US bishops affirm climate stance

With the president of the USCCB signing last week’s appeal to international climate negotiators, followed by USCCB letters to Congress and the chief US climate negotiator, US bishops take their latest actions to address climate change

The signature on last week’s episcopal climate appeal of the Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.—Archbishop of Louisville and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—took some in the United States by surprise. It also helped assuage critics who had complained that the US church isn’t doing enough in preparation of December’s international climate talks, or about climate change in general.

“In his address to Congress earlier this fall, Pope Francis called ‘for a courageous and responsible effort … to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,’” Archbishop Kurtz told Catholic Ecology. “I was happy to join with my brother bishops from throughout the world in signing the ‘Appeal to the COP 21 Negotiating Parties’ to encourage adoption of a ‘truly transformational climate agreement’ that responds to the Holy Father’s call. I hope it encourages and affirms U.S. leadership in Paris.”

Also stressing these hopes were letters issued late last week from the USCCB and its US charitable partners to the United States Congress and to Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, who will be leading his nation’s delegation at the COP21 climate talks in Paris.

In an interview with Catholic Ecology on Friday, Dr. Stephen M. Colecchi, Director of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, stressed that these actions have long precedence.

“I was happy to join with my brother bishops from throughout the world in signing the ‘Appeal to the COP 21 Negotiating Parties’" Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USCCB President

“We should remember that the [United States] bishops issued their first major statement on climate change in 2001,” he said.

Titled “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good,” the document states that

[w]hile our own growing awareness of this problem has come in part from scientific research and the public debate about the human contribution to climate change, we are also responding to the appeals of the Church in other parts of the world. Along with Pope John Paul II, church leaders in developing countries—who fear that affluent nations will mute their voices and ignore their needs—have expressed their concerns about how this global challenge will affect their people and their environment. We also hear the call of Catholic youth and other young people to protect the environment.

Mixed reactions

Recent climate statements by Pope Francis and the world’s bishops—especially the involvement of the USCCB—have delighted many and surprised some in the United States who are both uncertain about the reality of climate change (or who deny its existence outright) as well as those who demand dire and immediate action to address it.

Some in this latter group have expressed behind-the-scenes frustration since the issuance of Laudato Si' over a perceived lack of action by US bishops, especially in light of what bishops in the Global South have been contributing to the climate cause. But the USCCB signing of the global appeal and now the letters to Congress and State Department have mostly silenced those concerns.

The loudest complaints now, it seems, come from those that consider the Church’s involvement in climate change to be misguided.

Colecchi said that the bishops have heard from both camps.

“Pope Francis called for dialogue,” he said. “This [appeal] is what the bishops have to say to the COP process at this time.” Colecchi added that in the end, “there is a desire to see COP21 end with success.”

The process of the appeal

In early fall, representatives of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences approached the US bishops about joining the global appeal.

“The response from the United States was that we’d be happy to be part of carrying forward what Pope Francis called for in Laudato Si’,” Colecchi said.

“What followed was a fraternal conversation with other bishops. Drafts were sent and face-to-face conversations were able to take place, since many of the bishops were in Rome for the Synod on the Family.”

"Most farmers I talk to are appreciative of Pope Francis’ encyclical and his call to do all we can to reduce global warming. That means every one of us making changes in our lifestyles and farming methods to be more sustainable.” Jim Ennis, Catholic Rural Life

The resulting ten-point appeal calls for specific goals, including limiting “a global temperature increase and to set a goal for complete decarbonisation by mid-century, in order to protect frontline communities suffering from the impacts of climate change, such as those in the Pacific Islands and in coastal regions.”

Colecchi said that while there undoubtedly will always be some use of fossil fuels throughout the world, “the extent to which we rely on them now is not sustainable. Certainly the Holy Father said in Laudato Si’ [that there is] the need to shift to new energy sources. And so we need to move forward.”


It is this forward motion that has encouraged many advocates for sound climate policy.

Dan Misleh at the US-based Catholic Climate Covenant said that he and his team were “delighted by this strong push on COP21 delegates by the global Church.”

“Following Pope Francis’ lead, the patriarchs, cardinals, and bishops who signed the appeal represent a billion Catholics from around the world,” Misleh told Catholic Ecology. “They are urging Paris delegates to remember justice, fairness and accountability in the drive to reduce carbon emissions and to save those most impacted by our common neglect, the poorest and most vulnerable people, from untold suffering due to extreme weather events magnified by climate change.”

But you don’t have to go far to find people worried about the impacts of climate on their lives and livelihood.

“All farmers are concerned about catastrophic climate events,” said Jim Ennis of the US-based Catholic Rural Life. “Their very livelihood is dependent upon the elements. Most farmers I talk to are appreciative of Pope Francis’ encyclical and his call to do all we can to reduce global warming. That means every one of us making changes in our lifestyles and farming methods to be more sustainable.”

As for what some are seeing as strong and specific policy statements by the US bishops, Misleh said that “Pope Francis challenged all people of goodwill—and especially Catholics—to work for integral ecology. He calls all of us to remember that working for a cleaner planet, embracing the excluded, and reaching out to care for those in the margins are all connected and one can’t be resolved without the other.”

“Thank you to our friends in the United States for joining with us to emphasize the vital importance of this climate summit.” Jacqui Rémond, Catholic EarthCare Australia

The appeal, he said, echoes this challenge. “Let’s hope that the Conference of the Parties will also take up the challenge.”

Reaction outside the United States was equally enthusiastic.

"It is truly inspirational to see the Catholic Church come together to issue this important appeal ahead of the COP 21 in Paris,” said Jacqui Rémond, the director of Catholic Earthcare Australia.

“Thank you to our friends in the United States for joining with us to emphasize the vital importance of this climate summit.”

Rémond added that climate change is impacting countries around the world “and the devastating effects are already being felt here in Oceania.”

The work ahead

Even with the US involvement with the bishops’ appeal and the subsequent USCCB letters to Congress and the State Department, there is much that environmental advocates wish to see happen now on the local levels of individual dioceses and parishes.

Attaining the goals of reducing fossil fuel use are not merely the stuff of international treaties. They must also be the goals of individual parishes and parishioners—of our families, friends, and ourselves.

This means, for instance, that Catholics must lead the way in reaching out to local energy officials—governmental and in the local utilities—to find ways to benefit from energy efficiency programs as well as incentives for renewable energy. And then we must help others do the same

More on this in a later post.

For now, it’s a time to applaud the work of the Universal Church in seeking global agreements on climate change. And for those of us in the United States, it’s a time to applaud our bishops.

We thank especially Archbishop Kurtz for signing the appeal and Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Bishop Oscar Cantú (and Sister Donna Markham, O.P., Ph.D of Catholic Charities and Dr. Carolyn Woo of Catholic Relief Services) for their letters urging US officials to sound climate action.

After all, given that the bishops will most certainly receive push-back from those who would prefer that we don’t discuss climate change, the least the rest of us can do is show our appreciation and remember our shepherds and their intentions in our own prayers, fasts, and sacrifices for a better world.

And as always, stay tuned for much more ...

Photo: Archbishop Kurtz during Pope Francis's visit to the USA. Flicker/Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA

If you like Catholic Ecology,
you’ll love…

A Printer's Choice

The sci-fi novel with a Catholic twist.

A Printer's Choice

Learn more

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.