LONG BEFORE the environmental movement began and global warming became a hot topic, God
told us in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis that caring for creation is our moral
responsibility. But evidence is mounting that we haven’t been doing a very good job, and
the results are catching up with us.
Thus, people of faith, including Catholics, are going green because of their religious
convictions. Some of them are finding out that saving the earth saves them money, too.
This article will present a sampling of such efforts.
For example, “The sisters at the Sacred Heart Monastery in North Dakota slashed
their electric bills by installing two wind turbines,” reports National Geographic (August
2005). On their site (www.sacredheartmonastery.com),
these Benedictines explain why they are implementing wind energy and raising llamas.
The National Religious Partnership for the Environment’s Web site (www.nrpe.org)
says that the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux has worked to prevent erosion of fertile wetlands
and loss of marine livelihood to overdevelopment. (This area was hit hard by Hurricane
Katrina.) The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is a member of this coalition.
More and more parishes are establishing environment committees. Earlier this year, Father
Peter Daly wrote in his syndicated column that his parish has established “a committee
to look at all aspects of our parish life in relation to the environment,” reported The
Catholic Telegraph, Cincinnati’s archdiocesan newspaper. In addition to examining ways
to reduce energy consumption and other topics, “They are to address recycling paper
and other waste, and explore ways to avoid generating non-biodegradable waste.”
Father Charles Morris, pastor of St. Elizabeth in Wyandotte, Michigan, has been widely
interviewed regarding energy-saving measures employed in his parish. In 1997, his parish
spent $5,000 on an energy audit and recouped the expense within a year by implementing
the audit’s recommendations, reports Catholic News Service (CNS). “We can save money
as well as make a sacramental witness of our deepest values, with our care of creation.”
When interviewed on CBS’s Sunday Morning, Father Morris explained that his parish
saves about $20,000 a year in utility bills as a result of installing high-efficiency lightbulbs,
sun-blocking screens over the church windows, solar panels and a wind turbine.
Father Morris is director of Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) in Michigan, an organization
devoted to deepening the connection between ecology and faith. Archbishop Harry J. Flynn
of St. Paul-Minneapolis is another one of IPL’s Catholic leaders. In a meeting last year
with Minnesota’s Senator Norm Coleman (Rep.), Archbishop Flynn said,
“I don’t think people in our community realize the catastrophic effect of global
warming,” reports CNS.
The Web site for IPL (www.theregenerationproject.org)
offers many suggestions, such as requesting that your preacher address global warming.
By improving the energy efficiency of buildings, a parish can become an Energy Star congregation.
As individuals, parishioners can conduct home-energy audits, buy energy-efficient appliances
and vehicles, and use cars less (walk, ride bikes and use mass transportation more often).
Congregations in 23 states have joined IPL. In California, over 70 Catholic parishes have
been involved in IPL, with goals of educating people, changing public policies to mandate
reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and requiring the federal automotive fleet to be
more fuel-efficient. That’s because fossil fuels, including gasoline, produce carbon dioxide
2) when burned, and CO
2 contributes to global warming.
The Regeneration Project’s Web site reports that last May, in a historic show of unity,
Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in the United States announced a pact to fight global
warming together for the sake of creation. This joint statement was delivered to White
House and congressional leaders.
“These leaders represent millions of the faithful who see beyond their differences
to a shared purpose and common need: protection of life on earth,” says the Rev.
Sally Bingham, president of The Regeneration Project’s Interfaith Power & Light Campaign.
(Bingham practices what she preaches by walking to work and driving a car that gets 50
and the Common Good
In another joint venture, delegates from the National Council of Churches (NCC) testified
last June before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, reports CNS. NCC
said that, “because of climate change, by the year 2020 some 250 million people will
face water scarcity in Africa alone.”
NCC has addressed “the growing environmental threat on waters” in the United
Among the NCC delegates who testified was John Carr, head of the U.S. bishops’ Department
of Social Development and World Peace. He said, “We believe our response to global
climate change is a sign of our respect for God’s creation and a moral measure of our nation’s
leadership and stewardship.”
Carr described three values stressed by the bishops when responding to global climate
change: prudence, the common good and the need to stand with poor and vulnerable people.
Prudence suggests “that when a problem is serious and worsening, it is better to
act now rather than wait until more drastic action is required,” explained Carr.
Since the environment is a common good, we all need to work in solidarity.
