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Church teaching on environment gained little attention … until now

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The sun rises over palm trees in mid-March along Pomeroon River in the interior of Guyana. Photo: CNS/Bob Roller
The sun rises over palm trees in mid-March along Pomeroon River in the interior of Guyana. Photo: CNS/Bob Roller

There is no mistaking that through the centuries, papal documents and the reflections of saints and the words of Catholic theologians show a deep commitment to appreciating and protecting Earth and all its inhabitants.

Even so, until Pope Francis issued his encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home in June, such teachings gained little widespread attention.

Credit that perhaps to the pope’s popularity and ability to connect with people. But with new revelations about climate change and its potential to affect every human life almost daily, Catholics joined other people of faith and the secular environmental movement in embracing the pope’s message and stepping up to discuss, learn, teach and act to stem what some describe as humanity’s biggest challenge.

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A large international Catholic presence was expected at the U.N. climate conference in Paris opening on 30 November. The release of the encyclical on 18 June seemed timed to send a message to world leaders that there could be no more delay in reaching an agreement on reducing carbon emissions.

Since June, U.S. diocesan and parish concerns for the environment have taken on a new urgency. Some steps have been as simple as switching out light bulbs and improved recycling. Other actions have been more involved, focusing on the development of catechetical and educational programs, the introduction of comprehensive green construction guidelines and even divestment from fossil fuel companies by a few Catholic entities.

To be sure, the message of Laudato Si’ is broader than climate change and care for the earth. Pope Francis in the encyclical connects environmental destruction with disrespect for human life, overconsumption and misplaced dependence on technology; he invites the world to be open to new ways of thinking and living and, as has been his custom, to dialogue on ways to respond through sacrifice, prayer and action.

Pope Francis’ understanding that people are connected to each other and to the earth began to take root throughout the year.

One effort that illustrates the serious responses being developed to Laudato Si’ was a three-day conference in mid-November at The Catholic University of America sponsored by the Catholic Climate Covenant, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the university. Participants discussed practical ways to educate the faithful about the encyclical and swapped ideas on how to ensure that the pope’s message is integrated into daily life.

Maria Covarrubias, director of the Office of Catechetical Ministry in the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, and an attendee, said Latino people bring a deep understanding of the environment to parish life thanks to the lives of their ancestors – Mayans, Incas, Aztecs and others – whose livelihoods depended on caring for the natural world.

“It’s that understanding of the friendliness you have to have with the environment for the earth to produce,” she explained to Catholic News Service.

In that same way, Covarrubias said, Latinos understand sacrifice and solidarity with the poor because they have been poor themselves. She said that insight can and ought to be shared with the church and that they can help people make such connections stronger, as Pope Francis urges.

At Catholic Rural Life, the encyclical is being taken to rural communities to help farmers, scientists and agronomists better understand their role in promoting sustainable agricultural practices.

James Ennis, Catholic Rural Life executive director and another participant, said farmers and rural residents often wonder why Laudato Si’ is pertinent in their lives because they are living on the land.

“The pope is developing an argument that this is an extension of our faith,” Ennis said he explains to farmers.

“Folks think this is just about climate change, but it’s so much more and when you start unpacking it, it makes so much sense that the church should be in the forefront as the best stewards of creation, God’s gift and (people) not be offended that the pope is writing a letter on the environment,” he said.

Fr Sinclair K. Oubre, diocesan director of the Apostleship of the Sea for the diocese of Beaumont, Texas, and another attendee, suggested to CNS that the encyclical calls for building solidarity among people and that means understanding the situation of others, whether they live in the U.S., Brazil, Ghana or elsewhere.

He pointed to the lives of energy workers along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast whose livelihoods are at risk if the changeover from fossil fuels to alternative energy occurs too rapidly. “We have sacrificed,” he said, citing energy plant explosions that have claimed lives and high rates of cancer among those same workers.

“We (as a society) get a tremendous benefit, but we see a lack of solidarity with us,” he said.

Fr Oubre told CNS that he hopes the encyclical will help people realise ‘‘we cannot exist without each other”.

Along the lines of building solidarity, the Washington-based Franciscan Action Network was instrumental in pulling together the Global Catholic Climate Movement in the months before the encyclical’s release. The organisation debuted in January as the pope visited the Philippines to meet with people survivors of one of the most powerful storms in the Pacific basin, Typhoon Haiyan. Climate scientists expect storms like Haiyan to be more common as ocean temperatures rise as the climate warms.

The organisation has integrated the traditional practices of prayer and fasting with education and advocacy within its work in rallying Catholics to respond to climate change as a moral concern. Its website lists as its supporters 250 Catholic organisations and religious communities around the world.

Patrick Carolan, the Franciscan Action Network’s executive director, believes the encyclical can be a starting point for people of faith to respond to what he considers the most pressing issue facing humanity.

“Pope Francis’ message is a message to all people,” Carolan said prior to the pope’s address to Congress during his visit to Washington in September. “It’s not a message we should put on a shelf. It’s a call to action.”

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