This 1,200-year-old Benedictine monastery has been ‘carbon-negative’ for 20 years
“Integrity of creation” should be one of the top priorities for every Christian, Pope Francis said in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” in 2015. A couple of Benedictine monks in Germany have been far ahead on this demand. The Munsterschwarzach Abbey in Bavaria is not only Europe’s first carbon-neutral monastery, it has actually been carbon negative—that is, its activities have a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding to it—for nearly 20 years now.
Visiting the small Bavarian town of Munsterschwarzach, the large Benedictine abbey is ever present. The four towers of the abbey church rise above the rolling green hills and deep forests that surround it. The abbey is visible from just about anywhere in the area.
But there are two new towers you might not expect next to a church—metallic, cylindrical and almost as tall as the church. The monks have their own biogas plant, fed by corn and agricultural waste from the Benedictines’ own fields. The natural process of rotting biomass produces heat and gas, which is converted into energy. It is a rather smelly process but one that saves the monastery thousands of gallons of fuel oil. It produces more than enough electricity for the abbey’s 100 brothers and about 300 employees.
The monks have their own biogas plant, fed by corn and agricultural waste from the Benedictines’ own fields. The natural process of rotting biomass produces heat and gas, which is converted into energy.
The monastery has more than 1,200 years of history. Its so-called eco-project was established in 2000—years before politicians or the German public began to worry about climate change or global warming. “We’ve been living here for a millennium, and we want to lay the groundwork for brothers to live here for another millennium as well,” says Christoph Gerhard, O.S.B. He is the monastery’s cellarer, the Benedictine equivalent of C.E.O.
These past two decades the abbey has transformed into an energy-efficient, highly modern economic powerhouse. Everything at the abbey—residences, a goldsmith, bakery, printing house—is supplied with energy flowing not only from the biogas plant but also through solar panels and from windmills in the northern flatlands of Germany. All this sustainable capacity has been driven by Benedictine spirituality, said Father Christoph.
The foundation of the monastic life is the “Rule of Benedict,” which structures the day-to-day life of the brothers, and its best-known counsel, “ora et labora,” “pray and work.” The monks used one of the more specific chapters on craftsmanship from the rule as the rationale for their eco-efforts. “We monks are supposed to see the holiness in everyday things, in the tools of the workshop as well as the tools of the altar,” said Father Christoph. “One of the most important tools of modern times is energy, so we’re actually encouraged [by the rule] to switch to renewable power sources.”
One of the newest acquisitions at the abbey is an electric car. Most of the time the car is used for shorter trips around the monastery. It has been powered by solar panels on the roof of its garage, but the technology does not yet provide reliable and efficient methods for re-charging away from the abbey.
Their-called eco-project was established in 2000—years before politicians or the German public began to worry about climate change or global warming.
The Benedictines’ various eco-projects have recently attracted a lot of attention from European media as climate change and sustainable energy have become big issues among the German public. Europe’s latest election witnessed increasing support among voters for green parties, and in Germany, the Greens earned second place.
European high school students have been walking out of their classrooms each week to protest inaction on climate change. These “Fridays for Future“ protests started in Sweden. The European mindset has accepted ecological responsibility, it seems. But back in 2000, when the monks started with their efforts, this was not the case. People were more skeptical and even suspicious of the monks’ efforts. “Times have changed,“ Father Christoph says. Now everybody contemplates sustainability.
To see their newest project, you have to visit the monastery’s bakery. Townspeople and children from local schools come here each day, many of them buying coffee and hot beverages. Since May the bakery has been combating plastic trash. It implemented a deposit system called “re-cup.”
Every customer can buy, or rather rent, a coffee cup for one Euro. Next time they come to the bakery they can switch it out for a new one. The bakery washes the used cups then puts them back into circulation.
This means less trash in the cans but more work for the bakery. “Most of the work though is to establish the system with our customers,” says chief baker Leo Stockinger. “It is worth it though; everybody has to play their part in saving the environment.“
Even though they had the option to switch to bamboo or sugarcane cups, the monastery’s bakery staff decided to use a sturdier kind of plastic. How is this environmentally sustainable? Aren’t they supposed to avoid plastics? Yes and no.
“It’s all about the right measure,” Father Christoph explains. “We Benedictine monks see moderation as the answer. Bamboo has to be imported and does not compost as easily. It also doesn’t stay in use as long as plastics. We try to not to be militant about our environment, but doing nothing at all definitely isn’t the right answer either; moderation is.“
The abbey accomplished its first big environmental goal more than 10 years ago: a negative energy balance. They produce more energy than they use and sell it back to the community. Even more impressive though: They have become carbon negative. With all of their efforts they use up more CO2 than they produce.
So is this way of life a model for the rest of society? “You simply cannot just think election to election,” says Father Christoph. “We monks think in decades, centuries. We live together and care for each other.
“I know that I will live here in 30 years; that’s a different kind of motivation. Our society still has to learn this. If you want to care for the environment, if you want to cherish the integrity of creation, you have to broaden your horizon,” Father Christoph says. “Think bigger.”