How should Catholics respond to fears of a climate change apocalypse?
[I]t was reassuring to know that far away, whales swim untroubled in Baltic waters, and monks in arcane time zones chanted ceaselessly for the salvation of the world. – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
It is a snowy Friday evening and I am in a tiny, 100-year-old cabin off a dirt road in Manitou Springs, Colo., watching 20-something Colorado College grads in sweaters and boots prepare food for a Shabbat potluck, or “Shabbat-luck,” which they host every week to welcome in the Sabbath, even though only three of the 20 or so people in attendance are Jewish.
Everyone is giving hugs as people stream in with homemade squash pies, zucchini chocolate cakes and chiles rellenos to share. Ruthie Markwardt, 27, my host, picked the chilis she is cooking. Ms. Markwardt shares this modest home with her boyfriend, Barack Ben-Amots, as well as three other roommates. Through their eco-conscious living, food donation, teaching and music, they are young people committed to trying to repair a distressed world. The windowsill in the kitchen is covered with succulents and candles, gourds and dried flowers, an Our Lady of Guadalupe and a piece of honeycomb. It feels a little like a home altar, and the hospitality I have received is radical and good. Ms. Markwardt and Mr. Ben-Amots, who teaches middle school, are turning this land into a community garden and educational farm.
Even though this is my first Shabbat, the ritual feels immediately familiar and profoundly human: lighting candles, singing songs, blessing and sharing bread, blessing and drinking wine. As we eat, after prayers, Ms. Markwardt, who has long blond hair, bright blue eyes and a nose ring, starts telling me about when she “first fell in love with seeds.” She spends some of her days picking vegetables at Hobbes Farm, others working for a community nonprofit called Concrete Couch, a group committed to community gardens and public art made from salvaged material. Ms. Markwardt teaches people skills that their great-grandparents once knew, like how to can peaches and tomatoes so they can eat locally all year round, or how to use tools so they can build and mend things. It is about rejecting what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture.”
It’s a beautiful instantiation of living the Gospel, although Ms. Markwardt and the other environmentalists in attendance are not Catholic. They are predominantly “nones,” people who claim no particular religious affiliation. Yet they are clearly living the call of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’,” right down to the pope’s desire that we rediscover the Sabbath (No. 237).
What Has Changed
I have come here because it can be difficult to find this sort of ecologically minded conversation among Catholics in my social circles. My sister Mia Alvarado taught a class on “Laudato Si’” at our Colorado parish in 2018, but it was sparsely attended. My impression is that, even now, many Catholics in the United States do not have a sense of urgency around this issue, nor have they heard about it from their pastors. Catholics also are sharply divided along political lines when it comes to the issue of climate: Eighty percent of Catholic Democrats say that humans are a cause of global warming, while 78 percent of Catholic Republicans say humans are not to blame.
It can be difficult to find ecologically minded conversation among Catholics.
But the impacts of climate change are already being felt, and the extreme weather that accompanies it is devastating communities’ lives. Last summer the temperature reached 108.6 degrees Fahrenheit in France, 108.7 in Germany. Hundreds died. My cousin in Houston was rescued from her flooded home during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 by canoe. These days, we frequently read headlines and wonder if it is already too late. Headlines like the BBC’s “Climate Change: 12 Years to Save the Planet. Make That 18 Months” urge us to act, but they do not erase feelings of helplessness nor quell fears of the futility of our small actions. Few thought climate change would arrive so quickly. More and more friends tell me, “I’ve given up hope. It’s liberating.” Or, “We’re doomed.”
Even among those who understand the urgency and consequences of climate change, resistance, to many, seems pointless. We are accustomed to religious fundamentalists saying that we live in the end times, but now we also see articles about a “climate apocalypse” in The New Yorkerand The New York Times. The authors of pieces like these, who often do not have children, seem almost proud of their acceptance that the end is near. As if the end of human life on earth will be a relief. (No more striving for that next promotion.) Many of us, especially those of us with children, cannot accept this. How could we, when it will be our children and grandchildren who will face the long-term effects of our actions?
In the more than four years since “Laudato Si’” appeared, there have been worthy local efforts to respond to its call. The California bishops have laid out a climate action plan; many parishes have formed reading groups and invited speakers on climate change, switched to LED lights and installed solar panels. On a larger scale, the Global Catholic Climate Movement was founded as a network to connect hundreds of member organizations around the world. It also has a youth arm, called Laudato Si’ Generation. These initiatives offer some hope, but it is hard to say whether the people in the pews are getting the message. I have been a Mass-goer my entire life and I do not recall a single homily about caring for creation, nor has my parish made even small symbolic changes like reusable coffee mugs after Mass or changing to a more eco-friendly thermostat. A priest I work with this year told me, “I haven’t read ‘Laudato Si’.’ Should I? I don’t believe in climate change.”
