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Daniel R. DiLeoApril 19, 2024
The sun rises above an array of rooftop solar panels,Switching to solar energy is one way for dioceses to achieve decarbonization, which the U.S.C.C.B. calls “the preeminent environmental challenge.” (iStock/eyesfoto)

In the apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum: On the Climate Crisis,” published last Oct. 4, Pope Francis stated simply that “responses have not been adequate” in the eight years since he published the encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.” This assessment applies to society as a whole, but it also includes the Catholic Church. As we approach Earth Day, on April 22, I plead for all U.S. Catholics to repent from our collective ecclesial sins of omission and commit to greater shared mission fidelity on climate action.

There have been pockets of activities since “Laudate Deum,” including efforts by Catholic Climate Covenant, the Conference of Presentation Sisters, and the group of some 80 bishops, theologians and other Catholic leaders who gathered at the University of San Diego in February to examine the U.S. church’s response to “Laudato Si’.” Communities like All Saints Church in Syracuse, N.Y., have instituted parish activities, and Catholic colleges, including my own Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., continue to discern ways to decarbonize. In the area of advocacy, a group of Catholics led by Archbishop John C. Wester of Tucson, Ariz., met with White House officials last fall to discuss “Laudate Deum.” And taking direct action, in January the Diocese of San Diego became the first in the United States to confirm that it has divested itself of financial holdings in fossil fuel industries.

This is all commendable. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes faith as the “adequate response” to God’s love (No. 142). Climate science and Pope Francis’ statement about inadequate responses to “Laudato Si’” show that mission fidelity calls for diocesan decarbonization policies.

The catechism refers to “structures of sin,” or “social situations and institutions” that lack social justice (No. 1,869). James Keenan, S.J., calls this omission “the failure to bother to love.” In “Laudato Si’,” Francis describes it as the “sin of indifference” (No. 246).

In 1971, the Synod of Bishops published “The Ministerial Priesthood and Justice in the World,” which states that concrete “action on behalf of justice” is essential to the church’s mission. Mission fidelity thus requires internal social justice through ecclesial policies that administer church resources in an ecologically responsible manner. Failure to advocate for and enact such feasible policies is an ecclesial sin of omission.

The virtue of prudence, or “right reason applied to action,” determines faithful and adequate ecological policies. This is why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sounded a plea for prudent climate action more than 20 years ago. Today, prudence entails science-based climate policies that meet three critical benchmarks: reaching peak global greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, cutting such emissions to half of 2019 levels by 2030, and reaching net zero carbon emissions (at least 90 percent direct reductions, without offsets) by 2050. The world is nowhere near these targets and is in fact on track to become a stunningly different planet.

While the U.S.C.C.B. calls decarbonization “the preeminent environmental challenge,” only a handful of U.S. bishops have, to my knowledge, committed their dioceses to meeting this challenge.

To be sure, many bishops are already stretched thin as they try to meet pastoral needs. But as I have written, entities like Catholic Energies and the Diocese of Salford, England, can provide financial and technical support for decarbonization. The World Resources Institute and Interfaith Power and Light offer free faith-based resources, and Catholic Climate Covenant explains how to pursue federal funding for decarbonization efforts. Diocesan development officers can also identify and approach major donors to support decarbonization projects. An “adequate” diocesan response to climate change can begin with a bishop directing diocesan staff or inviting local Catholic experts (from engineers to accountants) as volunteers to explore these opportunities.

Bishops steward the church’s mission through faithful diocesan governance that enacts and models church teaching. Any bishop’s failure to explore and implement feasible decarbonization policies is, I believe, a sin of omission—but so is the failure by laypeople to exercise co-responsibility for the church’s mission through synodal encounter and accountability. In my nearly 15 years of climate change work in the U.S. church, I know of only a few Catholics who have met with their bishop and advocated for diocesan decarbonization.

Signs of hope

There are signs of hope. Twenty-four U.S. dioceses have enrolled in the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which encourages decarbonization. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and the Dioceses of Richmond and Arlington have collaborated with Catholic Energies to help finance and construct solar projects. The Diocese of Davenport has partnered with Catholic Climate Covenant to commit its chancery to net-zero carbon emissions. The Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis has supported a Covenant-led parish decarbonization program.

In addition, the Archdiocese of Baltimore signed a solar power purchase agreement to supply 20 percent of its energy. The Diocese of San Diego reports that its chancery is nearly 90 percent powered by renewables. Similarly, the Archdiocese of Boston installed solar panels at its pastoral center, and the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., initiated energy efficiency upgrades to its administrative office building. More indirectly, the Archdiocese of Chicago purchased 12 months of renewable energy credits.

As part of our Laudato Si’Action Plan, the Archdiocese of Omaha is developing a comprehensive parish and school decarbonization program. This pioneering initiative will connect interested pastors with engineers, accountants and contractors who will accompany communities through the steps to decarbonization. The program will also provide catechetical opportunities to share how decarbonization expresses Catholic faith.

This Earth Day, I plead for us—U.S. bishops, clergy and laity—to repent of our ecclesial sins of omission and urge shared commitment to greater mission fidelity through several climate actions. The U.S.C.C.B. should act on the recent support of several bishops and prioritize climate change in its forthcoming mission directives. This would encourage diocesan action.

Catholics should also build a synodal culture of encounter by meeting with their bishop—an action that the Laudato Si’ Action Platformencourages. Anyone interested in this work can contact me to be connected with others in their diocese. If a bishop has not enrolled the diocese in the platform, that should be the first request. Catholics can then advocate for decarbonization in the diocesan platform action plan.

While decarbonization most directly addresses the climate crisis, it can also complement the Vatican’s calls for fossil fuel divestment. The Catholic Theological Society of America outlines a divestment pathway, and a bishop could easily direct his diocesan finance personnel to facilitate divestment while others on the diocesan action plan committee pursue decarbonization. To catalyze this corresponding action, the U.S.C.C.B. should revise its Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines (which are being reviewed this year) to prudently and explicitly call for divestment.

This Earth Day, I plead for these faithful, “adequate responses” to the climate crisis so that we may “avoid the sin of indifference, that [we] may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 246).

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