The sister was wrong, I thought. Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., 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 unconvertedto 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 Professor 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. Alongside support for scholarship, leadership development and efforts to influence public policy, the E.J.P. has provided over 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 E.J.P. 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.C.C.B. 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 wateris local.
Carol Coston, O.P., 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 the Presidential Citizens Medal and an acknowledged expert and leader in socially responsible investing, in 2001 Sister Coston founded Santuario Sisterfarm in central Texas. Proceeding from the idea that the land and human life are parts of the same ecosystem, many of the Santuario’s projects combine the empowerment of local Latina women with the modeling of sound environmental practices. "Wherever you’re planted," Coston says, "that’s the logical place to start."
Al Fritsch, S.J., knows a great deal about the difference between work on the national and on the local level. A former scientist for Ralph Nader and the cofounder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Fritsch is the founder of AppalachiaScience in the Public Interest. ASPI is best known for its resource assessment service, which has created 10-year action plans on environmental issues for over 150 nonprofit organizations in 30 states, according to an interview Father Fritsch gave to the Web site Inner Explorations.
Father Fritsch used to do a lot of national organizing; now he finds resource assessments far more effective. On the national level, there is always too much infighting and rarely any impressive results. Alliances with other environmental groups are not overly productive, either. We’ve seen misrepresentation by larger environmental groups, explains Father Fritsch. We don’t want to work with groups that have a take-over attitude toward things.
In the end, while Father Fritsch acknowledges that both approaches have a place, he believes that the best work starts personally. "I don’t want to deny that we have to work on the national or international level. I’m saying that as Catholics, we have a better infrastructure to work through parishes and to take responsibility for actions on a personal level than we would on setting up a national organization."
The Rev. Ray Kemp agrees that parishes are a necessary part of this solution. He just wishes more priests thought so, too. Father Kemp directs Preaching the Just Word, a program based at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., that helps priests and other ministers of the Gospel to integrate justice better into their preaching. When I wondered aloud why I had never heard a homily about the environment, he replied: "When I ask pastors to name the issues of justice, invariably (and we’re not talking about a majority here)...the best and the brightest name the environment. The other ones look at it and say, 'My God, you’re right; I had never thought of it.’"
This lack of preaching, for Father Kemp, reflects a deeper lack of connection to the Earth. If the best environmental activism is local, then environmental awareness must begin with local, even immediate, concerns. "It is a question," says Walter Grazer, "of what people are kind of familiar with." He adds, "People generally don’t have radical conversions; we generally move more at a snail’s pace." Father Kemp believes that for priests to begin preaching about the environment, they will have to start from the level of the pocketbook of their parishioners and their parish.
Connecting the Spokes
Of course, one of the most important elements of subsidiarity is that sometimes larger institutions are needed to do the things the smaller ones cannot. "You need some place that’s like a hub," says Grazer. If there’s no hub, you’ve got a lot of spokes, but they don’t connect. David G. Andrews, C.S.C., director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, concurs. You need a national organization to do the public policy work. Local environmental action needs to have a policy component in order that those good works, those good practices, get appreciated on a policy framework on the state and national level, and indeed, the international level.
Grazer hopes that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can serve as that hub. The U.S.C.C.B. has a tradition of teaching and advocacy that naturally extends to the environment. Its centralized, national status lends itself to the making of policy recommendations.
All of this policy, however, points back to the experience of rural life, which requires a concern for all of God’s creation. If you go back into our history, notes Andrews, we’ve always articulated a vision of care for creation and care for community. Andrews speculates that Catholics’ lack of passion about the environment may be a function of the fact that most of them live in cities. It’s a lot easier if you live in rural America to have a vision of God’s communion with humankind through creation.
Changing the Way We Think
The question, then, is how to make it easier for all Catholics to have a vision of God’s creation. Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, argues that people are not going to make the environment "a critical issue until they have an awareness of the question of human purpose in the greater web of life." The environment cannot be reduced to one issue among many, he warns. Rather, environmental awareness must take the shape of a "religious awakening." Until it does, no one is going to pay attention to a sermon about global warming.
Also calling for a new way to understand our relationship to the environment is Miriam Therese MacGillis, O.P., the founder of Genesis Farm in Blairstown, N.J. A proponent of "the new cosmology," Sister MacGillis, like Mark Stoll, believes that the traditional Catholic commitment to justice is centered on "the human in [the] beginning, middle, and end of our concerns." To change the environment, she proposes, we have to change our entire cosmology. Fundamental is a sense of humanity as part of creation, rather than as master of it, and an acknowledgment of all creation as worthy for its own good, rather than for the good of human beings. You reverse everything when you do that. You see that the future of humanity is totally aligned with the future of the planet.
Sister Elizabeth Johnson writes that there are two ways to approach the ecological crisis in good faith: the stewardship model, which envisions the Earth in the service of humans; and the kinship model, which envisions humans in the service of the Earth. The conclusions to which these two ways lead are usually similar, though the routes to them are often quite different. Both, for example, would want to stop extinctions: the stewards because these are animals and plants for which we have been given responsibility and that might have valuable cures; the kinship approach because each plant is a life with an integrity all its own.
Both Sister Johnson and Sister MacGillis believe that the stewardship model would be a welcome improvement on what our government is doing now. Sister MacGillis worries, though, that this way of thinking is just not enough. "It hasn’t made the shift from a human material culture walking on a dead, material planet," she said. Sister Johnson says that we must link our preferential option for the poor to the Earth as a whole, thinking of the Earth as "the new poor." Both would agree with John Paul II’s statement in 2002 that "[we] must encourage and support the 'ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading." As Sister Elizabeth Johnson wrote to me, "It would be great if we even got as far as the stewardship model.... Our rapacious policies and attitudes are a long way from there. But once you start to work with this issue, and begin to love the earth, then your spirit moves to kinship. It happens on the level of spirituality."
She adds, "The most important thing might be to pray."
Maybe the sister was right after all.