Many family and church friends would sacrifice a limb, as they say, for the well-being of their children or grandchildren. They are also prepared to give the shirts off their backs to help neighbors and fellow parishioners. I have been on the receiving end of this sort of kindness. And as a father, I relate to the power of this sort of parental instinct.
Many of these same people are regular recyclers and claim to care deeply about clean water. But here is the rub: Too many still choose to dismiss global reports and repercussions of a changing climate as simply due to natural cycles, and too many credit the latest studies on climate change as lies or exaggerations concocted by controlling political interests.
As with the general population, the tendency to ignore, minimize, or outright challenge the reality of climate change afflicts a segment of the U.S. Catholic Church. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is on the move.
Awakening to God’s tender love in nature and humankind, people are undergoing ecological conversion—an openness of heart that embraces the interconnectedness of all people and things. The grace of ecological conversion is in a mutually beneficial relationship with integral ecology—the merging of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural movements on behalf of human dignity and flourishing environmental systems.
A growing sense of universal belonging and personal desire to contribute to the common good flows from this experience. Across the United States, citizens increasingly hunger to implement the message of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), incarnating opportunities for ecological partnerships and actions.
Teams and committees
During a May 2021 online conference for Catholics hosted by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a bipartisan effort in Congress to advance solutions to climate change, Paz Artaza-Regan, program manager for the Catholic Climate Covenant, reported that more than 400 U.S. parishes have launched active creation care teams led by growing numbers of laypeople. Initiatives for ecological education, ecological spirituality, and integral ecology are taking off at parishes, schools, businesses, and homes. In turn, ecological conversion is affecting the consciousness of priests and bishops, further expanding possibilities for integral ecology.
Even before Laudato Si’ arrived, St. Mary’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland exercised ecological consciousness. Parishioner and former Maryland state senator Gerald Winegrad formed the parish’s Environmental Stewardship Committee, of which Patricia Mulligan, a 36-year veteran of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is the current chair. “We were doing study groups [on Laudato Si’] as soon as it came out,” Mulligan says. “Our stewardship covers everything, including ecological concentrations in the curricula of the high school and grammar school. Leaders of the school programs are on the parish committee.”
This kind of crossover and collaboration among church institutions hints at what Pope Francis’ teaching aspires to for business and politics. Conversion and integral ecology are ongoing processes that reach into every aspect of cultural and societal life.
Mulligan spoke to me mostly about an urgent and long-term ecological need around which her parish community rallies. St. Mary’s has sought construction of a living shoreline based on their faith convictions and because their church sits on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, where sea level rise and higher-than-average storm surges induce regular flooding and threaten their properties. Such an ambitious bioremediation project serves to protect against shoreline erosion, restore underwater habitats, and expand carbon and nitrogen absorption capacity—critical tools for combating climate change.
However, the parish is also located on land granted to the Redemptorist Order by the descendants of Charles Carroll. As the home of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, the property has great historical significance. Pursuit of the project’s permitting, which is a work in progress, requires approval from Annapolis’ Historic Preservation Commission.
Mulligan emphasizes that Laudato Si’ supercharged motivation for the ecological work to which her parish had already committed. Creation care and environmental justice leaders around the country have made similar statements about the power of Laudato Si’ to give spiritual and ecclesial legitimacy to commitments to the integral health of our common home and human communities. In fact, Pope Francis’ teaching may become an important legal consideration on religious and ecological grounds.
St. Mary’s, the first church in Annapolis to be awarded Environmental Stewardship Program certification in 2014, became an early member of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s green energy co-op. With the impetus of St. Mary’s and the leadership of Nolan McCoy, director of facilities and real estate for the archdiocese, membership has spread to include every parish.
“Archbishop [William E.] Lori is a consistent teacher on the papal encyclical Laudato Si’,” McCoy says. “He is at the forefront of energy management, constructing a four-megawatt solar field in Perryman, Maryland that supplies 100 percent solar energy to two cathedrals, his personal residence, two high schools, and three elementary schools. He has championed the archdiocesan energy co-op, where all parishes and schools have voluntarily elected to enter into 100 percent green e-renewable contracts through May 2025 at extremely competitive pricing.”
The tendency to ignore, minimize, or outright challenge the reality of climate change afflicts a segment of the U.S. Catholic Church. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is on the move.
The list of positive steps continues around the Baltimore archdiocese, including tree plantings, asphalt removal, construction of rain gardens and bioswales, LEED Silver or higher construction of all new facilities, and an LED lighting retrofit program at most schools and parishes. Referring to an outdoor Mass on the feast of Pentecost in 2021 at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Windsor Mill, Maryland—in part held to celebrate recent parish tree plantings and rain gardens—Msgr. Thomas Phillips, the pastor, says, “It is easy to integrate these projects with the theme of ‘renewing the face of the Earth’; it is what the Spirit is calling us to.”
