The National Catholic Review
Drew Christiansen
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The early Jesuits made the city the landscape of their evangelization. A classic Latin verse put it this way: “Bernard loved the valleys; Benedict, the hills; Francis, the towns; Ignatius, the great cities.” So we are not surprised, when it comes to environmental responsibility, that Benedictines, especially Benedictine women, have been pioneers. But Jesuits have now taken up the environmental challenge (“Jesuits Urged to Protect Creation,” Am. 10/10).

It is not as if Jesuits have been absent from the environmental movement. For three decades Father Al Fritsch has labored out of Livingston, Ky., to provide environmental education and services for a large swath of Appalachia. In New England, Father Jack Savard has brought green spirituality to spiritual direction and retreats. In California, Father Bill Wood, who was at one time general secretary of the California Catholic Conference, blended green theology with advocacy on food and agriculture issues.

But now they are not alone. The worldwide Society of Jesus has taken up sustainability as a major theme of its apostolates; and Jesuit colleges, along with other Catholic colleges, have taken it up as part of their Catholic mission.

Sustainability refers to the management of natural resources so they will remain available for future generations. It is a work of intergenerational justice. It therefore vexes me to hear that some institutions seem to have adopted sustainability as if the church’s post-conciliar commitment to the “faith that does justice” is passé and only sustainability, in a narrow sense, matters. The recent Jesuit document “Healing a Broken World” could not be more clear: Sustainability is “a justice issue.”

Universities and colleges should have green audits, recycle their waste, consume biodegradable and organically grown products and use renewable energy supplies. But commitment to preserving the earth demands more than “taking out your own garbage.” It requires us to take responsibility for the ecosystems of which our institutions are a part: protect our watersheds, improve air quality, heal and comfort those suffering from environmental diseases, and retrain and employ those who have lost their jobs to environmental catastrophes or new regulatory policies. Sustainability cannot be parted from environmental justice.

One has only to recall the struggles of Dorothy Stang, S.N.D.deN., to save the Amazonian forests and of the late Wangari Maathai to prevent deforestation in Kenya, or the efforts of Erin Brockovich in California and Jan Schlichtmann (the Massachusetts lawyer and hero of A Civil Action) to rescue water supplies from chemical pollution, to appreciate how very much ecological responsibility and the struggle for justice are intertwined.

Environmental injustice exacts enormous costs from its victims, who are often the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. What’s more, claiming environmental justice from powerful vested interests demands painful sacrifices from its advocates. Sister Stang was assassinated, Matthai was imprisoned, and a bankrupt Schlichtmann attempted suicide. Jesuits, their students, parishioners and spiritual directees ought to grasp that the struggle for environmental justice requires men and women prepared for long and arduous conflict.

Insofar as sustainability aims to conserve the earth for future generations, it also entails facing up to the limits of economic growth as a way of measuring societal well-being. We Americans must imagine a different future for ourselves, with alternatives that include a fairer distribution of wealth, which may make it easier to maintain a sustainable quality of life.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

Comments

Nelson Araque | 4/23/2014 - 8:33pm

Good article. Sr. Dorithy Stang is a martir. However, what about Chico Mendes Brazilian environmentalist who fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest, and advocated for the human rights of Brazilian peasants and indigenous peoples. He was assassinated by a rancher on December 22, 1988?

Ana Blasucci | 10/27/2011 - 8:34pm
This piece is reasonable until the last three lines.  Without impugning the rest of the piece, these lines crystallize a common fundamental misunderstanding of the American system.  They also illustrate the reason that this type of call for environmental justice is poorly received in many quarters.
Here, wealth is not distributed.  It is created.  I start a business, expand, hire workers; they get paid, and contribute to the economy and common good.  The cycle continues. 
Is it not "fair" that the entrepreneur receives the lion's share of the value of his labor of providing goods or services?  It's not a zero sum game nor a finite pie.
Re-distribution means taxation.  Taxes take the value of one's labor, immoral on its face past a modest amount consented to by the governed (not necessarily by their representatives in government).
The reason this sort of argument is poorly received, other than ties to the above fallacy, is that however well reasoned such an argument is, the "Green Zeitgeist," in the end, wants to take us back to the Nineteenth Century.
This "contraction" mentality is alien to Americans.  It isn't who we are.  
Better to formulate a robust, gospel-oriented,enthusiastic, pro-green, pro-growth paradigm.
Then heads might nod.  
That would be reaching for the "magis." 
Daniel Misleh | 10/19/2011 - 4:21pm
Thank you, Fr. Drew, for making the connections between faith, justice and the environment so clear.  Many citizens and institutions are doing right by the environment.  Catholics should do this and more...link their activities with their faith.  Before Earth Day was Genesis.  We are called to care for Creation because it honors the creator and because our actions have consequences.  As Blessed John Paul II said, "we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations."

The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change is working to help Catholics link their environmental concern with our faith.  See catholicclimatecovenant.org.

C Walter Mattingly | 10/18/2011 - 9:11am
I would echo what Jim says above. For example, both "green" windpower and nuclear power are represented by powerful corporate interests, with GE being a major promoter and benficiary of both, yet it is the tiny US wind power industry over the past 20 years that has resulted in 41 deaths as opposed to zero for the far larger US nuclear power industry; it is one large California wind power installation that is resulting in an estimated 500 raptor deaths annually, etc. Likewise since public education is the foundation for opportunity and enhancing income equality in the US and elsewhere, let our editors recognize just how poorly our very expensive inner city public education system has/is performing and recognize the studies such as its own Loyola Marymount that Los Angeles inner-city parochial schools have only 7% of the failure to graduate rate of comparable Los Angeles public schools and should vocally support these disenfranchised mostly minority children with voucher programs. Let's also promote that modern agricultural methods, including genetic engineering, that have been crucial in saving the lives of hundreds of millions of the world's poor from severe malnutrition and starvation. In other words, let sustenance efforts be open to fact and truth rather than "political correctness," or they may have quite the opposite of the intended effect.
JACK HUNT | 10/14/2011 - 3:10pm
I am so  ignorant of the multiple layers of science, politics etc. which come into play around the ecological and envrionmental issues of our time.  My mind is stirred and excited though when I see that a Catholic and "catholic" interest is surfacing regarding these timely matters. In a word or phrase, "I want to know!"  So, thank you for bringing your voice to the table.
James Collins | 10/14/2011 - 2:52pm
Good. But please critically evaluate all these situations and do not just jump on the bandwagon of every eco nut that comes down the pike. And beware of the special interests. And not just businesses, corporations and governments but also the "green special interests" who are running multibillion dollar enterprises. For example, the global warming interests with billions of dollars in grants and subsidities. Fairer distribution of wealth. OK but don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs in the process and thus make everbody poorer.

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