On the ethics of energy

Just in time for the Pope's eco-encylical, moral theologians offer guidance on ethical energy production and use

A document to be introduced to the Church and the world on Saturday examines the natural environment and energy use through the lens of Catholic moral theology. No, not that document by Pope Francis.

This one is authored by five influential theologians from the United States. It was contributed to and reviewed by many other theologians and experts in the natural and social sciences. And while this work has not gotten (nor will likely receive) the attention of Pope Francis’s encyclical, it is exceptionally important. The easy-to-read article offers important ethical considerations to better answer questions about energy production and use.

“Catholic Moral Traditions and Energy Ethics for the Twenty-First Century” is a unique publication in a number of ways, says its lead author Dr. Erin Lothes of the College of St. Elizabeth.

The text is a collaborative effort, which is something of a rarity within the field of moral theology, with its often single-author preference. In addition to Dr. Lothes, Energy Ethics' primary authors are Dr. David Cloutier (Mount St. Mary’s), Elaine Padilla (New York Theological Seminary), Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard (Fordham), and Dr. Jame Schaefer (Marquette).

Providing critical commentaries at the start of the project were Drs. Meghan Clark (St. John's University), Christine Firer Hinze (Fordham), Richard Miller (Creighton), Nancy Rourke (Canisius College), and Matthew Shadle (Marymount University).

In addition to the level of collaboration, the document is being made available online at the Journal of Moral Theology, free to anyone interested. It is hoped that this availability will inspire conversations about where we get our energy, how we use it, and how we can plan ahead for a sustainable, equitable use of resources in the future.

"To support the right and obligation to make informed and ethical energy decisions, energy suppliers should transparently account for the full social cost of energy, while public leaders and legislators should work to prevent suppression of information." Energy Ethics, pg 32

“The moral issues around energy use are extremely complex because of the science and economics of individual choices,” said Dr. Lothes. “And they are global in nature. So we wanted a more global perspective, especially from the global south” than any one author could contribute. Dr. Lothes said that the resulting interdisciplinary approach allowed for “accuracy and credibility” in how the natural sciences speak of the benefits and harms—that is, the ethics—of various uses of energy sources.

The essay concludes with suggestions about global leadership and intergenerational responsibility.

“In the past two hundred years,” the document opens, “the rapid extraction and combustion of fossil fuels have contributed to anthropogenic interference in global climate systems, while also increasing net global wealth and some forms of economic development. In the twenty first century, it is now clear that fossil fuel sources have both positive and negative impacts on economies, livelihoods, and environments worldwide. What might formal Catholic teaching and theological moral reflection offer to this situation?”

The remaining 36 pages unpack the answers.

Origins and direction

Energy Ethics originated in an “interest group” led by Dr. Lothes within the Catholic Theological Society of America [CTSA]. This group on “Discipleship and Sustainability” looked at a range of ecological issues through the Christian understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. The group filled a need within the CTSA when one on climate change, organized by Dr. Schaefer, came to the scheduled close of its work.

Eventually the new Discipleship and Sustainability group sought to contribute to the Catholic understanding of energy ethics by examining the United States’ Bishop’s 1981 document on energy use—“but in a different context,” Dr. Lothes noted. The 1981 document was written in a world where energy scarcity dominated conversations and global warming was not the driving concern that it is today. Thus Energy Ethics connects the bishops’ teachings with 21st-century issues.

The authors of Energy Ethics maintained the original foundational principles used by the bishops in 1981 to address energy choices. Those principles are to

  • Cherish and protect life as a gift from God;
  • Accept an appropriate share of responsibility for the welfare of creation;
  • Live in solidarity with others for a common good, namely, the sustainability of an abundant Earth;
  • Strive for justice in society; give special attention to the needs of the poor and members of minority groups;
  • Contribute to the widespread participation in decision-making processes.

The authors added a seventh principal, to employ technological prudence.

"From a civic and moral perspective, affordable energy is essential for lower-income households." Energy Ethics, pg 28.

Work on Energy Ethics began in 2007. “We divided up the bishops’ statement on energy, and provided commentary/updates,” Dr. Cloutier said. “But we also wanted the article to digest the material and go through a peer-review process. … For me, the most important part of this project is aligning key moral principles with detailed, well-informed prudential judgment. A model for this is the just war tradition—the tradition is valuable because (a) the principles are enumerated clearly (and debated, of course, but you can’t debate something that isn’t clearly enumerated), and (b) the judgments about the application of the principles have been engaged in detail by people who are knowledgeable about warfare.”

In part, Energy Ethics examines the pros and cons of existing fuels—especially “bridge” fuels like natural gas and nuclear energy. It also calls for action for the common good in the long term, for instance by investing in available renewable energies and offering the poorest three billion people of the world clean, convenient ways to heat their homes, cook their meals, and benefit from electric lighting.

Hopes for Energy Ethics

Dr. Cloutier added that he would like Catholic Social Teaching “to develop a comparable seriousness on the issue of energy use, and environmental ethics more generally, and I see the paper as doing exactly this.”

"The faces of those who lack the resources to meet even their most basic needs, or the traces left by extinct populations of animal and plant life, echo this plea to encounter God so that we claim our true identity as creatures." Energy Ethics, pg 36.

Dr. Richard Miller III, Associate Professor of Theology at Creighton University, agrees.

“This paper is one way to quantify the scale and types of change that is needed” to prevent the projected impacts of climate change, he told Catholic Ecology.

Dr. Miller provided the group with an early commentary paper on the use of coal and oil. Like others involved, the project helped focus in an academic setting his concerns about climate change and sustainability. These concerns began in 2007 with talks he attended while in Belgium, and later from learning of flood-control measures on the Thames River to protect London from increased flooding due to sea-level rise. His resulting research culminated in his book God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis (Orbis, 2010).

His hope for the reception of Energy Ethics—and of Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical (as well as the general involvement of the Church in climate talks)—is to show the average person not just the scale of changes needed, “but importantly that it is possible” for these changes to take place for the good of one and all.

A copy of "Catholic Moral Traditions and Energy Ethics for the Twenty-First Century" can be downloaded here.

Ed. Note: Stay tuned for an upcoming post on Just Sustainability, a new book edited by Dr. Peppard with contributions from many of those who worked on Energy Ethics.

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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.