The Archdiocese of Atlanta is hitting the gold standard in its implementation of Pope Francis’ vision. Six months after Laudato Si’ was published, the archdiocese formed a partnership with faculty and students at the University of Georgia. Together, they created the “Laudato Si’ Action Plan,” a comprehensive set of guidelines for parishes, schools, retreat centers, homes, and businesses. Ecological action steps range from remaking buildings and gardens to greening curricula and transportation. The action plan offers best practices in easy, moderate, and advanced levels of adoption and draws interest for its replicability across the United States.
The archdiocese’s initiative is now well into its next stage, which began modestly enough: a pilot program for funding energy audits. Starting with 12 parishes and schools in 2017 and continuing each year since, more than 50 parishes and schools have signed on. Parochial interest shows no sign of abating. Money was scraped together to hire energy and sustainability consultants and pay for equipment upgrades and efficiency measures based on the audits. The practice of remaking buildings and grounds in more ecologically sustainable ways has taken root in Atlanta.
Mindful of present and future generations, the archdiocese works with several funders, including Georgia Interfaith Power & Light and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, whose mission is to reimagine corporations and institutions in regenerative ways. As Kat Doyle, director of justice and peace ministries for the archdiocese, puts it, local funders “have a heart for environmental justice and the message of Laudato Si’.”
Doyle and her teams of consultants and volunteers designed an archdiocese-wide greening plan so thorough and dynamic that what started “on a shoestring and a prayer” is considered the envy of any top Fortune 500 sustainability plan and is poised to receive up to $10 million in grants. As of July 2021, when Doyle presented at the Catholic Climate Covenant’s Laudato Si’ conference, three integrated tiers of responsibility and 10 working groups—every Catholic participant drawing upon their faith, professional skills, and secular networks—have been cocreating a green movement across the archdiocese and northern Georgia.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta Laudato Si’ Action Plan team has an interactive website with links to collaborative ecological actions around the country and world. In uniting advanced communications and evangelization strategies to integral ecology projects throughout the archdiocese, Atlanta is attracting early and late adopters, firing up the imaginations and commitments of youth, and meeting people where they are. Focused on transforming culture and institutions, their language is inclusive, nonpartisan, and grounded in human dignity.
Atlanta strives to be the best diocesan model and leader of Laudato Si’ in the United States. The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. has completed its own Laudato Si’ plan modeled after Atlanta’s, and Atlanta’s former archbishop, Wilton Gregory (now the archbishop in Washington, D.C.), has been instrumental in bringing Laudato Si’ to the fore in both archdioceses.
Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego is giving voice to the desperate cries of the Amazon region, the collapse of the once majestic rainforest due to the logging and beef industries, and the national and global need for integral social and environmental solutions. On May 15, concluding the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the U.S. Catholic Church virtual conference, McElroy emphasized the urgency of enacting legislation, such as the 2021 Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R.2307), to quickly release the U.S. economy from its addiction to fossil fuels.
In the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, Bishop Mark J. Seitz considers the effects of climate change on migrants. He says, “Changes in the world’s climate are exacerbating the difficulties of people who live on the peripheries more profoundly than those who have greater resources and mobility. . . . What are people to do when they are utterly dependent upon their crop and have nothing else to sustain them? Many times, these conditions along with further issues caused by human beings have made lives in their homes unlivable. . . . As Pope Francis points out, we cannot truly love our fellow human beings without also loving and caring for the world God created to be our dwelling.”
Ecological conversion and integral ecology are ongoing processes that reach into every aspect of cultural and societal life.
According to the peace and justice ministry page of the Diocese of El Paso’s website, the diocese “has been active in the work of justice for immigrants . . . for over 20 years,” which includes legislative advocacy, charitable works, border liturgies, workshops, and community events and demonstrations. Such interplay of social and environmental assaults demonstrates what Pope Francis means by “one complex crisis” and the urgency of transformative, systemic action.
Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, understands why integral solutions are critically needed. Stowe favors national, regional, and local strategies that fund transitions to ecological work in a decarbonized economy. On the prophetic implications of Laudato Si’, he says, “Mountain top removal and strip mining are visual reminders of the lack of concern for the environment by corporations whose wealth moved out of Appalachia but whose damage remained behind long after. The cyclic poverty in Appalachia and the joblessness that comes from overdependence on a single industry that is no longer prosperous is a local example of Pope Francis’ observation that the poor are affected disproportionately by climate change: These areas have the worst flooding and have difficulty maintaining adequate clean water supplies.”
Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, a tireless advocate for the protection of the unborn and immigrants, heeds papal counsel on issues of climate change and environmental degradation. After Laudato Si’ was published, Tobin reached out to Bill Patenaude, a state environmental regulator, staunch pro-life Catholic, and founder of the blog Catholic Ecology, to assist in a communication strategy for the diocese to share the message of Laudato Si’.
Patenaude’s suggested approach speaks freely of God’s grace, ecological conversion, and the burning need for Catholics of every political persuasion to stop talking and start listening—on all life issues. For example, he does not allow differences of opinion on abortion policies to be an obstacle to dialogue on climate change and good ecological practice.
Although the Catholic Church boasts its share of ecological saints, notably Francis of Assisi and America’s own Kateri Tekakwitha, only since the papacies of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis has the Catholic Church boldly developed its integral, systemic, and prophetic view of God’s creation—weaving together the integrity of Earth’s systems with the moral demands of the common good, social justice, and individual dignity. Acknowledging the immensity of the ecological challenge and diminishing time horizons for rethinking and reconstructing every aspect of societal life before catastrophic tipping points erase future generations, Pope Francis has consistently reached his hand across the secular aisle and firmly raised his voice in economic and political spheres.
Leaders in the secular world are responding. Paul Campion, a graduate of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and Loyola University Chicago, is a full-time campaigner for the Sunrise movement. Campion has a decidedly national or macro view of integral ecology. The 12 Principles of Sunrise reveal just how correlative its mission is with the common good, workers’ rights, preferential option for the poor, and all the principles of Catholic social teaching. Like others working for integral ecology, Campion desires cultural and institutional change and wants to “build movements that are strong enough, big enough, to legislate and govern in a way that centers on the dignity of all individuals and not the bank accounts of fossil fuel CEOs,” he says.
Multilevel approaches to implementing Laudato Si’ require mobilizing every person of faith and goodwill.
“We need to have clarity around who has power, why they have it, and how they’re using it, in our society and in our world, and to deliberately build the power that is needed to make real those values [of Catholic social teaching] because that is the only way we are going to have the transformation, the vision, realized,” he says.
Using the same comprehensive analysis of injustices and corresponding attention to integral solutions, a localized version of the Sunrise movement is United Workers in Baltimore. This nonprofit organization has for several years received grant funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). While not working for a religious organization, its members were deeply inspired by Laudato Si’. In fact, United Workers formed study groups, open to city neighborhoods, around its own assessment of Laudato Si’—“Reading from the Margins: A People’s Introduction to Laudato Si’. ” Father Ty Hullinger, pastor of three parishes in Baltimore, participated in one of these groups and remarked how most of the participants were young people representing a diversity of religious faiths.
Madeleine Para, a Catholic, serves as president of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. “My faith gives me hope,” she says, as well as how many people are working on ecological justice in different ways and from different angles, “whether it is young people who are suing their governments, shareholder revolts, scientists speaking up, or bishops supporting carbon taxes, to the things we’re personally doing in our neighborhoods. . . . The polls show that the number of people who are concerned or alarmed about climate change is significantly larger now than the number of people who dismiss it, and eventually this will bear fruit.”
Laudato Si’ in action
Multilevel approaches to implementing Laudato Si’ require mobilizing every person of faith and goodwill regardless of their political persuasion. In January 2021 Pope Francis initiated the Laudato Si’ Action Platform to leverage this all-embracing organizational effort. In the United States, the Catholic Climate Covenant seizes upon the pope’s seven-year, seven-goal plan with its We’re All Part of God’s Plan(et) movement, reaching across seven church-affiliated sectors to advance ecological, faith-inspired expertise.
When I first reviewed the focus stories within the seven sectors on godsplanet.us, I wept. After reading Laudato Si’ together, families are rethinking strategies for integrating ecological responsibility into their everyday lives, adding vegetable gardens, giving up meat in their diets, and changing transportation patterns. Interdepartmental teams of college and high school faculties have gone on Laudato Si’ retreats and committed to ongoing conversation and mutual accountability to better incorporate Laudato Si’ themes into all their courses. In the same imaginative spirit, Catholic businesses, foundations, and health care organizations are rigorously developing and sharing best ecological practices. And, of course, religious orders are renewing their institutional souls in the charism of ecological truth and justice for the communities they serve.
Parents, students, professionals, board members, and citizens of every stripe are sensing in their own families and communities that there is hope. But there’s also no time to waste to tap into the eminently creative, redemptive vision of Laudato Si’.
This article also appears in the December 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 12, pages 30-34). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.