“We are the last generation that can really do something … so we have to act” effectively on climate change, says the coordinator for ecology and creation at the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

July 24, 2019

 Fr. Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam, coordinator for the ecology and creation sector of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that the Vatican believes that “2020 can be a turning point” for global action on climate change.   “We are the last generation that can really do something … so we have to act,” Kureethadam  said.

Kureethadam addressed over 200 Catholics present at a Laudato Si’ conference at Creighton Jesuit University.  Those in attendance expressed a feeling that widespread ecological conversion within the U.S. church won’t happen without a more vocal clergy on creation care — and particularly from the pulpit.

“For the folks who are still Mass-goers, coming together on Sunday is the place where they find out about things going on in church in the world, and where we have the greatest opportunity to influence people,” said McWatters, the liturgy and music director at St. Francis Xavier College Church at Saint Louis University. “For better, for worse, that’s our time.”

Throughout discussions, frustration revolved around the bishops. Though some individual bishops have taken strides — and in the case of California, a pastoral statement on Laudato Si’ issued by all its bishops— the sense was the full body has yet to stake a more visible leadership position on climate change.

“I think part of the issue that we’ve been talking about is how the bishops have been pretty quiet on this,” said Aaron Salzman, an incoming senior at Boston College and leader in the Catholic Divestment Movement. “And in lieu of their response to this crisis, I think what we see here is a lot of engaged lay people.”

McElroy, who attended all three days of the conference, said he didn’t disagree with the assessment of the bishops, but characterized it as a question of focus: that while few bishops would challenge elements of Laudato Si’, differences emerge when it shifts to priority and strategy.

In an interview, he told NCR that he believes the pope’s encyclical should have a more central place within the bishops’ conference, noting that the devastation that climate change could mean for the planet also poses serious threats to human dignity.

“It’s so mammoth in its consequences that it has a rightful claim to a top priority,” he said.

The first night highlighted several environmental legislative priorities for the bishops on Capitol Hill.

Goodwin urged Catholics to raise environmental policy with political candidates early and often, so that the environment doesn’t become a wedge issue that divides lawmakers along party lines. “The fastest way for a lack of meaningful action on any issue is for it to become a wedge issue.”

Apart from legislation, Goodwin described the bishops’ domestic and overseas development work to assist those facing the consequences of environmental degradation.

In one instance, a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development helped a student-led group in south Baltimore, already living with some of the worst toxic air emissions in the country, in their stand to block plans to build the nation’s largest trash incinerator less than a mile from their school.

Sacoby Wilson, associate professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)

That victory for the Curtis Bay neighborhood, which earned one student the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016, showed the impact a few can have in opposing environmental injustice, said Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland. He challenged those gathered to engage their own communities and form relationships with groups like the NAACP working to combat environmental racism.

Said Goodwin: “As Catholics first, we need a spiritual renewal that embraces radical inclusion, especially for the poor, the marginalized and the most vulnerable, with intentionality in our behavior as it impacts the Earth.”

I need to do something’

In her closing speech, Adrian Dominican Sr. Patricia Siemen made the case for the importance of stories in bringing about ecological conversion, citing Jesus’ use of parables.

“The challenge for all of us is to tell stories that invite others to enter into an experience of wanting to become involved in protecting creation and our ecological world,” she said.

Sieman, a civil attorney who founded the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University School of Law, asked the conference participants to consider what brought them to Creighton to spend a weekend ingrained in matters of ecology and faith.

For Katie Starasinich, her journey began when she attended a talk in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, on last year’s synod on youth and young adults. That inspired the environmental sustainability major to take a Laudato Si’ animator course from the Global Catholic Climate Movement, which led her to connect with others engaged in environmental issues in her home diocese. Which ultimately led her to Omaha.

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Adrian Dominican Sr. Patricia Siemen, founder of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University School of Law (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)

“We are the protagonists of the church, and we are the now,” she told NCR. “So I think that that is something that resonates with me. That I can really make a difference; I need to do something.”

McElroy stressed the importance of empowering young people as “the prophetic voice of environmental justice in our nation,” capable of opening the minds of their elders to the damage being inflicted by climate change on future generations.

“Our parishes and schools must become centers of truth-telling about the threats to God’s creation, which are indisputably rising in our world,” the San Diego bishop said. “And we must call our own nation particularly into account, that we have let the United States, which has for so long been the leader in scientific inquiry, to countenance the wholesale spread of pseudo-science created by and in service to those industries and economic interests that despoil our planet.”

But for all the consensus that climate change posed a crisis, how best to talk about it with those less convinced was a topic of debate.

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Participants at June 27-29 “Laudato Si’ and the U.S. Catholic Church” conference at Creighton University (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)

According to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Catholics acknowledge the world is warming mostly due to human activitiy. But a greater divide appears among those attending Mass weekly, who are least likely to view climate change as a serious problem or one requiring a moral response on their part, according to a 2017 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Erin Lothes, a theologian specializing in energy ethics at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey, cited that study as she argued against combative arguments about climate change and instead positive communication that emphasize solutions, such as an impromptu presentation about Immaculate Conception Church in southeastern Virginia’s recent transition to 100% solar power.

After all, it was the search for solutions to a more eco-conscious church that brought them to Creighton in the first place.

“In a church, norms spread,” Lothes said. “New practices that people share pass from one to another. That’s why it’s so important to talk about what you’re doing.”

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter:@BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 26-Aug 8, 2019 print issue under the headline: Conference discusses turning Laudato Si’ ideas into reality .