Catholics Taking Action: Wisconsin USA

August 12, 2015

Steve Coleman is a retired engineer and a practicing Catholic. For years, he has given his priest, the Rev. Randy Timmerman, at St. Dennis Catholic Church on Madison’s east side, a “deluge” of information about the ethics of global climate change. Coleman says that Timmerman was receptive and supportive from the start, but largely remained on the fence. For priests generally, Coleman says, “Climate change was not on their radar.”

That is, until the June 18 issuance of a book-length directive from Pope Francis, called an encyclical letter, that calls climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity today.” Timmerman downloaded it the Thursday morning of its release, studied it for three days and preached on it to his congregation that Sunday.

Until recently, the Catholic Church’s stance on the environment seemed to be that it was a quaint, back-burner concern not binding on the faithful. But in his encyclical, called “Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home,” Pope Francis upped the ante on predecessor John Paul II’s call for an “ecological conversion,” speaking directly to the Catholic conscience. And the faithful are heeding his call.

Take, for example, the Rev. Eric Nielsen, an affable priest in his mid-50s who serves as director of St. Paul University Catholic Center on the UW-Madison campus. Before the pope’s encyclical, he says he was unmoved when it came to warnings about climate change.  “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s false. I’m not equipped to discern the science of it,’” he says. Global warming rhetoric “seemed to be politically motivated, and I was therefore not convinced it was really an issue.”

He doesn’t feel that way anymore.

“I’m willing to see it as a real issue and something to take seriously,” he says. “I trust the Holy Father because he has the grace of the Holy Spirit and much better advisers than I do.”

Priests aren’t the only Catholic fence sitters who’ve picked sides after the encyclical’s release. In early July, a crowd of more than 50 showed up at St. Francis Xavier Church in Lake Mills to hear Coleman give a talk called “A Catholic Response to Global Warming,” which he has presented nine times in the past year.

Coleman says that at St. Francis Xavier, he tried to grab his audience’s attention early by asking them how many are regular viewers of Fox News. Four people raised their hands. “First off, thank you for being here,” he told them. “What we talk about tonight is going to be quite different from the information you get from Fox News. What I ask is that you stay with me.”

Coleman followed with a tripartite exposition: “The Catholic Voice,” “The Science of Global Warming” and “The Solution.” Skeptics aired their reservations during a Q and A, and a civil discussion ensued, Coleman recalls. “There was no hostility; there was interest.”

Coleman’s own immersion in Catholic climate activism began a few years ago. In 2012, Coleman souped up his Marshall home to become carbon-neutral, but he knew there was more he had to do.

He began to pray, something he does before every undertaking: “As a person of faith, all you can ask is, ‘What’s the next step?’”

A period of reflection culminated in a 2013 New Year’s resolution to become more literate on climate change. He eventually joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a grassroots advocacy organization. It was in that capacity that he found both hope in a way forward — advocacy of a carbon tax — and his niche in the movement: outreach to faith communities. Being a Catholic, he looked into what his own faith tradition had to say.

“The beauty of the Catholic response is that there is a body of teaching that you can draw from,” he says. “Now with the encyclical, we have a very strong teaching.”

A century-long tradition called Catholic social teaching elucidates the Catholic view on a wide range of social questions, from labor rights to international relations to the environment. Its conclusions, including those found in Laudato Si’, demand of Catholics “the religious submission of intellect and will,” according to Vicar General Monsignor James Bartylla of the Madison Diocese.

The latest encyclical emphasizes what it calls “integral ecology,” linking the environment with such things as economics, culture and the church’s teachings on sexual ethics.Some variation of the phrase “everything is interconnected” is found nine times in the document.

The sprawling work also includes numerous calls to action, defining its purpose as helping people worldwide “to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.”

In doing so, it elevates the grassroots work that Catholic environmentalists here and abroad have already been doing for years. And it gives an added impetus to local parish initiatives like the one at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on the near west side.

The leader of the parish’s Food, Fuel, Farming and Faith group is New York City transplant Susan Kiernan. It was eight years ago, while taking a course based on Catholic social teaching created by JustFaith Ministries, that Kiernan first felt the strong link between environmental stewardship and social justice. “The way we care for the earth has such implications for society,” she says. “The poor and vulnerable are most affected.”

With the help of Kiernan’s team, Blessed Sacrament has for years sponsored a variety of sustainability initiatives, including an annual Bike to Church Sunday in partnership with Budget Bicycle Center.

“Choosing to bike instead of drive is a moral action,” says Kiernan.

Kiernan is hopeful that the encyclical will become a preoccupation for the whole parish. Such concern, she says, “is at the heart of who we are as Catholics.”

Other parish-based groups are jumping on the bandwagon.

Annie Lord heads up the environmental initiative of the UW student organization, Badger Catholic. Her group is called Vita Pura, Latin for “the pure life.” Founded in 2012, the group  gardens, composts and hosts a speaker series throughout the school year. Inspired by the encyclical, it will soon kick off a peer-to-peer mentoring program for students interested in creating a spiritual practice around concern for the environment. Lord hopes that Laudato Si’ can contribute to a broader discussion about the role of religion within the environmental movement on campus.

The Diocese of Madison itself is also taking measures to effect Francis’ call for a more sustainable church, Bartylla says. It has already moved in this direction, he adds, noting the installation of solar panels in the Catholic Multicultural Center and the use of energy-saving measures in the redevelopment of the Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center.

The most important message of Laudato Si’, though, has a wider focus, says Bartylla. “Pope Francis is calling on all of the faithful and all people of goodwill to ‘care for our common home,’” he says.

Kiernan is confident that is a message every person in the pews can get behind. “I hope that this pope will unite all Catholics and bridge a cultural divide.” n

Kevin Mauer helped start the campus group Vita Pura and was an intern at St. Paul University Catholic Center on the UW-Madison campus.