“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions
on the next seven generations,” says the oft-quoted Great Law of the Iroquois
Today, the Catholic Coalition for Children and a Safe Environment (CASE) tries
to ensure that all children, born and unborn, can grow up in a healthy and safe
environment (www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp). “Making
a CASE for Children’s Health” explains that children are “among the
most vulnerable and most susceptible to the effects of environmental hazards.” Because
they “may be exposed to environmental hazards at an earlier age than adults,
even before they are born, they can develop slowly-progressing, environmentally-triggered
diseases such as asthma, childhood cancer, mercury and lead poisoning.”
Here are some things you can do to help children:
• Encourage school buses to use biodiesel fuel instead of petroleum diesel,
a toxic carcinogen (www.citizensschoolbus.org).
• Discover which chemicals are being released in the area where you live
at the Toxic Release Inventory’s Web site (www.epa.gov/tri).
• Teach through your example by leading an environmentally conscious lifestyle.
Regarding poor people, Carr said, “With due respect for former Vice President Gore,
the real ‘inconvenient truth’
is that those who contributed least to climate change will be affected the most...and have
the least capacity to cope or escape.”
A recent program that has both social and environmental benefits involves the sale of
fair-trade palms to churches (cinram.umn.edu/
ecopalms/info.html). The way these “eco-palms” are collected helps preserve
forests and puts more money into the pockets of the people who cut the palms.
It began in 2005, with 20 American churches buying about 5,000 ecopalms, reports The
New York Times. Last Palm Sunday, 1,436 American churches distributed 364,000 eco-palm
stems. But there’s plenty of room for improvement: U.S. churches use 25 to 35 million
palms. Although some Catholic parishes are purchasing eco-palms, Lutheran churches are
the biggest buyers, followed by Presbyterians.
Environmental issues are being jointly addressed by religious groups in other countries,
too. For example, in London, England, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Orthodox and Evangelical
Churches have developed a guidebook about the importance of protecting the environment
and reducing energy consumption, reports CNS. For Creed and Creation: A Simple Guidebook
for Running a Greener Church is being distributed free to over 4,000 area churches
and is supported by a telephone advice line.
The USCCB’s Environmental Justice Program’s Web site (www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp)
includes ways some U.S. dioceses and parishes have addressed common problems. For example,
in Oregon and Washington, parishes provided agricultural workers information about pesticides
and environmental chemicals.
Parishes in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, have greatly reduced the amount of trash
they contribute to landfills by recycling seasonal missalettes and directing the funds
generated toward future environmental projects.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia participated in the Interfaith Coalition on Energy, which
provided workbooks to parish leaders in order to conduct energy audits and implement cost-effective,
The South Bronx vicariate is circulating newsletters (in Spanish and English) to all Catholic
parishes and parochial schools about the Campaign for Peace and Quiet. If this sounds like
a joke, read about health-related aspects of noise pollution on Noise Free America’s Web
site (www.noisefree.org), which says, “The
Census Bureau reports that noise is Americans’ top complaint about their neighborhoods
and the major reason they wish to move.”
Bishops in the Northeast, Northwest and Far North have issued separate pastorals that
focused on issues they have in common. The bishops of the Boston Province released “And
God Saw That It Was Good” on October 4, 2000, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi,
patron of ecology. “Global warming, the loss of fisheries here in our region and
across the globe, the destruction and overuse of forests and continuing problems of air
and water pollution and human environmental health need our attention,”
says the pastoral.
Donating, recycling and composting are some of the ways I reduce the amount of
trash I contribute to our local landfill, which is one of the highest elevations
in the county where I live.
Worm bins are one way to compost (wormwoman.com).
In 2001, a box of worms inspired two Princeton University students to develop a
company that could be financially successful while being ecologically and socially
TerraCycle’s Bottle Brigade pays $.05 to charities for each recyclable 20-oz.
plastic bottle. These bottles are then filled with plant food that is made from
worm castings (vermicompost). Made from garbage and packed in garbage, TerraCycle
plant food “is the first mass-produced consumer product to have a negative
environmental footprint,” says its Web site (www.terracycle.net).
Another program that pays schools and organizations for beverage containers to
recycle is The Recycle Challenge (www.therecyclechallenge.com),
in which many Catholic schools participate.
Thousands of miles away in the Pacific Northwest, U.S. and Canadian bishops released an
international pastoral letter in 2001 titled “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring
for Creation and the Common Good.”
Although travelers to this area usually see “areas of pristine beauty,” the
region also contains deteriorated riverbanks, degraded forests, and chemical and radioactive
wastes seeping into the rivers, notes the document.
