On this Earth Day, there are calls to “Invest in our Planet.” After all, it is the only one we’ve got! Care for creation has been a major theme during the pontificate of Pope Francis. His opponents claim that the emphasis he places on environmentalism signals his surrender to secular humanism. On the contrary, Pope Francis has made it clear that his interest in environmentalism is not merely compatible with the Catholic Faith, but directly inspired by it. As he wrote in Laudato Si:
A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.
In an essay for WPI, I explained that one of the major themes of Laudato Si is the unity of all things. This unity, which flows from the common origin of all created things in the love of the Trinity, is one of the major motivations for Christian environmentalism. Creation is a marvelous gift from God; disrespect for the gift is an insult to the giver. And it is a gift given to all in common. When we misuse creation through carelessness or greed, we are endangering the lives of our brothers and sisters by destroying what belongs to them.
Sustainability through Sacrifice, not Technology
Too often, our society focuses on technical responses to environmental degradation. Environmentalists sometimes hold out hope that our consumeristic lifestyle can continue if we merely swap out our energy sources and transportation methods. Pope Francis warns against such techno-optimism. In Laudato Si, he draws on a statement made by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople:
At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.
Protecting our common home will require sacrifice; the sacrifice of our own comfort and preferences. Achieving true sustainability is not compatible with the American way of life. We will have to give up our automobile-oriented transport system, our meat-heavy diet, our fascination with perfect lawns, and our fashion-driven replacement of durable goods. Such changes would be disruptive and painful; but at the same time, they would bring about a whole host of personal and social benefits—not to mention the continued existence of a habitable Earth!
Practical Suggestions for Catholic Practice
While environmental sustainability would entail radical modifications to our American way of life, what would it mean for the way we Americans practice our Catholic Faith? What might we be called to sacrifice to protect the weak and care for our common home? I can think of a number of different ways in which the lived expressions of our Faith could become more sustainable. Here are a few of them:
Many church altars are decorated with cut flowers, even on ordinary Sundays, while great feasts are marked with an abundance of floral decoration. For Easter and Christmas, churches are decorated with lilies and poinsettias. The use of flowers is a traditional and beautiful part of Catholic devotion. At the same time, it comes with a heavy environmental cost. The USA is the largest consumer of cut flowers; 80% of these flowers are imported, many from Columbia and Ecuador. Since flowers are highly perishable, they are flown to the USA in refrigerated aircraft. Their cultivation is also highly resource-intensive; to maintain a year-round supply they are grown in specialized greenhouses that require heating and cooling. To avoid blemishes or defects, growing operations use vast amounts of fertilizer and pesticides that can contaminate the local environment and harm the health of workers. In some cases, cut flowers are treated with dangerous preservatives to extend their shelf-life.
Personally, I think God would prefer us to skip the flowers rather than participate in so much environmental and social damage! As an alternative, maybe parishioners could work together to collect flowers from their personal gardens. In places where winters are cold, there will be less available during the winter months. Living with the seasons in this way could actually be a beneficial spiritual practice. God gives us the seasons and the changing weather, and allowing this reality to control our behavior can become an exercise in thankfulness and poverty of spirit. Still, winter needn’t mean a total absence of floral decoration. The branches of many flowering shrubs and trees can be “forced” into bloom over the winter simply by bringing them inside a few weeks before use. Similarly, bulbs can be brought into bloom fairly easily, without the use of an expensive greenhouse. Small cold frames could also be used to extend the harvest of some hardy flowers in the fall, and to speed their growth in the spring.
Sure, such homegrown bouquets wouldn’t be as perfect as the store-bought ones, and we wouldn’t be able to have roses or lilies all year round; but they would probably be far more meaningful and would help to bring the community together. They would represent a real sacrifice of time and work on the part of the parishioners.
Parishes could also work with local farmers to source more sustainable flowers and greenery for the altar. Buying locally will probably cost more, but it can help to support members of the local community and ensure that the environment is being respected.
The harvest and shipment of palms for Palm Sunday can have some of the same negative impacts as the shipment of cut flowers, though on a smaller scale. Before modern refrigerated transport, churches in colder areas of the world used other kinds of branches instead of palms. If your parish’s purchase of palm fronds is supporting sustainable businesses, maybe refrigerated shipping is a good trade-off; but if not, maybe other branches would be better.
