Church’s role in eco-activism must transform the human heart

William Patenaude

There’s a lesson in the timing of when the big climate negotiations closed last week. After two decades of meetings, some 200 nations — including the United States — announced an agreement on ways to care for our climate.

The big day providentially took place on Saturday, December 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Long before and throughout the Paris climate talks, Catholic development agencies and eco-advocates had been exhorting the global community to do what needed to be done to keep our climate in check. By all accounts, the final agreement was what many hoped for.

A joint press release by the Catholic development agencies CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis, which were present throughout the negotiations, credit the presence, activism, and prayers of civil society, including many Catholics, for pressuring world leaders to agree that there are better ways than fossil fuels to power our lives.

While some weren’t satisfied with everything in the agreement, there is more than a little optimism that the world is now on the right track to begin aligning our lifestyles with the laws of nature—which is precisely what Pope Francis, Benedict XVI, and Saint John Paul II have called for.

“For Catholic development organizations working to advocate for a fair and just deal for the world’s poorest people,” CIDSE and Caritas said in their announcement about the climate talks, “the [agreement] will only help achieving climate justice if all countries do their fair share.”

There is, of course, the chance that all countries won’t do their fair share. And this is where faith is necessary. Not some sentimental faith in an ethereal “let’s all get along” philosophy, but faith in the actual soul-transforming grace of Almighty God, who always and again seeks to elevate human history.

After all, without God’s grace, we humans can be a selfish lot.

Running through this column since its inception in 2004 — and throughout all my writings on the Catholic perspective of ecology — is a message that Pope Francis underscored in his recent encyclical Laudato Si’. It’s a message that should caution all those who look to government alone to save us from ourselves.

“We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.” (Laudato Si’,123).

In other words, when it comes to easing social and ecological harms, what the Church offers is different than what secular groups can offer. While we can and should join the good work of such secular movements — and correct them when their work is not so good — the Church cannot be satisfied with simply mimicking them. Or worse, trying to win their favor.

The Church’s role is to bring to eco-activism that which actually transforms the human heart. That is, specifically, God’s grace — especially grace mediated through the Church in the sacraments.

Like Our Lady of Guadalupe, we must bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world. Because to save life-supporting ecosystems and, most especially, to save souls, we must tirelessly offer the world the way to Christ, who alone takes away the sin of the world.

William Patenaude, M.A., KHS, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and is a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. He is a parishioner of Saints Rose and Clement Parish, Warwick, and writes