This pastoral also speaks about indigenous people, agriculture, mining and recreational
use of the land, as well as “endangerment and possible extinction of the area’s animal
and fish species.”
The just distribution of fish and wildlife resources is a controversial topic the Alaskan
bishops addressed in 2002 in “A Catholic Perspective on Subsistence: Our Responsibility
Toward Alaska’s Bounty and Our Human Family.”
This pastoral tackles an escalating problem in our 49th state: “When fish and game
are in short supply, who should be first in line to harvest these resources? Those who
have a stake include commercial fishermen, native Alaskans, hunters and people who live
a subsistence lifestyle” (people who depend on wildlife resources for food, shelter,
tools and other basic necessities).
You are likely to hear more about “climate change” than “global warming” in
the future because the former is a broader term that includes temperature, rainfall, ocean
currents, farming, forestry and other weather-related conditions.
During the past year, the USCCB sponsored Catholic Conversation on Climate Change Conferences
in Alaska, Florida and Ohio. At the June conference in Alaska, Anchorage Archbishop Roger
Schwietz said the bishops hoped these hearings would help clarify how Church teaching should
influence public policy, reported the Catholic Anchor, the archdiocesan newspaper.
Archbishop Schwietz explained why Anchorage, which had hosted a number of recent meetings
on climate change, was having another one: “We are discovering that the concerns
for and threats to the poor people in Alaska and around the world are not well represented
in these conferences or public-policy debates.” When people of faith examine environmental
issues, moral concerns are included.
Thus, many individuals and congregations are changing their lifestyles to reduce their
carbon footprints (amount of greenhouse gases produced), switching to renewable energy
sources and calling on their elected officials to take leadership roles on climate change.
Individuals who feel overwhelmed with too much information and don’t know where to begin
renewing the face of God’s earth can start by planting a tree—in their own backyard or
beyond. In addition to enhancing landscapes while providing food and shelter for God’s
creatures, trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO
2). The destruction of forests increases
Thanks to a donation from Planktos, Inc. and KlimaFa, a reforestation project will plant
trees in the Vatican Climate Forest in Hungary, reported CNS in July. The number of trees
planted will depend on the Vatican’s 2007 CO
2 emissions. This project will
make the Vatican “the world’s first carbon-neutral sovereign state.”
No doubt, this announcement would please Pope John Paul II. His warning in The Ecological
Crisis: A Common Responsibility is as relevant now as it was on New Year’s Day 1990,
when he encouraged us to consider the cause and effect of our actions. “Faced with
the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand
that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past,” wrote
“We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both
to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future
Our National Symbol
Today in the United States, there are over 1,000 endangered species and 300 threatened
species. We humans are responsible for the extinction of many of the creatures God
created for us. It’s too late to save the passenger pigeon: They were over-hunted
and the last one died in 1914. These birds “once constituted 25 to 40 percent
of the total bird population of the United States,” says the Smithsonian Institution’s
Web site (www.si.edu).
But it looks as though we acted in time to save the bald eagle, our national symbol,
which was placed on the endangered species list in 1967. The lingering effects of
DDT (a pesticide used extensively during World War II and restricted in this country
in the early 1970s) in the food chain resulted in thin-shelled eggs of bald eagles
and other birds that collapsed before hatching, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service Web site (ecos.fws.gov). This year, for
the first time since the mid-1940s, four bald eagle chicks hatched unaided by humans
on Catalina Island, California.
“In half a century, we have lost on the order of 90 percent of the big fish
in the ocean,” reported “State of the Ocean’s Animals,” an episode
of PBS’s Journey to Planet Earth (www.pbs.org/journeytoplanetearth)
that aired last March. This loss was blamed on consumption and capture. Giant trawlers
sweep up everything in their path with huge nets. Local fishermen suffer because
they can’t compete with these “floating fish factories,” which process
and freeze the catch on board.
Two recent theatrical films have centered on the environmental challenges of animals
at both poles. The Oscar-winning Happy Feet (best animated feature) weaves
the plight of Emperor penguins in Antarctica into a humorous tale. The DVD includes
a seafood guide “to help conserve natural resources and ensure a healthy environment
for future generations” (www.wbenvironmental.com). Arctic
Tale is a documentary about the struggles of polar bears and walruses in the
Mary Jo Dangel is assistant managing editor of this publication. She loves the
great outdoors, especially our national parks. Although she tries to be a good steward
of God’s creation, she admits there’s room for improvement.