The Top Ten Catholic Eco-Stories of 2014

The Roman Catholic Church continued her commitment to ecological issues in 2014—and as always her contributions were often unlike any other on the planet.

The 2014 Top Ten Catholic eco-stories, when taken together, demonstrate a wide variety of Catholic voices from around the world and throughout the political spectrum. This, of course, should be expected, even if it still surprises some.

And so here’s the big eco-happenings for the past year, many of which speak to an even busier 2015.

10. A new and practical crop of Catholic books

In 2014, books on the Catholic perspective of ecology have descended from the theoretical to the practical. While theology and philosophy will always be foundational for Catholic ecologists, it’s important to consider how our faith animates our prayer, worship, and activity. In 2014, Catholic authors stepped to the plate and made this known. Two of the more important publications were Christiana Z. Peppard’s Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis (a thoughtful overview of science, faith, and policy that struck a number of chords with me as a water resources regulator) and David Cloutier’s Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (a helpful and practical look at the Catholic approach to the variety of ecological issues of our day). A third book is The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology, a collection of Benedict XVI’s contributions to the science and social implications of ecology. If you don’t already own these texts, you should. (For more, see the Catholic Ecology interviews with Dr. Peppard and Cloutier, as well as my review of The Garden of God.)

9. The death of Stratford Caldecott

British theologian and writer Stratford Caldecott was a giant in a number of fields, especially the Catholic perspective of man’s broken relationship with nature—and the reason for the hope that we can do better. Caldecott wrote this in 1996: “Christianity gives us no excuse to plunder the planet—but it does perhaps help to explain the reasons why we do. The doctrine of Original Sin describes the beginning of the process.” Caldecott was founder of the journal Second Spring and on the board of editors at my favorite journal, Communio. He was also a co-editor of the United Kingdom’s edition of the Magnificat. Some of his books include Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education and The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In my post on his death, I noted that he maintained ecology within Catholic orthodoxy, which is a great gift to the Church and the planet. For that reason alone, his death at 60 after battling cancer was a loss not just to those who loved him, but for the Church and her mission to understand and teach what harm we’re doing to our planet and ourselves. May God grant rest to his soul.

8. CYNESA Gatherings

An up-and-coming environmental group of young men and women from six African countries came together in June for the 2014 Summit of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, or CYNESA. The Bishop of the Kenya’s Diocese of Murang’a and chairman for the bishop's Commission for Pastoral and Lay Apostolate, His Excellency James Maria Wainaina, officiated at the summit's opening. In doing so, Bishop Wainaina called attention to the great good that these young people are bringing to the future of Africa and to the planet. Since that gathering, CYESNA has continued an active schedule of championing the gospel and ecological science throughout the African Continent. I’m certain we’ll be hearing much more from CYNESA in 2015. May God bless their work. (For more, see the guest post by Allen Ottaro, co-founder of CYNESA.)

7. Solar Bishops

In August I posted on United States bishops who have championed solar energy with their actions. From Hawaii to Stockton, California, to Ogdensburg, New York, these new solar installations range in size and purpose. What they share in common is how they shine a light on practical aspects of Saint John Paul II’s term “ecological conversion.” All of us can encourage this conversion by helping more dioceses do more with renewables—and perhaps that will be a Top Ten story in 2015.

6. The growing influence of the Catholic Climate Covenant

Assisting the solar project in the Diocese of Stockton has been the Catholic Climate Covenant—a favorite group of this blog. The Covenant is a small, effective team that works with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as local dioceses and parishes. They offer outstanding assistance to Catholics who wish to better know and engage the issues around climate change. Most recently the Catholic Climate Covenant has been busy with projects like those solar installations, working with academics and media outlets, and assembling educational material for individuals and parish families. They’re currently raising funds for a video campaign to help ready the Church in the United States for Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical, as well as other issues coming our way.

