2018's Top Ten Catholic Eco-Stories

Looking back on the ups and downs of 2018, we're reminded that there’s much work ahead—and there are many reasons for hope.

Previous editions of the top-ten annual Catholic eco-summaries have focused on individual events, projects, and people. And while there was certainly no lack of those in 2018, this year’s analysis looks at larger and united trends across the universal church.

Indeed, what makes 2018's Top Ten list so unique is in how it demonstrates the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church rising when it acts as the unified Body of Christ or falling when we retreat into our own local ecclesial corporations.

That said, let's see what exactly 2018 meant for Catholic eco-advocacy.

10: A global Catholic response to climate change.

At the close of this year’s United Nations "Conference of Parties" climate talks in Poland, the Church issued a statement that concluded with this statement: “Faith and reason must come together enabling us to make positive choices in our lifestyles, in how our economies are run, and in building a true global solidarity necessary to avert this climate crisis.”

This "coming together" is exactly what’s been happening thanks to an exceptional coalition of Catholic groups made up of men and women—lay, religious, and clerics—from around the world. Groups such as the Global Catholic Climate Movement, Caritas International, and the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa were not only present and active at COP24, they’ve been engaged throughout the year on local, national, and global fronts. The impact of this unified response has been impressive—and will be found in several of the stories to follow.

9. The rise of Catholic youth

As the name of one group noted above tells us, young men and women throughout the Church are raising their voices—and adding their intellect and energy—to bring about those “positive choices in our lifestyles” noted by the Vatican. The Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, which has been on previous years’ Top Ten lists, is perhaps one of the more impressive assemblies of young Catholics working regionally on eco-issues. Its executive director Allen Ottaro and his most-impressive team are not only making major impacts throughout their home continent, but they’re also offering youth around the world an example of how to organize and act as faithful Catholics.

Here in the States, a young woman is making global waves with her skills as an organizer and as a map maker. Molly Burhans, featured in Catholic Ecology a few weeks ago, joins the ranks of young people like Tomás Insua of the Global Catholic Climate Movement—an organization made up of many dedicated, prayerful, and hard-working young women and men. They and so many others are making a difference—and they remind us of the life brought ever anew into the Church by the activity of the Holy Spirit.

8: The mounting influence of the global South

Once again, the impressive and exemplary work of Catholics throughout the Global South continued as a major story this year. Continental groups such as CYNESA as well as more informal coalitions throughout Central and South America continue to engage dire eco-issues in their own communities and regions, while also raising their voices globally. Two important qualities are common among these regional Catholic eco-groups: they are quite orthodox and emphatically pro-life. It’s a common reality for eco-advocates from the global South to be fiercely engaged in anti-abortion efforts. This is especially important in light of the next top story…

7: Persistent disunity

For numerous reasons—both worldly and spiritual—growing ideological divisions within the Church are slowing the pace of individual and communal ecological advocacy—as well as ecological conversion, as Saint John Paul II put it. Here in the States, the compartmentalization of traditional pro-life issues (such as abortion and euthanasia) and issues such as ecology prevent the Church from speaking in a unified voice. It’s become Catholic-against-Catholic in some circles, especially when the topic of climate change comes up. And that slows down everything. Sadly, such division has been a repeating story in past years, which means that in 2019 we had better redouble our efforts to reach out to our brothers and sisters sitting in the pews across from us.

6: National groups battling nationalism

Adding to such division is growing and often anti-eco-protection nationalism in countries such as the United States, Brazil, and the Philippines—three nations with presidents known for strong personalities and anti-environmental opinions. Such trends have required local churches to ramp up eco-protection rhetoric and action. Here in the States, the Catholic Climate Covenant and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have done an impressive job of engaging President Donald Trump and his often anti-ecological administration. (But then, the USCCB had to do much the same regarding abortion and religious liberty under the Obama administration.) The same is true for the Church in the Philippines and, now with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, for the Church in Brazil. No doubt this trend will continue in 2019.

