PROVIDENCE — The first of three events this week in the Diocese of Providence’s Care for Creation series — forums created under the leadership of Bishop Thomas J. Tobin to guide participants in developing authentic Catholic responses to some of the ecological questions of the day — brought four speakers on various topics together Saturday at Providence College’s Aquinas Lounge.
Organized by the diocesan Office of Faith Formation, the forum featured an audience of about 50 attendees representing several parishes, as well as Pax Christi, Providence College, Salve Regina University and Brown University.
Faith Formation Director Ed Trendowski said the key goals of the Care for Creation series are to educate the faithful on the topic of the environment from the tradition of Catholic Church teaching, and to contribute to the ongoing conversation about stewardship of the planet and its resources.
“The bishop hopes to send out to our parishes concrete proposals of what we can do to care for creation,” in the near future, Trendowski said.
The speakers for the first event in the series, “Addressing the Throwaway Culture,” included two theologians from prestigious Catholic institutions of higher learning, along with the founder of a group of young people promoting environmental sustainability in Africa and a local Department of Environmental official.
Chad Pecknold, Ph.D., a University of Cambridge-trained theologian who has served since 2008 as an associate professor of Historical and Systematic Theology in the School of Theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., discussed how Pope Francis’ papal encyclical “Laudato Si’” breaks back into metaphysics, natural law and the Church’s catechesis on creation. He also spoke about creation as a pre-political common good, helping us to see the ecological crisis as a threat to our human ecology, how we relate to nature, one another and God in a whole ‘integral ecology.’
“’Laudato Si’ is not a christening of environmentalism, nor is it simply about a ‘throwaway culture’ — although it is about those things — it is, I want to argue, an ingenious plan to break out of the interior and exterior devastation that Pope Benedict diagnosed as a global phenomenon,” Pecknold said.
He said that Pope Francis, through “Laudato Si’,” is seeking to restore goodness in the world through its focus on caring for the environment.
“I propose that we see Pope Francis as the pope who’s aiming for the recovery of our relation to a prior common good by way of very familiar terms, Pecknold said.
Great sacrifices are needed to save the planet, sacrifices which will benefit everyone living on the planet, he contends.
“The goodness of the earth is something which has many beneficiaries,” he said.
Charlie Camosy, Ph.D, earned his doctorate at the University of Notre Dame and serves as an associate professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University in New York City.
The focus of his presentation centered on the unique dignity of the person and how that dignity is under threat in very particular ways in a consumerist throwaway culture.
He developed this topic further by equating those concerns to one’s moral duty in light of God’s creation in such a culture, particularly, but not only as it relates to non-human animals.
“No such animal has the same unique value of even the tiniest, most disabled human person — but that doesn’t mean we, again, capitulate to a throwaway culture in which such animals are turned into mere tools of human pleasure and utility,” he said.
He spoke of how biotech companies are creating genetically altered animals not just for medical research purposes, but also for the huge profits their existence can bring to their bottom line.
“These animals have become a pure commodity, designed, assembled, modified and sold,” Camosy said.
He concluded by speaking about how pro-life and eco/green activists have much in common, a point being made increasingly by traditional Catholic thinkers, and how a more “full” vision of the Church’s teaching, along with a wider vision of Catholic moral theology, can help explain why that is the case.
For Allen Ottaro, his presentation at the Caring for Creation event was his inaugural visit to the United States.
A resident of Nairobi, Kenya, Ottaro serves as the founder and executive director of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA).
Ottaro’s presentation brought a global perspective to the forum as he discussed issues with waste water disposal and how it affects Eastern Africa.
Since 2012 CYNESA has set up chapters of the organization in 10 African countries, mostly in southern and eastern parts of Africa, with deeper expansion into West Africa planned for the remainder of this year and next so that they can have a network that really reflects the diversity of Africa.
“We are responding to the needs that young people are approaching us to respond to in communities in regard to caring for creation,” Ottaro said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic.
“Most of our programs so far focus on formation and creating awareness around Catholic social teaching and care for creation, so ‘Laudato Si’ is an important and integral part of our work, but also creating awareness about contemporary ecological issues that are going on on the continent with climate change and the diversity lost, as well as waste management
The next element of their work involves helping these communities to develop concrete action plans to address these problems.
One of the current campaigns involves educating people about the need to refrain from drinking water from plastic bottles at large church events.
“There’s a lot of waste in that, so we encourage people to move to a common water point instead, using their own water bottle from home or glass jars which makes it easier to reduce the amount of waste produced,” Ottaro said.
The Catholic organization Caritas Kenya has been working with CYNESA since last year to reduce the damage of deforestation.
The country has only a 7 percent forest cover — 3 percent lower than the internationally recommended minimum of 10 percent coverage.
“The Church is contributing to this national effort, so we are supporting Caritas Kenya to mobilize people to be involved in that campaign,” he said.
Ottaro was invited to speak at the event on behalf of Bishop Tobin by Bill Patenaude, an engineer with the state’s Department of Environmental Management who also writes on issues of Catholicism and ecology.
“I’ve worked with Allen through environmental efforts and we’ve become long distance friends, so I was excited to have him come here. We’re learning from each other,” Patenaude said.
Terrence Gray, associate director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, discussed local initiatives for waste disposal, tying in to the theme of addressing the throwaway culture.
Gray, a parishioner at SS. John and Paul Parish in Coventry, has also served for many years as a Scout leader.
He spoke of how Scouts always have a zeal for the outdoors and for protecting the bounty of nature.
“They get passionate and energized about that,” Gray said.
“They say, ‘It’s our earth, but it’s our future too’.”
Gray said that Rhode Island is much cleaner and healthier than it was 50 years ago, noting how U.S. News and World Report has ranked the state #1 in terms of environmental quality.
“We’re opening beaches now in East providence and shellfish areas in Narraganset bay that have been closed for 70 years,” he said.
All the steps taken today to care for the environment are consistent with the values of our Catholic faith, he said.
Joan Crowley, of St. Joseph Church of Holy Family parish in Pawtucket, where she runs a Bible study group, said she was glad to see much enthusiasm at the event for Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’”.
“It is a Catholic teaching all the way around,” she said.
Crowley, a member of Pax Christi, said she worked with others to help promote the event by reaching out to several parishes to include it in their bulletins, as well as by sending out emails inviting dozens of people to attend.
“I think it’s terrific. I tried very hard to get everybody I know here,” she said.