Hopes, Fears and the Possibility of Surprise: A College President, A Book Editor and a Resource Consultant talk ‘Laudato Si’’

Over the last few weeks I've been talking by phone to a wide variety of prominent Catholics in California (including Leon PanettaGov. Jerry Brown and three local bishops), getting their reactions to “Laudato Si.’” This week, I'm posting some of their responses from our phone conversations.

John Barbieri has given his life in equal measures to the energy and resources sector and to environmental policy, and now runs the National Resources Corporation, which is proposing to ship water as we do oil as a new response to world water issues. Vivian Dudro is an editor at Ignatius Press, which has recently published a hardback version of the encylical for purchase. And Father Mike Engh, S.J., has for the last six years been the President of Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley.  


Much like the bishops and Katelyn Sutter, Engh, Dudro and Barbieri all draw great consolation from “Laudato Si’.” For Engh, it hearkens back to a fundamental passion. “Environmental justice was the theme of my inauguration six years ago, not only related to sustainability and ecological preservation but also because of its link to justice and the concern for the poor. The challenge to our campus was how can we link our work for social justice, which is really in the mindset of the place, to our concern for the environment, recognizing that the poor have a real claim on our hearts and on our actions.

“So I was delighted to see the pope put this out for discussion, raising the moral questions. I think that’s what we should be doing.”

Engh also sees the encyclical as a valuable point of reflection for Silicon Valley. “I would hope that it would raise a lot of the environmental questions for them, because of the major impact they have in terms of employment in so many developing countries, and then the effect on the environment that they have.

“We’re planning a conference in the fall on the moral, social and economic consequences of the encyclical. I hope it provides an opportunity for the reconsideration of the actions and the policy decisions in those companies, and that Santa Clara can be a resource to explore these things.”

For her part, Dudro appreciates the pope’s call to recover our sense of wonder. “I’ve said this to my kids so many times when I say it now they get bored—the most exciting thing going on is the grass growing outside. Evil is a drama queen. But you put a seed in the ground and a plant will grow. But you didn’t make that seed and you didn’t make that ground and you didn’t make the water.”

“The more science and technology develop,” says Dudro, “the more delusional we become that we’re the creators, we’re the ones that are making the reality. We forget that reality is given to us and that our starting point should be awe and respect and humility.”

And for Barbieri, what stands out is the document’s call for action. “I counted eight or 10 times where the pope spoke of the urgency of the situation. Unlike Benedict and Pope John Paul II before him, who certainly discussed the importance of environmental issues, Pope Francis reiterated time and again the urgency of the situation. Which more and more we need. Greenland is green again. The ice cap is no longer there. We don’t need to just be aware now, but to act.”

Thinking about how this encyclical can inspire the sort of change of minds and hearts for which the pope hopes, Dudro believes it’s about us taking the time to be affected. “I’ve seen some of the chatter that’s going on and people are really whipping out their charts [to prove the pope wrong]. And oh my gosh, you’re completely missing the point of this encyclical if the first thing that you’re going to reach for is a chart. The first you should do after reading this encyclical is take a moral inventory of the way you live your life. Am I greedy? Am I wasteful? Do I even care that my greed and my waste are having an impact on other people? It may be on the other side of the planet; nevertheless my lifestyle is having an impact on other people.

“I’m not saying the charts and arguments are not important, but you’re missing the point of this encyclical if that’s what you’re going to start by doing. The church is in the world to call the world to conversion. There’s bound to be things I could be doing better, there’s bound to be room for improvement. I think you have to come to this kind of document with that kind of openness—show me how I can do better, how I can be a better citizen with those I have to share this world with. If you come to the document like that it’s going to be an enriching experience.”

Barbieri, too, sees the encyclical as a call to take a step back: “I think what he’s saying in calling for this dialogue with all of us, whether we’re in business or in government or anywhere else, is let’s just pause. Let’s just stop. In Scripture of course God rested on the seventh day, and we’re called to keep holy the Sabbath. How many of us do that? And I think the Holy Father is saying, let’s stop and look at what we’re doing.

“I think there’s the knee jerk reaction by people in industry to view anything like this as lofty, unrealistic and ultimately leading to more increases in the cost of business on their part. And those that are very bottom-line oriented people are going to jump to that conclusion without ever having read the document.” But, argues Barbieri, “I think if people read the document it will sort of calm the waters, so to speak. Capitalism isn’t libertarianism, free markets do have rules—we have a free market in the United States, but now we cannot discharge toxins into drinking water supplies, we cannot burn lead in our gasoline.”