Sustainability problems affect aspects of the Catholic liturgy that are much more central than cut flowers. In the Offertory, the priest says “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” That’s a very beautiful and poetic thought. In reality, however, the hosts tend to arrive in little plastic sleeves like Ritz crackers—and 80% of hosts bought by Catholic parishes come from the Cavanaugh Company, which says that their hosts are “produced in the United States in an exceptionally clean and modern automated facility. Throughout the entire production process, the breads remain untouched by human hands.” The wheat that goes into these hosts may well have come from a factory farm that is eroding the land and poisoning local waterways.
Of course, the use of high-quality altar hosts is important. Mistakes in production can lead to hosts that are unpalatable or that fall apart. Still, many religious orders produce hosts; they aren’t impossible to make at a local level. What if parishes or dioceses had dedicated plots of land for growing the wheat and grapes, and entrusted the production of the bread and wine to local religious orders or other communities? This would allow the whole process to really become the “work of our hands and the fruit of our earth.” The planting and harvest of the wheat and the care of the grapevines could become tied to local ceremonies and festivals.
Outside of the liturgy, Catholic devotional life is marked by a proliferation of “Catholic clutter.” Holy cards and other religious items pour in through the mail, and nobody seems to be sure what to do with them. Many Catholic charities send such materials, along with address labels, note pads, tote bags, and assorted bric-a-brac, to “reward” their donors. While some people might be happy to receive such items, how many note pads and tote bags can any one household really use? These items are often printed and manufactured in China, where labor abuses are common and environmental standards are lax. Their shipping and transport is energy intensive, and most of this material quickly becomes part of the waste stream. Not only is this environmentally detrimental, but the mass production and disposal of religious images also diminishes their value. This contributes to what Neil Postman called “the great symbol drain.” Our society is awash in visual imagery, and as a result, images have ceased to have the same effect on us as they did in more traditional societies, where images were rare and therefore valued. On the household level, maybe we should initiate a writing campaign to target the worst examples of Catholic clutter mailing. At the very least, we could add our names to the national “do not mail” registries. Maybe if hundreds of people said that they wouldn’t donate unless the junk stopped coming, organizations would rethink their strategy. After all, they could easily let their donors know that such items were available for those who actually wanted them. Let me know if you’d like to help with this.
This kind of paper waste also marks Catholic parish life, where millions of disposable hymnals, worship aids, and other programs are produced and discarded every year. Some of this waste might be inevitable, but much of it could be avoided. One easy step for parishes would be to invest in non-disposable hymnals. Throwing away the same set of printed hymns each year just because they are bound together with the changing readings makes no sense at all. Permanent hymnals would save both money and resources.
This same kind of disposable mindset often applies to church buildings themselves. Church buildings are frequently renovated merely to suit the tastes or liturgical preferences of an incoming pastor. Such renovations are facilitated by the fact that church buildings are frequently built in a shoddy, disposable manner to begin with, and have no connection to the local place and the community. True sustainability of both the environment and the community needs to be planned into any new building or renovation done to church buildings. Parish and diocesan campuses could also become more sustainable through their landscaping choices; nobody needs green lawns in the desert!
Perhaps most importantly, parishes should become true hubs of local community life instead of mere drive-in destinations. This goal can be either helped or hindered by their overall design. For instance, a building marooned in an ocean of asphalt parking is far less inviting to people who happen to be walking by. Similarly, the presence of a spacious and engaging narthex leads to spontaneous community building after Mass; in the absence of such a space, parishioners are more likely to head straight for their cars. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si:
Authentic development includes efforts to bring about an integral improvement in the quality of human life, and this entails considering the setting in which people live their lives. These settings influence the way we think, feel and act. In our rooms, our homes, our workplaces and neighborhoods, we use our environment as a way of expressing our identity. …Given the interrelationship between living space and human behavior, those who design buildings, neighborhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting. It is not enough to seek the beauty of design. More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance. Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas.
In so many different ways, we could sacrifice our convenience and our accustomed ways of life as a sign of respect for the marvelous world that God has given us and as a concrete expression of love for one another. As Pope Francis says, such sacrifices are necessary. How much are we willing to sacrifice? Are we ready to dream of a better world, and make real steps in the right direction?
Image: Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash.