Solar panels are seen from the roof of the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican in November 2008. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
When a coalition of United States
scientists issued the most recent draft of its National Climate Assessment, it
captured the attention of environmental regulators like me. Two weeks later,
the United States Environmental Protection Agency briefed hundreds of
researchers and policy-makers about findings from more than two dozen climate
Both the National Climate Assessment and EPA’s indicators
provide more than 1,000 pages of science and significant online resources that
show trends (mostly negative, but some positive) that align with anthropogenic
climate-change modelstrends in increasing temperatures; drought in some places
while, in others, wetter, stronger, and more frequent storms; changes in
agricultural yields; sea-level rise, and other disruptions to the status quo.
My professional concerns relate
to the impact of storms and rising sea levels on water-pollution control
infrastructure. As a Catholic, however, these concerns are illuminated by my
faith. This influences my reaction to mounting evidence and professional
observations of the impacts of a changing worldand this makes me wonder what
we as believers can do about it.
Certainly, the topic of
human-induced climate change brings debate. This is especially true among my
Catholic brothers and sisters who view the topic as a Trojan horse that hides
radical left-wing agendas (which it sometimes can). But given pontifical
statements on the importance of ecology and the seriousness with which organs
in the Churchlike the Pontifical Academy of Sciencesconsider the subject,
there is a growing responsibility for the faithful to look closely at what
science is showing, as well as to consider the moral implications of what’s
happening, who it’s happening to, and the causes thereof.
When governments and
environmental advocates consider climate change, they do so in one of two ways:
adaptation (which means learning how to live with whatever happens) and
mitigation (which seeks to reduce the causes of what’s changing). While these
categories are ultimately linked, in practice they are quite separate.
Adaptive strategies generally
fall to those agencies that maintain our infrastructure and plan future
development. Charitiesincluding the Church, which helps those affected by
sea-level rise or more frequent stormsalso contribute to adaptive responses.
We’ve seen this already after Hurricane Sandy in the United States and in the
work of the Most Rev. Bernard Unabali, Bishop of Bougainville, Papua New
Guinea, who has assisted in the relocation of men, women, and children from
the Carteret Islands that have been losing groundliterallyto rising
Efforts at mitigation have
less-defined champions, but the Church has a considerable voice here, too.
Mitigation often involves
lessening the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, this quickly
entangles us in weighty issues. The National Climate Assessment draft considers
mitigation, but it notes the need for more thought and study. In general, the
report categorizes this work in the areas of “more efficient production and use
of energy, increased use of non-carbon-emitting energy sources, and carbon
capture and storage.”
In Caritas in Veritate
(and elsewhere), Pope Benedict XVI also reviews what he refers to as “the
energy problem.” He does so mostly out of concern for inequitable usage of
energy sources and the conflict this causes. He exhorts the international
community “to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of
non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to
plan together for the future.”
But the pontiff goes further:
technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy
consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through
greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens. It should be added that at
present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same
time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy. What is also
needed, though, is a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that
countries lacking those resources can have access to them. The fate of those
countries cannot be left in the hands of whoever is first to claim the spoils,
or whoever is able to prevail over the rest. Here we are dealing with major
issues; if they are to be faced adequately, then everyone must responsibly
recognize the impact they will have on future generations, particularly on the
many young people in the poorer nations, who “ask to assume their active part
in the construction of a better world.” (Caritas in Veritate, 49,
quoting Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, 65: loc.
The implications of the Holy
Father’s exhortations are, as he admits, “major.” That may be an
Moreover, his exhortation is not
limited to politicians or environmental bureaucrats like me. It is for everyone.
To some degree we all enable lifestyles that demand hefty amounts of gasoline,
oil, coal, and natural gasall of which contribute to a variety of pollution public
health and problems such as greenhouse gas emissions that shift how the planet
stores and distributes moisture and thermal energy.
What concerns me is that, in
seeking to engage the energy problem, some colleagues are eager to enact
sweeping laws or employ sciences like behavioral modification, similar to
smoking-cessation campaigns that parade before us the suffering victims of
cigarettes. But the pairing of civil authority and such techniques, while
well-intentioned, will be meaningless at best and corruptive at worst without
the regulative, supportive, and sacramental graces of faith.
Sacrifice can never be
legislated. Doing so only harms the dignity of the human person, who has free
will. Changing men’s hearts in light of the energy problem and its moral
implications will ultimately require the word of God and the grace that pours
forth from the sacraments. Reason must wed faith if our policies are to be
right, just, and effective.