Engh hopes people can see the real invitation the pope is offering. “In talking to business people, what I say is that the pope is not prejudging anyone on this. He’s inviting everyone in to reflect on the ethical dimensions of all this.”

And central to that invitation is a desire for honest and open conversation. “There are those who I’ve read in the press who are jumping on the pope, saying he doesn’t know economics, some of this will hurt the poor. But he’s not posing himself as an economist but as a moral, ethical teacher raising questions, inviting people into dialogue.” In the encyclical, says Engh, the pope wants “the church to learn by dialogue with the rich and the poor, with business people and ordinary workers, with all members of the church and—as he addressed the encyclical—all people of the world.”  The pope imagines himself  “not as a lecturer”, but as a teacher in a classroom—“You pose an idea, you discuss with students, they raise questions, you raise questions, there’s an honest, fruitful dialogue.

“That appeals to me greatly.”

Dudro agrees: “What the pope keeps saying, it’s like that classic SNL skit: ‘Discuss amongst yourselves.’ First of all, take your responsibility seriously. Secondly, recognize that what you’re doing is causing damage, and it’s affecting the poor of the world the hardest. And those of you who open your eyes to the impact that you’re having, discuss amongst yourselves.”

With, she emphasizes, a refusal to demonize. Dudro recalls that in the ’60s the possibility of human starvation was a real concern. “I remember in my fourth grade classroom these horrific scenes of malnourished children, and we were told we’re all going to die of massive starvation.” Things like DDT and new fertilizers solved that problem, but created new ones. Today we have a tendency to talk about “those terrible people who invented DDT,” says Dudro, “as if they set out to poison the planet, when they were trying to grow more food because we were afraid there wasn’t going to be enough.”

We have to realize, progress “is always a moving target. People come up with solutions that at the time seemed like a good solution.” We need to “take their goodwill seriously.”

And she speculates, if we allow ourselves to be open in this way, “There could be some interesting bedfellows, sides that shouldn’t be opposed to each other might figure that out. ‘Oh you care about the human person? So do I.’ None of us want to see human beings treated as throwaway objects, do we? And that can encompass a lot of things, including the environment."

Barbieri, too, sees the pope’s hoped-for conversation among those of very different points of view creating opportunities and insights. “One area where I’d agree with some our conservative friends is, unburdened by unnecessary legislation, American innovators (and those throughout the world) can solve many of these problems. As one observer said during the American centennial, ‘The American invents the way the Greek sculpts and the Italian paints. It is genius.’”

But what is essential, he argues, is the kind of straight talking leadership the pope offers. “Changing human behavior is very difficult. California has been in a permanent drought for many, many years, and there have been calls for conservation that go unheeded and usage increases. But then the government stepped forward and spoke directly to the people and said ‘Look, here’s the situation: we’re running out of water, we need to act.’ And now conservation throughout the state is setting records.”

“So I think you speak the truth about the situation. And of course who delivers that message is of paramount importance.”

His greatest fear, like that of the pope, is the possibility that we might do nothing. “I hope this doesn’t just turn out to be an encyclical that we talk about for a few weeks and then it’s filed. Billions will be spent, it’s already started, to try and discredit some of the things that he said. That’s the nature of our system, unfortunately.”

The great paradox of the present era, he finds, is how much more information we have, and yet how much more resistance we seem to offer. “When I worked for Congress in the early 1970s and many of the environmental laws were adopted, they were adopted really without much input from the scientific community because they were largely lacking a consensus. There was just a sense that there was something wrong, and the Congress acted on it, and the president signed those laws.

“Today, we have overwhelming scientific evidence presented to us, and 93 percent of earth scientists in agreement—the break up of Antarctica, the polar ice thinning, the rising acidification of the oceans, many of these things we can trace. If we do nothing, our descendants will look at us as a ship of fools.”

Meanwhile Dudro sees hope in how far we’ve already come. “The improvements we’ve already passed, today we take them for granted. Just catalytic converters—the car smog was so bad in Los Angeles, you could not see the mountains. And as soon as we got catalytic converters on our cars, that stuff cleared up. ‘Oh, there’s mountains over there?’ The air was that bad. It was just a simple thing, and now we take it for granted."

The challenge for us now, she argues, as always, is moderation. “Being extreme is always so much easier than being moderate. It’s always easier to eat too much, drink too much, to take extreme positions...the middle way is hard work. It takes effort to actually work out what’s the reasonable thing to do here with these trees.

“But can’t we be reasonable?”

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Mary Sweeney
3 years 6 months ago
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