5: Impact of Catholic universities

Receiving less attention than they should, Catholic institutions of higher learning are leading the way in sustainable operations and maintenance. From the University of Dayton here in the States to the Australian Catholic University, Catholic schools of higher education around the globe are not just educating students about Catholic ecology, they’re taking concrete steps toward living it. These efforts in achieving sustainable, low- or no-carbon campuses is not only good for the local environment; they also have a multiplier effect on neighboring churches. Stay tuned for more news on this happy trend in 2019.

4: Gearing up for practical sustainability tools

This one is also somewhat behind the scenes. There’s been a significant amount of work taking place by Catholic eco-groups to assist the Church globally and locally to follow the lead of Catholic universities. There are discussions underway for the development of tools to help Catholic organizations (parishes, schools, dioceses, religious orders, etc.) to track and implement the reduction of carbon emissions and other green methods for tending their properties. The US Catholic Climate Covenant is already offering programs here in the US to encourage renewable energy use and overall energy efficiency.

Similarly, the mapping work of Molly Burhans’ GoodLands organization, noted above, will certainly help such efforts on a global scale. Once again, stay tuned for more on this emerging and exciting story.

3: Nurturing the land

Speaking of GoodLands, that organization is all about helping the Church use its land for good. Think of it as an inspired planning and consulting firm for Catholic communities—globally and locally. Then there’s the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center, which is striving to conserve Church-owned land and restore habitat for people and wildlife. Both GoodLands and the SKTCC, and other local efforts, large and small, are seeking to promote Catholic teachings on ecology and the environment. As the SKTCC puts it, this trend in nurturing the land—through management, data analysis, or direct acquisition—is meant to recognize the relationship between authentic human development, concern for the poor, and responsibility for the environment.

2: Sexual abuse impacts on local churches and Rome

As I posted about in April, sexual and administrative failings across the globe throughout the ecclesial hierarchy have devastated the lives of a great many victims. Such failings are also tarnishing the Church’s credibility on social and eco-issues. Sexual abuse scandals have been a particular crisis here in the United States and also in Chile, India, Germany, England, and on the list goes. Once powerful prelates, such as the former United States cardinal Theodore McCarrick, have ended their careers as icons of scandal—scandal that has lasted decades, whether from the abuse of minors, religious, or seminarians. Responses by episcopal leadership have often been questionable—and these questions have risen all the way to the current Successor of Saint Peter. With the laity growing angrier as new cases come forward, and with no end in sight of new allegations—even if they’re decades old—the handling of sexual abuse scandals will continue to rock the Church and tarnish the good work of so many clerics—even Pope Francis himself. Of note, a good number of the prelates under fire have been post-Vatican II heroes of the ideological left—which brings into play the political division discussed above. Add it all up, and this cesspool of human sin will continue to diminish the work of the Church in critical areas such as eco-protection. While a gathering in Rome this February is meant to bring new direction and some closure to this tragedy, it’s not likely that 2019 will see an end to this crisis—which will make the job of spreading Catholic eco-teachings all the more difficult.

1: Bringing hope

And yet, there is hope. Speaking with CYNESA’s Allen Ottaro yesterday, he mentioned that at various COP24 events earlier this month, there was a joy found at several Catholic gatherings—a true sense of community—that was not present at other gatherings of international representatives. But then, wherever two or more of His disciples are found, there He will be. No matter the failings of so many Catholic clerics, religious, and laity—no matter how dire the eco-issues—the Church is the Bride of Christ, and Christ will not abandon her to the faults of her members. The Roman Catholic Church will persevere. Through us, the imperfect, She will continue to infuse God’s grace into human history. She will continue to make all things new. Need proof? Go back and read this list. See the stirrings of the Spirit in young and old, lay and cleric, across the globe. Rejoice in all that has happened. And take courage in all that will.

As John’s Gospel reveals:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came to be through him,

and without him nothing came to be.

What came to be through him was life,

and this life was the light of the human race;

the light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.

Nor will it.

And so, onward and upward to 2019. We move forward with hope and prayer—and with confidence in God’s sacramental grace, which will elevate one and all, and all that He has created.

For now, wishing you and yours a happy, blessed, and healthy New Year!

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.