Models of this wedding, of
bringing about environmentally friendly ends through faith, are found both in
Catholic parishes and universities and in ancient orders like the Cistercians,
with their early innovations in architecture, agriculture, and water useto
name a few. The foundations of these innovations elevated Western Civilization
at a time when civilization needed it, and they can elevate civilization again.
Across the centuries, societies have benefited from the Christian worldview
that sees nature and man as good, ordered, related, but fallenand thus in need
From a 2002 paper by Marquette
University’s Dr. Jame Schaefer, we hear a particular voice that reminds us of
our Christian heritage. “Grateful Cooperation: Cistercian Inspiration for
Ecosystem Ethics,” from Cistercian Studies Quarterly, brings to us
moderns a 12th-century text that describes the surroundings of the Clairvaux
Abbey and the activities of the Cistercian monks who inhabited it.
Dr. Schaefer writes that “[t]he
text exudes the unnamed author’s deep appreciation and gratitude for the
cooperative interactivity of human beings, other species, the land, water, and
air that assured their mutual sustainability and maintained the site’s
integrity. This view predates by centuries the efforts of contemporary
philosophers to reflect on the human relation to other biota and abiota that
constitute ecological systems, to develop ethical principles that can guide
human functioning as integral parts of these systems, and to facilitate
systematic thinking about sustainable development strategies. . . .”
Dr. Schaefer has also explored
such themes in her book Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics:
Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts (Georgetown
University Press). The text eviscerates any notion that a concern for ecology
is new to Christian thought. Dr. Schaefer and many others provide timely
reminders of what the Church offers when nature is under siege by man’s
struggle with objective truth and virtue.
Within the realm of energy, the
results of such ecclesial offerings are already visible. In Rome, the Holy
Father has overseen projects such as the installation of solar panels on the
Paul VI Audience Hall, helping to make Vatican City the world’s first
carbon-neutral state. The news from Maui, Hawaii, is of St. Theresa’s Parish
supplying 80 percent of its energy needs with solar panels. In Washington, DC,
the Catholic University of America is not just researching renewable energy, it
is also benefitting from it with its own sizeable solar installations.
The list goes on. And it needs to
Having helped groups work with
municipalities to reduce energy use, I would add that, to adequately engage the
energy problem, there must first be a healthy appreciation of the human person.
After all, sacrificial love must be present when seeking to authentically
change men’s hearts. Asking an industry, a community, or a homeowner to do
things differently is difficult anytimemore so during an age of sour
economics. To encourage change, the relational infrastructure that fosters
trust, concern, and communication can be provided by the Churchand, in many
ways, only by the Churchfor two (of many) reasons.
Most important, there is what the
Church offers: the Gospel of sacrifice and God’s transformative grace. In
offering these realities to matters as basic as energy production and useas
did the Cistercians when developing new ways to farm and use water suppliesthe
Church offers policymakers and politicians (whether they like it or not) what
is necessary to build and sustain the relationships necessary to bring about
environmentally friendly energy systems and policies.
Second, our place in the
Areopagus of energy discussion will introduce to many in the post-Christian
West (and elsewhere) the many facets of Christian thought and practice,
especially those that are often unreported by the media and are thus unseen.
The resulting dialogue about matters of science can lead to discussions of
faithwhich is a form of the New Evangelization. And, with the grace of God,
this in itself may lead to the salvation of souls.
And so there is much work to be
done: Catholic universities and technical communities must continueand
expandresearch in energy efficiency and renewable sources of power. This
research can then be brought to local parishes and religious orders, both of
which rarely have the time or technical expertise to benefit from renewable
technologies or the knowledge of state and local financial incentives that can
help pay for them.
As have the Holy Father and some
local bishops already, the Magisterium must raise its prophetic voice to
encourage corporations, governments, and individuals to use less and cleaner
energy in our industries and modes of transportation. In her teachings, the
Church must remove any obstacle hiding the bloody consequences of small- and
large-scale violence done to the innocent in the quest by the more powerful to
secure sources for our fuel.
And not least, in engaging the energy problem,
the Church must pray and do penance as much as she preaches and researches. If,
as it seems, there must be a change in how we bring light to our worldhow we
mitigate energy-related social and environmental realities for the good of the
manythere must first be individual and communal movement from selfishness
toward sacrifice. Such movement is the work of the Church. With our faith in
the Crucified and Risen One, believers must once again shownow to a new
ageour “grateful cooperation” between the laws of nature and the often
inconvenient but necessary Gospel that is powered by salvific love.