Catholics spreading the word on climate change

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Friday, April 26, 2019

Waves crash over the shore of Lake Michigan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Experts say climate change is leading to more extreme weather events.(Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

For Catholics, climate change is more than a political issue. The care of creation is a moral obligation, said Andrew Panelli, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Orland Hills, and Catholics must both take action in their own lives and advocate for government and industry steps to slow the warming of the earth.

Climate change is a crisis that threatens the very existence of humanity, he said.

“If the increase was linear and gradual and there was lots and lots of time to adapt to it, that would be okay,” Panelli said. “But it’s not. It’s been 30 years since NASA climatologists spoke to Congress and warned that the earth is definitely heating up, and the change is caused by greenhouse gases, and greenhouse gases are cause by burning fossil fuels.”

Panelli is one of 11 members of the Vicariate V Creation Care team, which meets monthly to learn about issues related to climate change and plan ways to spread the word. He is also a member of the Catholic Action Team of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

The U.S. bishops addressed the issue 18 years ago, with the 2001 letter, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue Prudence and the Common Good.” Popes from Paul VI through Francis have all issued strong statements about the need to care for creation, culminating in Francis’ “Laudato Si’” in 2015.

“I’ve watched as climate change became very politicized in the last 15 years,” Panelli said. “I’ve really embraced the church’s teaching that climate change is a social justice issue, not a political issue.”

That doesn’t mean politics aren’t involved. In the United States, President Donald Trump in 2018 scrapped the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which restricted the amount emissions coal-fired power plants could discharge.

Now climate activists are lobbying for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which would assess a fee for emissions from fossil fuels. The fees would start small and then grow, to encourage industries to find ways to reduce their emissions, and the money collected would be returned as a dividend to the American people.

“Republicans should like it because it is more market-focused,” Panelli said. “Democrats should like it because it moves us toward lower emissions.”

He’s working to get Catholics to voice their support.

“Seventy million Catholics could be a powerful force,” he said.

The format of the Climate Care team is taken from the Catholic Climate Covenant, a non-profit formed in 2006 in partnership with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA and more than a dozen other organizations.

The group has an Earth Day program that parishes can use and adapt to their own needs, said Ryan Lents, director of the Office for Human Dignity and Solidarity for the archdiocese.

“One of things we’re doing is encouraging parishes to work together in solidarity,” Lents said. Vicariate-wide sessions let people meet others from neighboring parishes and find projects on which they can cooperate.

Sometimes those projects, such as the Vicariate V “Creation Corner” bulletin insert, can grow beyond even the diocesan borders.

The quarter-page weekly inserts feature quotes on creation care from popes and saints, and describe weekly sustainability recommendations to reduce waste, save money and reduce impact on the environment or climate change.  About 20 parishes use them weekly or monthly.

During Lent, the inserts promote weekly energy “fasts,” such as turning down the thermostat one week and trying to reduce water waste the next.

The team has also hosted “St. Francis Pledge” events, at which parishioners are asked to sign a pledge to pray, learn and talk about climate change; modify their own behaviors; and advocate for action. They can also sign up for a monthly email with a suggestion for a five-minute advocacy action.

Each vicariate seems to have its own way of approaching the care of creation, Lents said.

“In some areas, they use gardening as a teaching tool,” he said. “Other areas are looking at things like using solar.”

Panelli said his team is available to meet with any interested parishes or parishioners to share ideas.

“Our goal is to share our learnings and provide materials and guidance to enable other teams to make an impact as quickly as possible, without having to re-invent the wheel,” he said.

The team participated in the “Catholics Are Still In” signature drive, sponsored by the Catholic Climate Covenant, which was an effort to get Catholic hospitals, schools and parishes to sign a pledge that they intend to stand by the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, despite President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the pact. Some 800 Catholic institution signatures were presented at the COP 24 climate summit in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018.

Members of the group have also written dozens of letters to the editors of Chicago-area newspapers calling for specific actions on climate change and have lobbied political leaders in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Illinois.

In addition to lobbying, the team encourages members of their parishes to connect church teaching on care for creation to the specific things they can do to reduce carbon emissions, whether that’s not eating meat one or more days per week, sharing rides to Mass or on other trips or not using more disposable napkins, plates or utensils than necessary.

“We’re trying to connect the dots from point A to point B,” Panelli said.



  • climate change
  • laudato si

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