Absentee bishops

Analysis: Reasons why Friday’s climate plea did not include representatives of the United States church.

Unlike a joint statement of global bishops issued before the groundbreaking Paris climate accord three years ago, Friday’s statement—again aimed at upcoming international climate talks—didn't include representatives of the United States.

Given the U.S. government’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, eco-advocates were hoping that US bishops would sign on to Friday's statement.

But that didn't happen.

Dan Misleh, executive director of the U.S.-based Catholic Climate Covenant—a group that works closely with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—stressed prior climate statements by the US church.

“The U.S. bishops pushed back hard against the Trump Administration's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement and continue to weigh in with the administration on the rollbacks of key environmental regulations,” Misleh told Catholic Ecology. “They will continue to support international and domestic efforts that reduce climate change and its impacts, especially on the poor and vulnerable.”

Misleh noted that the United States bishops were among the first episcopal conferences to issue a statement on climate change in 2001 and have had an environmental justice office for over 25 years. And they’ve helped establish and continued to support Catholic Climate Covenant, the only organization in the world working full-time at the intersection of Catholic social teaching and climate change.

As to what prevented U.S. bishops from signing on to Friday’s statement, Misleh said that “the bishops are laser-focused on responding to the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal so that the U.S. Catholic church can begin to heal. This is their number one priority at the present time.”

Nonetheless, “it’s clear that [the bishops’] commitment remains strong in addressing [climate] issues and rising to the challenges of Laudato Si',” Misleh said.

Misleh is right. There are, of course, numerous problems confronting bishops both here in the States and elsewhere: The recently concluded synod in Rome and the sexual abuse crisis being the most visible.

But there are others, and, as Pope Francis might say, they’re all connected.

The big picture

Since the middle of the last century, the Church has struggled with understanding how her members are to live and act in this modern era. How she is to preach the gospel.

This debate is often heated. And it muddles everything. Including clerical support for eco- and climate-engagement.

To frame what I mean, here’s a quote from one of my favorite Christian thinkers, Christopher Dawson—a man that I will post on more fully in the coming weeks.

“The U.S. bishops pushed back hard against the Trump Administration's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement and continue to weigh in with the administration on the rollbacks of key environmental regulations" Dan Misleh

"It is impossible for us to understand the Church if we regard her as subject to the limitations of human culture. For she is essentially a supernatural organism which transcends human cultures and transforms them to her own ends."

It is simplistic but it's also helpful to understand the Church today as a family made up of two camps. It’s also simplistic but somewhat accurate to see these camps as more or less aligned with ideological divides within the secular world. The big question is whether the secular divide is to blame for the ecclesial one, or whether it’s the other way around. That’s a question for another time—and for greater minds than mine.

But for the purposes of understanding the place of eco-advocacy within the Church, it’s helpful to see one camp—often aligned with the ideological left—as largely populated by those who seek to learn from the world and so better dialogue with it. The other camp champions Dawson’s observation: that the Church is a supernatural organism soaring above human cultures in order to elevate and transforms them. This latter group seems most attractive to those on the ideological right.

This polarity plays out in a number of ways.

Think of the debates about liturgies. The more conservative among us often desire the mysticism of traditionalist forms of the liturgy—with its high art, incense, chant, and Latin—while more liberal parishes often prefer homey pastors and praise and worship musicians playing somewhere for all to see.

Debates occurring within the recently completed synod can also be understood in light of these two views of the Church: one that asks the Church to bend to the world and the other that expects the world to bend to the teachings of Christ.

As for the debates about sexual abuse within the Church, haven’t you noticed an ideological fault line in those conversations?

Sadly, efforts at ecological protection are victims of these divisions.

But this notion of camps—of having to choose between them—is to Satan’s benefit.

Given that eco-protection and climate advocacy are so often championed by the ideological left—and thus most often the camp that sees worldly dialogue as necessary for the Church to grow—it's no wonder that those issues are so easily dismissed by the ideological right—and thus by the camp that more often aligns itself with Dawson's view of the Church.

Tragically, as unity grows more elusive, it’s getting difficult for clerics (and us all) to satisfy everyone. And it’s often the case that clerics, religious, and the laity feel that they have to choose between these camps—which, of course, is nonsense.

But this notion of camps—of having to choose between them—is to Satan’s benefit.

Animosity among Church leaders, confusion among the faithful, and social decay and ecological destruction are all linked. The spiritual war with which we contend has grown fierce and shows no sign of abating.

And so for multiple and interrelated reasons, such as those discussed above, Friday’s climate statement did not benefit from the signature of a bishop from the United States—a nation that needs to show climate leadership. Moreover, the very existence and intent of the document went largely unheard among the faithful of the US church.

And so on this Feast of Saint Jude—and as we prepare to honor all saints—let us pray for divine aid to set aside our own biases and so together build unity within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Because in doing so, we can do our part to assure the Church’s mission within the world—and for the world.

That is, the salvation of souls as our primary calling and, at the same time, the care for our brothers and sisters, and for everything that God has created that sustains the very existence of human life.

For more images of Friday's signing, check out this video supplied by the Global Catholic Climate Movement.

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.