Bishop Stephen Blaire: On faith rising above politics

Speaking hours before President Trump announced a withdrawal of the Paris Climate Accord, Bishop Blaire reflected on the Church’s role in climate, eco issues

As the world waited Thursday morning for President Donald Trump to make his big announcement about the Paris Climate Accord, I had the pleasure of spending time with The Most Rev­erend Stephen E. Blaire, the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, California. It was a providential time to speak of the Church’s eco teachings, and how faith and politics must work together to address the great crises of our age—especially environmental ones.

This was Bishop Blaire's first visit to Rhode Island. He came to give the keynote address at the College Theology Society's annual conference, which is being held this week at Salve Regina College in Newport—a coastal community already being impacted by rising seas and more common flooding.

Given the events of the past days, I asked him about his thoughts on how the Church might respond if (as he did), President Trump pulls out of Paris.

“We’re going to have to be very forthright in whatever happens today,” Bishop Blaire said. “We’re going to have to reaffirm our values” related to caring for the Earth. “We’re going to have to respond, to demand political action—but we have to rise above politics,” he added.

Bishop Blaire is no newcomer to issues of social and ecological concerns. As I posted about in 2014, his diocese is a model for engaging the wider community in which a local Church lives. More recently, Bishop Blaire has been tasked by the California Catholic Conference to assemble and chair an ad hoc committee on the environment, with the goal of organizing diocesan eco-efforts on a statewide basis—no easy task in a corner of creation the size of the Golden State.

“We’re going to have to respond, to demand political action—but we have to rise above politics.” Bishop Blaire

Both his keynote address Thursday night and much of his work back home have been informed by a series of four addresses given by Pope Francis to gatherings of World Meetings of Popular Movements—two in Italy, one in Bolivia, and one, via letter, to a final meeting in Modesto, California, in Bishop Blaire’s diocese.

“A common thread in all these talks,” Bishop Blaire said, “was care for the Earth. Pope Francis is quite clear that the environmental crisis is real, and that time is running out...and that this may be the most important task facing us."

Acknowledging Pope Francis’s academic background, “he knows what happens when we deny science—and that we must build a moral response based on what science is telling us.” The bishop added, “we’re not making doctrine from science. We’re just responding to it.”

In that light, and given worries that the White House has subjugated eco-protection to the needs of business, Bishop Blaire pondered how to defend life on Earth within the political realities in which the Church exists. Here the bishop again stressed the need for the Church to rise above politics—while demanding action. Referring to the Holy Father’s address in Bolivia, Bishop Blaire stressed the papal admonition that “[o]ur common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity,” adding that "cowardice in defending Mother Earth is a grave sin."

An example of how this is done comes, not surprisingly, from the bishop's diocese, which has excelled at engaging community leaders—both elected officials and bureaucrats, as well as those from non-profit advocacy groups. This allows the Church to engage and, when possible, elevate conversations related to policy. Similarly, the environmental committee that Bishop Blaire will be chairing for the California Catholic Conference will advise and assist the dioceses and local churches in California about eco and public health issues.

"The goal is to advance Laudato Si’ in terms of public policy,” the bishop said.

That will be no small task. While water supply issues are, for the moment, not a dire need in California, issues such as air pollution remain a grave concern. Industrial emissions and the heavy use of pesticides in the farms of the San Joaquin Valley have contributed to skyrocketing levels of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma. Bishop Blaire noted that a visiting priest from the Philippines developed that disease from his time ministering in the area—an indicator that policies and lifestyles play a big part in human health.

"The goal is to advance Laudato Si’ in terms of public policy,” Bishop Blaire

It’s examples like that Filipino priest's health that demonstrate the concept of Integral Ecology, which Laudato Si’ presents and unpacks. Building off the teachings of his predecessors, Pope Francis stresses that issues of life are all related, simply because our planet’s ecosystems make human life possible.

For a final question, I asked Bishop Blaire for his thoughts about the current divisions within the Church over issues like ecology. He said—prophetically, it seems—that for too many people, their politics may inform, or challenge, their faith when it should be the other way around.

“Our faith,” the bishop said, “should challenge our politics.”

Bishop Blaire’s words were still with me for my next stop—this time work-related. I had to check the progress of a seaside berm being constructed around the Narragansett Wastewater Treatment Facility, on the mainland about twenty minutes from Newport. Like Newport, this town is in the process of protecting key infrastructure from stronger storms and rising waters. And as I made my inspections on a beautiful summer's day on the coast of Rhode Island, the nation and the world buzzed about what President Trump might do with the Paris Accord. And then, hours later, when he announced the US withdrawal from that agreement—and then, when the internet glowed red hot with fury, both from secular and Catholic eco advocates—I thought again about the calming and balanced tone and insights of Bishop Stephen Blaire.

And it struck me just how right he was. Unless we Catholic ecologists want to get dragged into the morass of political division and enmity, becoming a voice lost among many, we must take Bishop Blaire’s words to heart. We must elevate the eco-issues we face today with a demand for action, yes, but we must do so by rising above the political fray.

Take it from this twenty-eight-year government veteran: That’s how we’re going to “advance Laudato Si’ in terms of public policy,” and that, my friends, will go a long, long way toward protecting life on Earth.

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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.