Bill Patenaude Discusses Rhode Island Laudato Si’ Event with Bishop Tobin

November 13, 2015

On November 12, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and the Rhode Island Office of Faith Formation hosted “Lessons from Laudato Si’: On Climate and the Common Good,” a discussion of the Holy Father’s influential encyclical incorporating a Catholic perspective on environmental and social ethics. Following a welcome by Bishop Tobin, four presentations were offered by academics and professionals in the environmental, meteorological and theological fields.

Speakers addressed the current state of environmental affairs as described by Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’” before exploring the appropriate Catholic response from a theological and ethical perspective. William Patenaude, GCCM steering group member and author of, served as moderator for the event.

“‘Laudato Si’ is an important document,” Patenaude said during a telephone interview with Rhode Island Catholic. “It’s not just about climate change. It’s about humanity’s state in the world, our relationship in the world, our relationship with God.” The pope’s groundbreaking encyclical about the fractured relationship between humanity and the environment, as well as our fractured relationship with God, was released on June 18.

Climate change is one topic discussed in the letter, but the Holy Father, addressing “every living person on this planet,” does not confine his message to a single hot-button political issue. Rather, the encyclical approaches human wastefulness and lack of respect for creation as underlying causes affecting our treatment of the earth, irresponsibility toward the poor and failure to safeguard human dignity. “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” writes Pope Francis, who points out that the poor are most vulnerable to the effects of environmental deterioration.

“Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” wrote the bishops in a letter addressed to those attending next month’s conference. The Church has a unique responsibility to respond to the unfolding environmental crisis, as stewardship of creation has for centuries been an important part of Catholic social teaching. Many theologians trace this stewardship to Genesis, when God first entrusted care of the earth to Adam and Eve. Pope Francis’ encyclical builds on this theology of pastoral care, reminding Catholics of their responsibilities not only to one another but also to the earth they share as their common home.

“[These ideas] are not new,” said Patenaude. “They’re Catholic social teachings that guide the body of the Church and the world. The Church needs to have her voice present so she can bring what has been revealed to the human race through our faith.” Dr. Jame Schaefer, a professor at Marquette University and author of “Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics,” discussed the theological approach to the environment in the evening’s keynote address. Other speakers included Dr. Malcolm Spaulding, professor emeritus of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, David Vallee, hydrologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service’s Northeast River Forecast Center and Dr. Dana Dillon, assistant professor of theology at Providence College.

A recent report by the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council cited rising sea levels, increased annual precipitation, higher sea surface temperatures and declining populations of flounder and lobster as some of the changes observed in the Ocean State over the past century. Beyond the impact on the environment, residents must consider the problems such changes can pose for those who live and work in the region. “There are costs to all of us — consumers, taxpayers, ratepayers,” said Patenaude. “And then there’s the moral dimension. What moral response does that require?” For Catholics, the impact of environmental disruption is not merely a local problem, but something that affects the universal Church.

In September, Bishop Tobin met with Ann Kirori, an environmental activist from Kenya who works closely with the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa as well as the Jesuits of Africa Social Centres Network to provide a faith-based approach to addressing climate change. Her work in Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa focuses on providing support for the impoverished communities most strongly affected by climate change within the African continent. “It’s true — we need to repair our relationship with the earth, ‘our sister, Mother Earth,’ in the words of St. Francis’ famous canticle,” wrote Bishop Tobin in his “Without a Doubt” column published in the October 15 issue of Rhode Island Catholic. “But because everything is interrelated (perhaps the organizing theme of the pope’s letter), we also need to repair our relationship with God, the Creator, and with our brothers and sisters with whom we share our home.” All are welcome to participate in the November 12 discussion of our common home and the obstacles it faces.