A Plea for Priority: The Crisis of Climate Change by Jane M. Bailey

On November 6, 2019, the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) Climate Crisis Working Group sent a letter on behalf of the association to Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, and US Catholic bishops. The letter was an urgent call for bishops to acknowledge the crisis of climate change and lead Catholics to act. It was a plea for priority.

Five days later at the 2019 General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal DiNardo responded to a reporter’s question about whether there is a global warming crisis by saying that global warming problems are “significant but not necessarily urgent.” His response did not reflect the urgent priority that AUSCP had hoped for.

During the three-day assembly, the bishops updated the USCCB’s 2015 Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship document which provides a moral framework for Catholic participation in political life. It is not “who to vote for” or “what to vote for”; rather, it is a reminder of the values the church upholds and a filter to judge candidates and issues. 

While not changing the document itself, the bishops wrestled with wordsmithing a new introductory letter to clarify the church’s moral priorities. The final approved version of the letter says, “In the United States and around the world, many challenges demand our attention. The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority.”

The “preeminent priority” phrase became a controversial parsing problem during the letter’s development. Troubling to many Catholics was the question of what the phrase implies about the priority of other issues lumped under the “many challenges” umbrella, such as the climate crisis to which AUSCP called attention. Several priorities are presented after abortion. The list ends with: “Finally, we must urgently find ways to care better for God’s creation, especially those most impacted by climate change—the poor—and protect our common home.” 

While the urgency of the climate issue is acknowledged, the priority is cool at best—certainly cooler than Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home as well as his message on September 1, 2019, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.

While bishops in the United States parsed words about moral priorities, Australia burned and Venice drowned. On the day the USCCB assembly began, a fire started in Ravensbourne near Toowoomba, Australia, that spread through 49,000 acres of bush, inciting a firestorm that continues to leave images of burned koalas seared into our hearts. And before the USCCB assembly ended three days later, as if to punctuate the unsaid need for prioritizing the climate crisis, almost 90 percent of Venice, Italy, was overwhelmed by storm surge. The 900-year-old Basilica of St. Mark was one of 50 Venetian churches damaged by floodwaters. Voices of climate scientists raged that the Australian fires and the Venice floods are a warning to the world about what’s ahead. The staggering statistics from those three days in November make the case for the catastrophe of climate change in a way no letter or encyclical can.

This leaves the “ultimate priority” question to each of us. What happens when voters get into the voting booth and have to decide between candidates or parties that have both pro-life and anti-environmental platforms? Competing priorities are complex and we are left to decide where our moral lines are drawn. Fortunately, there are many church resources and people to help foster moral and civic guidance.

Father Mike Allison is the new chairman of the AUSCP Climate Crisis Working Group and delegate to the Catholic Climate Covenant. He is emphatic that climate change is a priority of AUSCP and that the church must do a better job preaching climate change from the pulpit and putting words into action. Father Mike told me that it was a “huge disappointment” that the climate crisis wasn’t made a specific priority by USCCB.

Important goals of the AUSCP Climate Crisis Working Group include keeping up with the overwhelming amount of new information about climate change so the church stays current;  providing substantive means of climate action, from things parishes and individuals can do to broader political legislative advocacy; and encouraging dioceses to sign the US Catholic Climate Declaration of the Catholic Climate Covenant and then living up to the commitment.       

Climate crisis action is built on advocacy, and there may be no more passionate advocate for climate action than AUSCP friend-member Marilyn Antonik, who serves on the Climate Crisis Working Group. During a recent conversation, her words about the need for climate crisis action reverberated through the phone: “We can’t just talk about it, we need to do something! The church is way behind and time is getting short. The issue needs to get to the pulpit.” When I asked Marilyn what specific actions an individual, parish, or organization might take, she crafted a list faster than I could write:

  • Divest from fossil fuel usage and investments
  • Reduce carbon footprints
  • Stop eating beef
  • Watch and heed the Catholic Climate Covenant webinar, How Our Food Choices Can Save the Planet
  • Advocate
  • Reuse, recycle
  • Reduce: spending, driving, “stuff”
  • Work with legislators—local, state, and national
  • Have a parish and home energy audit
  • Buy “fair trade” products
  • Donate to and invest in green organizations and companies
  • Sign and act on the Catholic Climate Declaration
  • Think about what you can add to what you are already doing

Marilyn reminded me that it’s not enough to stay in a Catholic bubble. We need to join interfaith forces. Faith in Place is an Illinois organization of diverse people from all faiths sharing a commitment to care for the earth. A “green team” of even just a few people from each house of worship can raise parish environmental consciousness, provide educational opportunities, and support and celebrate actions such as those listed above. Community action groups such as Go Green Wilmette can provide awareness, action, advocacy, and advice, and can work with faith communities to protect and preserve our planet. 

The church stands ready to help each of us learn more and do more to resolve the climate crisis. A good starting point is the Catholic Climate Covenant, whose mission statement is: “Care for Creation. Care for the Poor.” An excellent downloadable booklet, A Catholic Response to Global Warming, provides a thorough scientific overview of global warming which sets a foundation for the importance of and means to action. Additional resources on the Covenant’s website include a wealth of materials to enrich a study of Laudato si’, such as curricula, parish toolkits, bulletin inserts, videos, and webinars. There are Lenten resources, homily helps, prayer and worship materials, environmental justice materials, care for creation materials, and more. Laity doesn’t need to wait for leadership from the pulpit . . . the materials stand waiting to be used.

This spring the Catholic Climate Covenant is leading the Catholic Climate Project, an intergenerational Catholic initiative to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22nd and the 5th anniversary of Laudato si’ on May 24th. Those interested can log onto the Catholic Climate Covenant website to join the Climate Project.

Climate action may not be happening fast enough or be prioritized highly enough, but it is happening. “Remember,” said Father Mike, “this is the slow work of God.” Perhaps there’s no better guidance for us than the message Pope Francis delivered from the Vatican on the 2019 World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. His words resounded with political will and urgency for action to protect our earth, summed up in his final prayer: “May God, ‘the lover of life’ (Wis. 11:26) grant us the courage to do good without waiting for someone else to begin, or until it is too late.” 

Jane M. Bailey is the retired provost of Post University and writes from Litchfield, Connecticut. For more of her work, see http://www.janembailey.com.

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