Local Catholics applaud climate encyclical

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, June 28, 2015

Archbishop Cupich welcomed Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’”, meeting with the media June 18 at the Archbishop Quigley Center to share the salient points of the letter.

“This is a watershed moment for the church, for humanity and for the planet which Pope Francis calls our common home,” the archbishop said. “It’s time for the church to be bold — to speak about major issues — and to achieve a new level of relevance in people’s lives.

“We may not know all that science has to learn about climate change, but we do know enough to realize it is time to act.”

The archbishop noted that the encyclical was addressed not just to Catholics or to people in any specific country, but to everyone on earth.

To read Archbishop Cupich’s complete comments, see his column on Page 3.

The press conference was attended by representatives from other religious traditions as well as environmental advocates who have been part of the archdiocese’s encyclical working group, convened by the Office of Peace and Justice months ago.

Catholic advocates emphasized that the 180-page document does not break new ground in terms of teaching about humanity’s responsibility to care for creation. Rather, it gathers evidence that the situation has become urgent, and that caring for the earth is a moral issue.

“Our faith dictates that we have to care about and for humankind and we can’t do that without caring for the earth, our common home,” Archbishop Cupich said. “In short, we see the assault on the environment as a fundamental matter of right and wrong.”

Jude Huntz, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Peace and Justice, said the working group is coordinating with CTU on a daylong symposium at Catholic Theological Union on Oct. 3. The day, which will include other theological graduate schools, will include talks on the theology behind the encyclical, with sessions in the afternoon on concrete steps faith communities can take.

Huntz said that the anticipation of “Laudato Si’” shows how important this topic is, even though it isn’t new.

“The environment is something the popes have been talking about since the Second Vatican Council,” Huntz said in the days before the encyclical was released. “Francis is going to summarize what the church has said for the last 50 years, and put it in one place and give it some authority.”

It goes much further back than that, said Mark Potosnak, an assistant professor of environmental science at DePaul University. Potosnak did not attend the press conference; he spoke by telephone before the encyclical was released.

“It goes back to the Book of Genesis, Chapter 2,” he said, in which “the Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gn 2:15). Potosnak is a member of the archdiocesan committee, and has been speaking about the church’s teaching on climate change as an ambassador for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Catholic Climate Covenant.

The covenant, he said, was started because it seemed like many Catholics weren’t getting the message that the church had long acknowledged the harm people are doing to the climate.

“We wanted to connect Catholics with what the church is saying about climate change,” he said, adding that he has spoken at parishes, schools, hospitals, universities and other Catholic institutions from northern Indiana to southern Wisconsin. “There were statements from the USCCB that were progressive on this.”

As a scientist, Potosnak said, he understands that the consensus on climate change among scientists is clear. More than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the temperature is rising, and it is being caused by human factors. But many people don’t.

“Scientists are not trained as communicators, they are trained as scientists,” he said. It doesn’t help when journalists present one voice representing the 97 percent of scientists who acknowledge climate change and one voice who disagrees as though the two viewpoints have equal support. “What is really a fringe is seen as something else.”

While most of the people who take the time to come to Potosnak’s talks are not climate change deniers, he said, they tell him that they hear from many people who are, and they want to know how to respond to them.

“They are apprehensive because (concern about) climate change has been associated with a liberal point of view, and they are not politically liberal,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping the encyclical does is open people’s eyes. This is not a political question.”

It’s a moral question, both in terms of how we care for the earth and how we care for the poor, not just those who live near us but everyone around the world.

“Climate change ties us all together,” he said. “With carbon dioxide, it doesn’t matter if it’s emitted in Chicago or New Jersey or China. Traditionally, if you emitted pollution, you lived with it. If you dirtied your water, you lived with dirty water. This is different.”

What’s more, the effects of climate change are felt more by poor people around the world, he said. In the United States, Superstorm Sandy caused a great deal of property damage, and was responsible for 233 deaths. When storms of that magnitude hit low-lying island nations or countries like Bangladesh, the death toll increases by orders of magnitude.