5. The Church speaks at COP20

The United Nations-sponsored gathering of climate experts and representatives of some 190 nations was, for many, a disappointment. This twentieth gathering of “the Conference of Parties” was meant to solidify support for international climate and energy agreements—which it did, sort of. In a non-binding way. Regardless, it’s on to Paris in 2015. What’s notable here is how the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church added her voice to this global event. From lay Catholics, religious, clergy, bishops, the Holy See, and the Holy Father himself, the Church was not merely present. In many ways she stole the show. This invigorated many climate activists—Catholic and non-Catholic. Indeed, the Church’s activity at COP20 is a sign of what’s to come—that is, a healthy insistence that the world and its leaders take seriously the threats and manmade causes of climate change.

4. Manila’s Season of Creation

If you want to know how Catholic ecology is done, spend some time in the Archdiocese of Manila, which has a history of strong environmental activism and asceticism. In particular, this fall Archbishop Cardinal Tagle and his church celebrated a month-long “Season of Creation” that was by any account a huge success. And it looks like there’s more to come—especially in January when Pope Francis visits the nation of islands and tours areas and homes devastated by recent typhoons.

3. Faith, Food, and the Environment

Sometimes big news doesn’t make big headlines. Here’s an example: In November, an international group of farmers, ranchers, theologians, religious, clergy, and bishops came together at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota to share thoughts on how to baptize the agricultural industry—from the folks in the fields to corporate leaders—so that we can feed the world with an eye towards human dignity, sustainability, and ecological stewardship. Sponsored by Catholic Rural Life, the Faith, Food, and the Environment conference elevated a necessary conversation and aimed it toward a larger gathering in Milan in 2015. Attending and supporting this work was Fr. Michael Czerny of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Based on what has happened and what the plans are for 2015, my bet is that Catholic Rural Life and the Food, Faith, and Environment momentum will be making next year’s Top Ten. (For more on the conference, see the event web site and my write up in Catholic World Report.)

2. Vatican Sustainability Conference

Two pontifical councils joined forces in May to host a prestigious gathering of natural and social scientists. The intent of the interdisciplinary symposium was to explore how humanity might change its ways if we wish to nurture our planet’s life-support systems. The event impressed many who are not familiar with the Church. This is especially true in how the pontifical academies brought together the natural and social sciences, which very often don’t engage each other. A duet of faith and reason also shared the spotlight, as should be expected in a Catholic look at global eco-issues—that is, ecological and economic ones. Conference attendees departed with high hopes of more dialogue. Given the dire need to encourage “new life-styles,” as Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have called for, we look forward for more from Rome on the sustainability front. (Once again, for more on the Vatican conference, see the event web site and my write up in Catholic World Report.)

1. Reading and Misreading Pope Francis

Living up to his namesake, Pope Francis has delighted Catholic ecologists with his full-speed-ahead continuation of the ecological teachings and actions of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But miscued media coverage by some pundits and reporters (of various ideological backgrounds) has made it difficult for the average Catholic to know just what is happening. While some of the faithful are wary of (or irritated by) the Holy Father’s eco-engagement, others are giddy with delight. Some in both groups don’t seem to get that Pope Francis is continuing the lines of thought of his predecessors—that he is firmly rooting his eco-teachings in human ecology, a term coined by JP2 and continued by B16. In other words, Francis is clear that Catholic ecology is not just about smashing existing economic models because they're fun to smash. It’s about but elevating the human heart. He is equally clear that human dignity (especially of the elderly, the unborn, and the poor and marginalized) must be intimately conjoined to our desire to save the planet. Certainly, in 2015 the expected eco-encyclical will make all this clear. Many of us are hoping and praying that that’s what gets reported, rather than what reporters and ideologues hope the Pope is saying.

In any event, 2015 is shaping up to be a big year. Besides what we already know, a few not-yet-announced events (sorry, I can’t say anymore) will make the 2015 list another memorable one as the Church continues to engage global and personal issues of life, death, sin, and salvation.

For now, Happy New Year to you all and to all your loved ones. And may God bless us all with deeper faith, hope, love, and virtue in the year ahead.

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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.