Keeping our engagement of ecology connected to Christ in 2015

William Patenaude

In the secular sphere, ecological issues are increasingly impacting the way people around the globe live, work, and pass on life to their sons and daughters. As all this concerns the Church, there will be lots of news in the months ahead about nature and the Catholic faith.

For instance, during Pope Francis’s apostolic visit to the Philippines later this month he will tour areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and Hagupit last month. The resulting deaths, destruction, and misery have been associated by some with what powerful storms can do when made more powerful by a warmer climate.

While particular weather events should not be tied to climatological trends, the damage caused by these storms offer cautionary statements about how tweaking various climatological triggers can affect people’s lives. The pope’s visit will also draw attention to what’s needed to plan and build storm-resilient communities—that is, stronger homes, better systems for flood control, and more secure electrical distribution grids.

No matter your opinion on climate change, humanity’s development patterns and our use of planetary resources not only affect nature. They also affect human lives.

There is talk that when he is in the Philippines the Holy Father will release his much-anticipated encyclical on ecology. Whether or not it’s released then, the encyclical will be issued sometime this year and there will be lots of news because of it.

Recently the mainstream media has been preoccupied with getting the news wrong when it comes to this not-yet-released document. The encyclical is erroneously being depicted as a political indictment against capitalism or a first-time mention of climate change by a pope.

Anyone familiar with Pope Francis’s statements on ecology knows that he is continuing the themes of his predecessors. Environmental issues are of grave concern to the Church and, yes, climate change is one of them. (Benedict XVI called it an “urgent” issue.) But all that said, solutions offered by the Church are not political. They are rooted in a Catholic understanding of the human person—of our fallen human nature that needs God’s grace for healing.

The popes invariably link environmental issues to “human ecology,” a term coined by St. John Paul II. In part, human ecology means that we must first defend the dignity of human life and human nature if we ever hope to protect the natural environment.

The mainstream media won’t likely understand or wish to cover this point. This is one reason why Catholics must be sure to get our news from solid Catholic sources. And we should read the encyclical for ourselves.

No matter what the pontiff’s intent and words, the encyclical could impact international conversations in Paris in December that will seek agreement on carbon emissions and other issues. Sadly, things may get testy as various voices in the Church vie to defend their particular worldly or political ideology rather than setting all that aside to preach the gospel in light of the realities of our times.

Thus the biggest story for 2015 in the arena of Catholic ecology will be how well we as people of faith keep our engagement of ecology connected to Christ—in word and in sacrament. Because as Pope Francis has been telling us, it won’t be the coldness of secular politics that will protect the world and its people. What’s needed for that is the conversion of the human heart.