Lessons from bishops gone solar

“The technological and operational bases for a true sustainable development are available or within reach.”

Those words, from the wrap-up statement of May’s Vatican sustainability conference, pose a challenge. Happily, this challenge has most recently been accepted by two bishops in North American dioceses.

Last week the Bishops of Stockton, California and Ogdensburg, New York announced solar energy projects that will do more than benefit those local churches. They also serve as models for other dioceses to follow.

The back-to-back announcements warranted the use of the social media “hashtag” #BishopsGoneSolar from Brian Roewe of the National Catholic Reporter. The appearance of this hashtag—words that serve as topic identifies in places like Twitter and Facebook, etc—is to me one of many indicators that we witnessing the dawn of a solar revolution in the Catholic Church.

In Stockton, Bishop Stephen Blaire announced that his diocese has joined forces with the Catholic Climate Covenant and Sungevity, a private firm specializing in solar power systems. The partnership allows Sungevity to offer new customers a $750 rebate while splitting an additional $750 between a participating parish, the diocesan Catholic Charities fund, and the Catholic Climate Covenant, which can then use the funds to assist other dioceses in doing the same.

These enticements, coupled with the benefits of solar installations, will attract many new customers as word spreads. For others, however, going solar is simply a practical and necessary way to put Catholic teachings into practice.

“When we presented the solar fundraising initiative to Bishop Blaire, he readily embraced it,” said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, in an interview with Catholic Ecology. “I think he saw an opportunity to witness to our faith more fully, which includes a greater care for creation and a greater awareness of those most impacted by our overconsumption of fossil fuel resources, namely, the poor and vulnerable.”

Misleh said that Bishop Blaire and Elvira Ramirez of Catholic Charities of Stockton see this project as a “small but significant step in lowering our collective carbon footprint, demonstrating a love of the Creator and become ever more mindful of how our behaviors influence those living on the margins. That it raises money for the parishes involved, for Catholic Charities and for the Covenant is a nice little bonus.”

In May, Misleh attended the sustainability conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and its sister academy of social sciences. He noted that the Vatican conference shed light on the intersection of humanity’s use of nature and the needs of ecosystems to remain viable. There was both hope and concern, Misleh said. There was also the realization that “we need to encourage greater analysis of how we consume and fairly distribute global resources and develop and live a new solidarity that is more reflective of a world in crisis.”

For a growing number of Catholics, one way to consider what we consume and how we can ensure the fair use of resources is to go solar.

But where to begin?

If you might be interested in replicating the work of the Diocese of Stockton, Misleh said that the Catholic Climate Covenant can help.

“For those interested in this program, it is very doable,” Misleh said. “Partnering with a good solar company, accessing their referral fees as a revenue source, and using the program as a way to share Catholic teaching on the environment and climate change is one way—but not the only way—to help reduce our carbon footprint and become more aware of its impact on the poor and the planet.”

Misleh is clear that the Catholic Climate Covenant is not an engineering firm. “The Covenant doesn’t necessarily have the expertise in all of these [technical] areas,” he said.

But they can assist with making connections in what could otherwise be a confusing world of renewable energy and energy efficiency options. He said that the Covenant is already helping to partner organizations such as Energy Star for Congregations and the U.S. Green Building Council with the national Conference for Catholic Facility Management. The Catholic Climate Covenant is also encouraging these and similar organizations to consider how such programs might benefit a local parish, diocese, or a Catholic hospital or university.

“For our part, we want to ensure that there remains an opportunity for catechesis as we build these partnerships,” Misleh said. “[T]his is more than about saving money or even lowering carbon. It is about caring for God’s Creation and understanding how these changes benefit not just the planet but the poor and vulnerable already suffering because of our overuse of fossil fuel energy.”

On the other side of the United States, a smaller solar project has also gotten people’s attention. Bishop Terry LaValley of the Diocese of Ogdensburg has installed (and blessed) solar panels that will provide some 11,300 kilowatt hours of electricity to his residence. While a much smaller scale, the Ogdensburg installation nevertheless mirrors the covering of the Vatican’s Paul VI auditorium during the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Bishop LaValley is quoted in the Press-Republican saying that

[t]he major motivation for going green is to give witness to what can be done to create a more sustainable future that is consistent with God’s intention for a world that can be judged to be ‘very good’ by present and future generations. … As Catholics, we should foster a deep respect for the sacredness of God’s creation, especially in light of increasing pollution of major resources.

Besides Stockton and Ogdensburg, the Diocese of Honolulu and St. Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts have also gone solar, as have other Catholic institutions across the globe. (I’m happy to report that my pastor is working on the finances for a solar installation on our parish school, as well as a solar farm on property behind the church. And there may be other news to report here soon from a Catholic institution.)

All in all, the #BishopsGoneSolar trend is building. Rightfully so. As those assembled at May’s Vatican sustainability conference noted in their final statement, “We have the innovative and technological capability to be good stewards of Creation.”

With regards to solar energy, all that’s needed now are more interested clerics and lay people in dioceses across the globe who wish to learn from what has already happened and then do it in their own backyard.

If a significant fraction of the Church were to go solar, the effect would be meaningful—on a global level. After all, the Catholic Church is big. We use lots of energy. So why not provide a benefit to all humanity by allowing our faith to inform our reason? Why not allow our actions to call attention to our teachings?

More simply, given the success and relative ease of these recent solar installations, what are the rest of us waiting for? Let us go forward and benefit from that great light set above the world by God—a light, Genesis tells us, that illuminates the good earth for the benefit of all life.

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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.