Theologian shares his perspective on soon-to-be-released papal document on the environment
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
A Newton company engaged in sustainable energy practices will host a July 2 news conference that aims to respond to the June 18 release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.
Catholics at the national, state and diocesan level are organizing the event at TPI in Newton to help put the teachings of the encyclical into context for Iowans. TPI is a global provider of structural composite products for the wind, military and transportation markets. The event also will capitalize on the state’s visibility leading up to next year’s presidential election, said Father Bud Grant, a professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport and a priest of the Des Moines Diocese.
The encyclical Laudato Sii (Praised Be) takes its name from the introductory phrase to St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures,” which thanks God for the gifts of creation, according to the Vatican press office. Plenty of people — from pundits to theologians and lay leaders — have been eager to offer opinions based on what they think the Holy Father will say.
Fr. Grant, a moral theologian who writes an environmental theology column for The Catholic Messenger, has been preparing for the encyclical’s release by reading everything he can find on the subject. That includes the writings of critics who think the pope is stepping out of bounds in addressing environmental issues.
“We don’t yet know what Pope Francis’ encyclical will say, but he has already added to the conversation,” observes Fr. Grant. “Look for him to emphasize the suffering of the world’s marginalized who pay the price of our ecological destructiveness. Look for him to challenge those of us who live comfortably in the economies which benefit most from these practices.”
Sister Simone Campbell, S.S.S., who leads Network, a national social justice advocacy organization, echoes that observation. She said she’s excited by rumors that Pope Francis in his encyclical sees the “intersection between environmental issues and economic disparity. I’m looking for his articulation of how those at the margins bear the brunt of global warming and environmental degradation,” added Sr. Campbell, who received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in Davenport in 2014.
She hopes for the encyclical to inspire a sense of unified action “because we’re in it together. We can’t put our heads in the sand and ignore what’s pretty clear: our human habitation is adversely impacting our home and we need to change.”
She points to the Middle East as an example, which is fighting over water, not just oil. The desertification of the Sub-Saharan Africa is another example. And still another example is in the United States, where low-income residents live in substandard housing, can’t afford fuel-efficient cars and live near industries that emit high levels of pollutants into the air.
Fr. Grant will explore the theological arguments that underpin the pope’s conclusions during the news conference in Iowa. Catholic Climate Covenant, the Diocese of Des Moines and the Diocese of Davenport have partnered to organize the conference. Both Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines and Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport will participate in the conference in Newton, which is in the Davenport Diocese.
“Bishop Pates has been a leader on communicating about care for God’s creation and it will be great to have him communicate the Holy Father’s teachings for the Church and public of Iowa,” said Lonnie Ellis, OFS, associate director of Catholic Climate Covenant.
Catholic environmental theology began with a concern for the rights of the laborer and the land owner, Fr. Grant said, referencing the 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum. He views St. John Paul II as straddling the line between social justice and the environment. Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “green pope,” did both solidly. He encouraged care for the environment. “We hope Pope Francis says something that pushes out even further: stewardship of God’s creation. I hope that’s what he accentuates,” the priest said.
He also thinks Pope Francis will discuss “redistributive suffering,” wherein people choose to embrace more of the suffering of others and share the cross. “It definitely means reduced chemical inputs (into the soil) … it does mean higher prices, it does mean higher taxes. I hope it would also mean generosity. It would be interesting to see what percentage of Catholic Relief Services’ budget is already spent on environmental refugees.” On the flip side, “I think we delude people by suggesting to them that environmentally appropriate actions are also profitable.”
Fr. Grant sees a lot of people every day, on the ground, doing great things in terms of stewardship of creation. He serves on the city of Davenport’s Environmental Commission. Davenport has been rated a four-star city — one of the best examples for mid-sized cities for sustainability, he noted.
But no one should be complacent. The U.S. is “the second-largest polluter in the world and, per capita, the biggest consumer on the planet.”
So what does redistributive suffering look like, in practical terms in places like Iowa? “The simplest thing to do is reduce our consumption of everything,” Fr. Grant said. “Take the passion of Christ as our model of salvific suffering for the sake of creation itself. “