America: Whatever happened to Catholic environmentalists?
NEW YORK (America Magazine) -- She was wrong, I thought. Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, a theologian and professor at Fordham University in New York, was talking to Catholic school teachers about ways to integrate environmental concerns into classroom lessons.
Personally, I considered environmental concern a “white privilege.” I did not have time to teach it to my inner-city students. Sister Johnson argued that social justice and environmental activism are necessarily linked and gave examples of ways to integrate ecology into an inner-city school’s daily life. It was intriguing, but I didn’t quite buy it.
I do not think I was alone in downplaying the environment. While a recent Gallup poll indicates that over half of all Americans believe environmental quality in this country is getting worse and that our leaders are not doing enough about it, I did not see the same level of concern reflected in my experience as an American Catholic. I have never heard a homily about ecology, although in various parishes I have heard dozens about abortion or the war. I receive countless direct mailings from Catholic organizations, but I do not recall ever receiving one about the environment. There are many books that discuss religion and environmental awareness. But where is the action?
The action, I am learning, is not national, and it often is not issue-driven – at least not in the traditional sense of pushing a few important measures through Congress. Sure, there are Catholic environmental public policy recommendations, and yes, there are Catholic environmental groups. But the really exciting work in environmentalism is going on locally, and the most pressing changes are occurring not in issues but in attitudes. Catholics across the country are beginning to rethink how they relate to the Earth and to re-evaluate their role in the ecological balance, and they do not need big national movements or massive mailing lists to do it. After all, this is ecology, so the best way to go is organic, and the best way to start is from the ground up.
The changing face of Catholic environmentalism
Mark Stoll, a history professor at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Tex., argues that Catholics have not been prominent environmentalists in the past because their religious worldview encouraged a sense of sacredness among a community of people rather than with nature. In a paper entitled “The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Environmentalism,” Stoll writes, “Religiously-minded Catholics dedicated themselves in service to the Church, or to the poor, or to the unconverted – to society, in other words...and by and large left nature writing to Protestants, alone in the woods with their God.” While Catholics have certainly always appreciated the natural world, their passion for ecology has usually been an afterthought to their commitment to social concerns.
But, as Stoll points out, ecology is becoming a social concern. In his statement for the World Day of Peace in 1990, Pope John Paul II said, “the ecological crisis is a moral issue [that] has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone.” In response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued Renewing the Earth, in which they insist that “the ecological problem is intimately connected to justice for the poor.”
“How,” they ask, “may we apply our social teaching, with its emphasis on the life and dignity of the human person, to the challenge of protecting the earth, our common home?” They answered the question, in part, by founding The Environmental Justice Program (EJP). Alongside support for scholarship, leadership development and efforts to influence public policy, the EJP has provided more than 150 small grants to community organizations. Projects have ranged from educational retreats across the country to large-scale organizing against the destruction of wetlands in coastal Louisiana.
While the EJP no longer offers grants, the programs created still serve as models of how small communities can effect both local and national change.
“They have national policy impact,” said Walter Grazer, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops program. “It’s a bit like an orchestra; it’s got a lot of different instruments, and you hope at the end of the day it’s a sound people can recognize.”
The importance of subsidiarity
Renewing the Earth also provides a clue to why Catholic environmental action is not as well known as it might be. The document offers an impressive list of environmental efforts made by the Campaign for Human Development; everything – from an effort in Washington State to reduce pesticides in the apple industry to a community coalition in Mississippi seeking greater access to clean drinking water – is local.
Sister Carol Coston, OP, believes that Catholic environmentalism is predominantly local because that is how it should be, not just socially but ecologically. When people recognize how connected they are to the local community and even to the local land, she argues, “that necessarily calls for subsidiarity.”
A co-founder and former director of Network, winner of ...
Rate This Article
Leave a Comment
More U.S. News
- Violent Tsarnev friend killed by FBI after blaming Tamerlan for unsolved murders
- Eric Garcetti becomes Los Angeles' first Jewish mayor
- 12,000 homes damaged or destroyed in Moore, daunting road to recovery underway
- US Supreme Court Accepts Religion Case: Will Legislative Prayer Survive Religious Censorship?
- In the Wake of the Moore Tornado: What Can we Learn from the Disaster?
- Priests for Life: Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act Most Significant Legislative Step Forward
- Homeless man whose face was eaten away in cannibal attack recovering
- Court sides with Obama, Osama death photos can remain secret - for your own good
- Largest Burmese Python caught in Miami-Dade County
- Fr. Paul Schenck: Finding Living Faith on Catechetical Sunday
- The Movie Yellow: Incest as 'Normal' and Cassavates's Slides Into the World of Woes
- The Chicago School Teachers Strike Reveals the Need For School Choice
- The Sexual Barbarians and the Dissolution of Culture
- The Happy Priest Challenges Us to Ask: Who is Jesus to Me?
- Michael Coren on Canadian Public Schools: Teachers, leave those kids alone
- We Cannot Ignore Our Consciences: Cardinal Dolan On Religious Liberty
- In the Face of Danger, Successor of Peter Travels to Lebanon as a Messenger of Peace
- Reflections on the Dignity and Vocation of Women: Who or What?