back through trade,” he said.


Every Piece of the Puzzle

All parties agree that to address the ecological challenges facing the world — and the disproportionate burden they place on the poor — all avenues must be pursued, from the top down and the bottom up.

“Every piece of the puzzle has a part to play,” said Patenaude. “And the Church recognizes this. That’s why it’s working with businesses and governments.”

“You need policy to play a role, because this is not an isolated local problem — it’s a global problem,” said Roedner Sutter.

But while both emphasized the legitimate role government has to play, they stressed that it can only go so far.

“It comes down to decisions individuals make,” said Patenaude. “Forming conscience and building awareness is important.” He says that this is done not by “beating people over the head and making them feel guilty,” but educating and ennobling them, as well as empowering them with a sense of responsibility.

This is the approach Patenaude, a regulator with Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, uses when working with wastewater operators.

“I, as a government employee, can’t be everywhere at once,” he said. “So it’s so much more effective to build people up and make them realize how important their work is instead of threatening them with fines.”

Roedner Sutter says a widespread change in “priorities and lifestyles” is needed, and the Church should play a central role in that internal transformation.

“Faith should change hearts and minds to really care about [environmental challenges], because they really do impact our neighbors — neighbors around the world, but also neighbors next door.”

For his part, Patenaude says any real success in curbing ecological degradation will be unattainable if Catholics can’t engage it from a place of faith.

“This conversation on environmental stewardship will not be anything if the Church is not bringing the Gospel and the grace of God into it. These are choices that people will have to make with their hearts, and we need God to elevate our nature.”

Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.