Lessons from a model eco-friendly diocese

In the northern reaches of California’s San Joaquin Valley, farm, suburb, and city each lay a claim to land and its water. Helping ease any tensions is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockton, which has become a leader in local Church engagement of how people use and share the resources of the world.

As the diocese’s Environmental Justice Program Director puts it, “we have a bishop who is very concerned about caring for God’s creation at the same time as we care for God’s people.”

That bishop is His Excellency Stephen E. Blaire, the fifth to oversee Stockton since the establishment of the diocese in 1962. Serving on the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Com­mit­tee on Domes­tic Jus­tice, Peace and Human Devel­op­ment as well as in many such rolls throughout his career, Bishop Blaire is well known for tending to the least among us.

In fact, his diocese holds the unique distinction of dedicating a staff person to issues of environmental justice.

Katelyn Roedner Sutter is Bishop Blaire's full-time Environmental Justice Program Director within the diocese's Catholic Charities office. This makes her and Catholic Charities the face of the diocese at the state legislature, at meetings of environmental advocates, and among the civil servants who work in planning and environmental regulatory agencies.

“People are always amazed that the Church is involved [in environmental issues]”, she told me in an interview on the week before Thanksgiving. “Even my in-laws ask me, ‘You’re working for the Church on transportation planning? How does this all fit together?’”

Roedner Sutter does fit it together in a way that is a model for other dioceses.

“For people outside the Church, I sometimes have to explain that the Church and our bishop are concerned about issues like air quality. But we’re also concerned that people have a way to get to and from work—affordably and reliably. And when I tell people this, their response is usually, ‘Wow, that’s a really cool bishop!’”

Roedner Sutter said that when discussing her role with people within the Church she talks about Catholic Social Teachings. “I’ll say that not only are we called to care for God’s creation, but we do so in ways that help the poor, the vulnerable. We’re called to be involved in our community. To work for our community. We are to support workers, and the ability to work, and the dignity of work.”

Stockton’s Environmental Justice Program took shape in 2005 and 2006 when California’s legislature proposed “AB 32,” a sweeping set of laws and rules to respond to climate change.

“People in the diocese came together and wanted to advocate around it,” said Roedner Sutter. “The diocese’s Environmental Justice program grew out of AB 32’s focus on air quality and controlling greenhouse gasses.” Since then, the diocese has maintained a strong focus around air resource issues. This includes steps to reduce emissions and optimize energy consumption.

More recently Roedner Sutter has been working in counties to advocate for strategies focused on sustainable communities.

“The state is asking communities to combine land use and transportation strategies. The goal is to help people drive less and to have less sprawl.”

Roedner Sutter explains that compact cities provide important opportunities to walk, and bike, and use transit. “All this has so many benefits for health and safety. It’s not just about air quality.” She added that such planning efforts are “about giving families options” to live not just on large, isolated, expensive lots, but in smaller homes near transit so that they can get to and from work or school without driving.

“Even things like where we plan our transportation lines say a lot about who we are and what we value [as a community]” she said.

“And the less sprawl you have, the more you protect your prime farmland.”

Stockton sits in a cradle of farming flanked by mountains and hills. It’s a place with the kind of backstory that John Steinbeck brought to life in The Grapes of Wrath. Like the conflicts in that novel, real-world tensions for land, lifestyles, work, and water make Roedner Sutter’s job a sometimes demanding one. But that’s precisely why the Church ought to be present.

“Farmers and farm workers are a big part of our community,” she said. “And we also have growing suburban populations with different priorities. Then you have downtown Stockton with its very urban areas. So there are a lot of different needs and different priorities. Stockton is not very large but it is very diverse. And that comes with challenges.”

Roedner Sutter calls to mind the drought that has gripped much of California.

“Water issues can cause tensions between farmers in one part of the diocese and communities in another,” she said. “So in issues like that we walk a fine line and take the role facilitating conversation—informed by our faith and Catholic Social Teachings—but without advocating a position or a decisive stand.”

Tensions did rise this summer as the community weighed a local water bond and other proposals related to water supply. To bring people together—what Pope Francis proposes as a “theology of encounter”—the diocese held a Saturday morning gathering so that residents could hear and question state officials, a local academic, a member of the water board, and a Franciscan brother, who talked about water as it relates to the Catholic faith.

“The only goal of the event was to talk through the issues,” Roedner Sutter said. “What are the concerns? What are the issues? What are we blaming on others that might not be fair?”

She said that when the event concluded “there wasn’t a set of action items—there was no plan to advocate for this or that … We just want to be in the role of starting conversation, of questioning how what we do and say affects others.”

On occasion, the Diocese of Stockton’s Environmental Justice Program will lobby for laws and policies, such as a recent tax credit for low income earners who wish to benefit from electric cars. The diocesan program also works with parishes on educational activities.

Most recently the diocese partnered with the Catholic Climate Covenant and a third party solar installer. The effort is meant to encourage solar energy use while raising funds for local parishes and the diocese’s charitable efforts. Like the Catholic Charities' Environmental Justice position itself, the solar energy partnership is unique in the United States.

For dioceses interested in forming their own environmental justice program, Roedner Sutter suggests starting with an issue that many people are aware of and interested in. “That’s why we started with air quality—something that everybody knows about here and everybody suffers from. It’s a good starting point because everyone can support better air quality.

“So I would say find an issue that really speaks to your community.

“You’ll get people impressed that the Church is involved in these issues and being vocal on these issues. It will gather interest very quickly.”

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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.