Pope Benedict XVI declared pollution a “social sin,” requiring confession and repentance.
A student I know told me, “China doesn’t care if you compost or use a clothesline or fly less or work for political change.” In other words, your little good deeds are as straw before flame. And perhaps he is right. The world is warming much faster than almost anyone predicted, and the combination of political, economic and lifestyle changes needed to reverse course seems unlikely to occur. Still, as Willa Cather wrote in her 1925 novel The Professor’s House, “We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance—you impoverish them.”
The Church Has Spoken
The church is not without a viewpoint here. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have picked up on this issue as one of the most urgent of our time. And the church has long been calling us to be mindful of threats to our common home. When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, he chose St. Francis of Assisi as his patron, immediately indicating to the world that he would continue the work of calling the faithful to an “ecological conversion.”
In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis wrote, “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to the life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (No. 217). In this encyclicalPope Francis connects care of creation to all of Catholic social teaching, from “Rerum Novarum” to “Humane Vitae,” from the church fathers to the Hebrew Scriptures, and calls on the world’s biggest polluters to embrace simpler lifestyles and advocate for social change. “We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more’” (No. 22). Following “Laudato Si’,” in 2016, Francis also called caring for creation one of the works of mercy.
On these matters Francis is in good company. His writings on ecology and creation are consistent with those of Pope Benedict XVI, who was sometimes called The Green Pope because he made the Vatican the world’s first solar-powered state and sought to make it fully carbon-neutral. During his eight-year tenure, he was critical of world leaders and corporations for failing to take action to halt the spread of climate change and condemned a “selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.”
Pope Benedict XVI was sometimes called The Green Pope because he made the Vatican the world’s first solar-powered state and sought to make it fully carbon-neutral.
Echoing his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who frequently spoke about ecological issues, Benedict XVI wanted the world’s one billion Catholics to cultivate global solidarity. He encouraged us to recognize that because climate change disproportionally affects the poor, caring for creation and caring for the poor are the same. He urged us to see that the earth herself is poor and that when our brothers and sisters do not have clean air to breathe or clean water to drink, it is obviously our concern.
Pope Benedict XVI declared pollution a “social sin,” requiring confession and repentance. He also encouraged “particular attention to climate change,” which he described as a matter of “grave concern for the whole human family.” Benedict loved nature and animals and spoke out against factory farms. He argued that ecology was key to teaching young people about morality and natural law, as there is nothing morally relative about clear-cutting a forest and leaving the land a desert. He said in 2007, “Everyone today can see that man could destroy the foundation of his existence—his earth—and, therefore, we can no longer simply use this earth, this reality entrusted to us, to do what we want or what appears useful and promising at the moment, but we must respect the inherent laws of creation.” He urged people to “learn these laws and obey these laws if we want to survive.” More recently, Pope Francis has said he plans to include a definition of ecological sins in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
How to Cope?
Despite this urging from several pontiffs, our two-party political system and polarized cultural climate has turned being good stewards of God’s good earth, a common-sense position, into a partisan one, which often makes the topic off limits in polite conversation. But this is not a time to be polite.
What scares me most is our collective silence. So many of us do not even talk about the ecological news with our friends and fellow parents at soccer practice. Floods. Droughts. Wildfires. Melting ice caps. The sixth mass extinction. It is enough to make anyone tune out the problem and quietly hope that someone else solves it. But how can we make sense of these strange times without each other? How can we live Pope Francis’ injunction to “sing as we go,” never letting “our struggles and our concern for this planet take away the joy of our hope” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 244)?
Some good news is that caring for creation may be a place where religious and nonreligious people can come together. First, we must learn from the Ruthie Markwardts of the world and at least acknowledge the existence of the crisis. This can happen regardless of whether a person understands the science, is politically conservative or liberal, is religious or not. Taking better care of our natural resources is a simple matter of manners that in turn lead to morals. Most of us can agree that the earth is a gift, so we should not pollute it or destroy it.
Some good news is that caring for creation may be a place where religious and nonreligious people can come together.
Second, we must take action and do something at a personal cost, irrespective of whether our actions will ultimately be successful in terms of “saving humanity” or “saving the earth.” Whose individual actions have ever been successful on that kind of scale? As an oft-quoted prayer by Bishop Kenneth Untener reads:
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
I first met Catholics who lived voluntary simplicity and did good works that others considered crazy in the Catholic Worker Movement. For example, Sheila McCarthy has brown hair and rosy, makeup-free cheeks, and often wears T-shirts and long skirts. Now 40, she has spent her entire adult life in the movement founded by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. She says, “Everything I’ve done in my life: living in community, eating food that would otherwise be thrown away, has been a way of saying, ‘We have too much.’”