“We’re the ones most responsible for climate change,” Potosnak said. “We’re causing the impact, but others are being affected.”

DePaul has hired two student interns to work on projects related to the encyclical and climate change, Potosnak said. Among other efforts, he will teach a half-credit class at DePaul on the encyclical and will be part of a joint DePaul-CTU class on it this fall, and be part of a public lecture series at CTU, he said.

That will be done in conjunction with Franciscan Sister Dawn Nothwehr, a professor of Catholic theological ethics at CTU.

Nothwehr appreciates Pope Francis’ emphasis on the connections between care for the earth and for humanity. “There’s such an interconnectedness between the health and well-being and spiritual health and well-being of people and all of God’s creation,” she said. “There’s a way in which creation reveals God and there’s a spiritual dimension to our natural world. … The interconnections in the natural world allow for life of all sorts and especially human life. It allows us to sustain our social life and our economic life. There is a balance over it all, and each thing is connected to everything else.

“If we overuse resources and pollute our air and water and everything else, then we are attacking life. Not just human life, but all life.”

Such models of interconnectedness feature in Judaism and Christianity, going back to the same Genesis story Potosnak cited, and in other religions as well, she said. What the Judeo-Christian story emphasizes is the human responsibility to care for creation.

“We are uniquely gifted because we are in a position of power over so many of the plants and animals,” she said.

Jesus, she said, did much of his teaching outdoors, and he used examples from the natural world to explain how God is good to us.

“Morality has to do with it because God created the world, and he created the world as good,” she said. “We believe as Catholics that we are to live as God would, to be as good and generous and loving as God is.”

But we have taken too much and polluted too much, Nothwehr said.

“If we push things too far and too fast anymore, we are in danger of losing the balance and we won’t be able to recover it,” she said.

Still, Nothwehr said, there is much hope that if everyone pays attention and makes changes, the damage can be stopped and perhaps reversed. Many people are aware, and some steps are being taken “Laudato Si’” and its blunt language can help, she said.

“If people begin to see the state of the earth and where it is, it’s not going to take much,” she said. “People are already there.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago is taking steps as well, Archbishop Cupich said.

“The archdiocese has 8,000 employees, 2,700 buildings — some of which date to the Civil War — and the profound responsibility that comes with the fact that every 30 seconds someone seeks help from Catholic Charities,” he said. “We are working to improve our environmental footprint and invite others to join us.

“We are reducing energy usage and retrofitting buildings — including the one we’re in today (the Archbishop Quigley Center) which is nearly 100 years old. We’ve cut our water usage and are re-purposing older facilities.”

Working to make archdiocesan buildings more energy-efficient saves on bills as well, said Jake Preciado, construction manager for the archdiocese’s facilities and construction department.

“The whole goal of it is to be energy efficient and save on the operating costs,” Preciado said.

For the past 3½ years, Preciado has worked with parishes and with schools to make them more energy efficient with projects related to boilers and heating.

Chicago parishes have received a little more than $1 million in rebates from People’s Gas since 2011. Those rebates go toward paying for highly energy efficient systems. In the suburbs the archdiocese works with Nicor and parishes have earned $183,000 in rebates. An estimated 28 percent of parishes -- 97 of 350 -- have participated in the utility rebate program in the Peoples/North Shore Gas and Nicor gas territories, Preciado said.

The new boiler and heating systems must meet certain criteria before they can receive a rebate. The money for the rebates comes from a “tax” on energy bills.

Typically a new hot water or steam boiler is installed along with high-efficiency burners, steam traps, insulators and heating system controls. Parishes often see about a 25 percent reduction in costs after installing the new systems, he said.


  • cardinal cupich
  • laudato si
  • stewardship
  • enviromentalism
  • de paul university
  • catholic theological union

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