Ecology letter faces challenges two years later

Two years ago, on June 18, 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”), addressing ecology and the need to safeguard the environment. While earlier popes, most notably Pope Benedict XVI, also had spoken out on the importance of environmental stewardship, Pope Francis broke new ground by elevating this aspect of the Church’s social teaching to the topic of an encyclical.

Bishop Richard E. Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, who serves as the episcopal liaison to the Catholic Climate Covenant, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., said the organization’s current outreach seeks to educate people at the grass-roots level and empower dioceses to rehab old facilities — including schools, hospitals and other buildings — in ways that are more efficient and friendly to the environment.

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Bishop Pates. CNS

Bishop Pates spoke with Our Sunday Visitor on May 26. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:

Our Sunday Visitor: You recently participated in a media event with former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy in the context of your work as liaison to the Catholic Climate Covenant. What were the important points raised by that conversation?

Bishop Richard E. Pates: First of all, it is in response to President Trump’s proposed budget that he’s submitted in some detail at this point, and it was looking at the budget as a moral document, that it speaks to issues related to the future here in the country with regard to children and generations to come.

Second, that it has a lot to do with the living environment and the necessary consideration of people who are particularly affected by climate change, at least immediately, now.

It also has to do with the responsibility of the Congress, as well as the president, in terms of fulfilling their constitutional responsibility. The preamble of the Constitution says that the government must provide for the welfare of all the constituents. And it seems [that] as this is addressed, that certain people are left behind, particularly those who are poor, vulnerable and living in areas that will be highly affected by this.

So what I’ve tried to do is say that the president is making drastic cuts in terms of the Environmental Protection Agency, that those are affecting people very significantly for the worst in terms of the quality of their lives. And so it was really felt that it lacks, in some respects, a moral foundation for what is being undertaken. ...

OSV: There’s also concern at the global level with Trump’s decision on the future of the United States in the Paris climate agreement. What’s important to remember there?

Bishop Pates: The pope presented him with a copy of his encyclical letter Laudato Si’. At the end of the audience, the president is reputed to have said, “I will not forget what you said,” so hopefully that’s the case.

[Editor’s note: Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement six days after this interview was conducted.]

But we do know, with the pope and all the other nations which have signed this agreement, that it is extraordinarily important that the United States has a remarkably critical role to play in its implementation. And so we feel it’s very, very important for the country to continue its commitment, that we must move from ... administration to administration in our commitments on the international level. ...

OSV: In Pope Francis’ recent TED Talk, he said, “The only future worth building is one that includes everyone.” Laudato Si’ is about all people sharing a common home, not just environmental stewardship, important though that is. What drives home for you how this issue touches people’s lives?

Bishop Pates: Particularly here in Iowa … what we have found, basically, as we address the young people, is their strong encouragement to move in this direction, because they can anticipate very clearly what it means, possibly for them, certainly for their children and grandchildren. And so they almost plead that people go beyond the immediacy of what they consider to be a benefit and consider long-term benefits. ... I do see a real push for the younger generations as they encourage me to speak up on it … tell what exactly is involved and encourage people to take this seriously. ...

And one of the critical dimensions of the pope’s Laudato Si’ is it’s not only a presentation of the problem, but a real call for action, that he wants something to be done ... because there’s going to be disastrous results if we don’t. ...

OSV: A perennial challenge for the Church is how documents are received over time. What’s important to remember at this still relatively early juncture of unpacking this rather groundbreaking teaching?

Bishop Pates: I think, obviously, in a certain sense it has been well-received publicly, in terms of even our own government — President Obama and these other people have certainly taken it into consideration. So at a certain level ... they really have appreciated the attention the pope has brought to the question, because it enables it to get to a much more popular level. ...

The Catholic Climate Covenant is doing two things: One is just to bring the information of the document down to a level where it can be shared rather broadly. They’re conducting conferences or convocations with priests, deacons and others who will then be equipped to talk about it and provide direction for us to take the action the pope is asking for. We did this last fall here in the Diocese of Des Moines and spoke about Laudato Si’ from a lot of different perspectives. One of them was to give our priests the ability to have the information, how to approach it from a homiletic perspective, but also to encourage them to move forward with it.

And so, as a result of that, one of our parishes is installing a solar panel that will provide about 50-60 percent of the necessary electricity to equip their facility. And they’re undertaking it because the priest attended this convocation, was inspired by it, went out and talked to his own people, and they decided to move forward with it. And what happens with that is other priests see that happen and hopefully it’s replicated relatively broadly.

And that’s what the second big movement of the Catholic Climate Covenant is trying to do: to move into parishes and dioceses. It’s already done it on a widespread scale in Cincinnati, re-equipping facilities with ... lighting and [other equipment] that will reduce, eventually, the carbon footprint.

So we can do a lot, because we have a huge, huge number of facilities and buildings. ... We can make a huge difference that way, and that’s what the Catholic Climate Covenant is trying to do. ...

OSV: Has your advocacy around this issue brought you into any interesting encounters in terms of dialogue with climate change skeptics?

Bishop Pates: We try to turn that a little bit on its head by saying that this is a virtual scientific certainty, that 97 percent of the active scientists involved with this question say climate change is for real, it’s caused by human activity and needs to be addressed.

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So when you have 97 percent of the scientific community making that claim, is there not a moral responsibility for us to respond to that?

Everybody can have their own ideas and don’t agree with it and all that sort of thing, but if you’re in a position of leadership and called upon to provide for the welfare of our country, is it really a morally responsible thing just to ignore that and move in an entirely different direction?

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.