Ms. McCarthy has taken Jesus’ teachings to heart, opening her home to people who were homeless, organizing against war and torture, and living simply. She has a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame, and she lives in South Bend, Ind., where she teaches at the women’s prison and works at the St. Julian of Norwich organic farm. She grows vegetables but also flowers and pollinators for bees, and these flowers “grace the tables” of her friends. Ms. McCarthy says, “Interesting things can happen at the fringes. Impossible things. Shifts can occur. I mean, Francis is our pope.”
“Interesting things can happen at the fringes. Impossible things. Shifts can occur."
The Catholic Worker taught me that we do not feed the poor thinking that poverty will be eliminated by our actions or, worse, that we have come to save the poor. We feed them because Jesus told us to and because feeding people is inherently good work. We feed the poor as a spiritual practice, praying that we might be made worthy to feed them. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Isn’t this same attitude required for planting trees or rewilding lands or any good work? One day at a time, “Thy will be done.”
Imagine all the saints who could have said, “What difference will my life make? What’s the point? The Nazis/Communists/slave owners/Romans are going to kill me, or others, anyway.” But we are called to be like Jesus, who “so loved the world” and who loved it to the point of death—Jesus who died, seemingly, a failure.
In my searching, I have found points of light like Catholic Energies, a nonprofit group that helps churches switch to solar power, or Jen Betz, a member of Catholic Worker and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Ms. Betz became aware that her hometown of South Bend, Ind., was going to sell the Elbel Park golf course and the surrounding Mud Lake wetlands, fully one quarter of the city’s parkland. She and others formed Elbel for Everyone and fought to save the land by keeping it wild. In so doing, they acknowledged an ecological issue in their own backyard and then took action. In a democracy, without mass movements of people demanding change, nothing will change. Each of us is called to do good works in different ways, depending on our vocation and state in life. Most of us will never be arrested for civil disobedience, but some of us will feel called to that kind of radical action.
Brenna Cussen Anglada, for example, is someone who has responded to that call. The founder of the Catholic Worker Movement’s St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm in southwestern Wisconsin, she is a member of the activist group Four Necessity Valve Turners. The four were arrested in February 2019 for turning off the flow of tar sands oil in their area, 20,000 barrels of which leaked into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison. Ms. Anglada says, “I don’t think our action or the way we are living is singlehandedly saving anybody. But there’s hope in the world when lots of people are working to protect our relationship with the earth and to try to live in right relationship with creation.”
"There’s hope in the world when lots of people are working to protect our relationship with the earth and to try to live in right relationship with creation.”
Indeed, we need to cultivate the virtue of hope. Hope is what gives us the courage to live differently and to be brave and joyful in impossible times. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his 1948 essay “On Living in an Atomic Age” about the very real threat of nuclear holocaust in his lifetime:
[T]he first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.
Therapists tell their news-addled patients to focus on what they can control. Make commonsense preparations for a survivable disaster like a hurricane. Do something good for the earth. Call your lawmaker. And make time for joy and rest and friendship and laughter. If you feel you are working in an immoral industry, try to change it; or else leave it and do something that leaves the world a better place. There is some measure of peace that cannot be purchased in feeling like you are doing something you believe in.
When I first met the Catholic Worker Movement’s Sheila McCarthy, I was a prospective Notre Dame student, and what drew me to her was not her ideas, which at the time I knew nothing about; it was her freedom. I remember thinking, “Who is the beautiful woman with unshaved armpits inviting me to a L’Arche dance?” (The L’Arche movement benefits people with intellectual disabilities.) I did not know that this version of being an American woman was an option. I did not know you could actually wear the world like a loose garment. I wanted some of that freedom. I still do.
I did not know that this version of being an American woman was an option.
It is consoling to think of people living radically good lives and making the world more beautiful regardless of social approval. I do not think the end of the world will come any time soon, but if it does, I hope it would find us, like Ruthie Markwardt, lighting the Sabbath candles and eating a meal with our friends. Or like Sheila McCarthy, visiting the imprisoned and putting up solar panels. Or like Brenna Cussen Anglada, giving shelter to the homeless and milking a cow. Or like my sister Mia Alvarado, raising babies, writing books and composting her table scraps. This is sensible and human work, regardless of whether or not it fixes everything, regardless if it looks to all the world like folly.
As St. Augustine has written, “Bad times, hard times, that is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and the times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.”