“As for the seed sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:22)
Hundreds of world leaders just met last month in Paris to discuss climate change. They came up with a framework for continued discussion and action to limit dangerous warming of the Earth’s life-sustaining climate.
However, at one Catholic parish in the wealthy Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, PA, where you can still find natural gas lanterns burning 24/7 at the entry sidewalk to homes, there will be no discussion of climate change anytime soon.
St. James Parish, the church that announces itself as “the love of Christ in the heart of Sewickley” has other things to do with Christ’s love than discuss the issue of which Pope Francis has said: “If I may use a strong word, I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”
After repeated entreaties to the church’s pastor Father Thomas Burke to allow me to help form a discussion group on the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’, the word came down to me emphatically:
“End of discussion. I was ordained a priest not to be an environmentalist,” he told me.
I do not think he meant it quite the way his grammar indicated, but in his own way he spoke a real truth. Priests are not normally prepared by their training in a manner that they might hear the message of Laudato Si’. This may be especially true of priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where fossil fuels and industries built upon fossil fuels have been kings of the economy, and thus essential to the collection plate, for more than a hundred years.
Sewickley swarms with Cadillac Escalades, GMC Yukons, Hummers, Mercedes Benz sedans and SUVs, Audis and BMWs. It is quite a bit like one big open air luxury car showroom, which makes it a veritable thicket of fossil-fuel-nourished thorns among which the seed of the Pope’s climate change encyclical must try to grow.
The U.S. Congressman Keith Rothfus (R) lives across Walnut Street from the church’s rectory and is a prominent member of the parish. What is his view about climate change? “I do not believe it’s man-made and I am not convinced that it is a fact.”
He “believes” this despite NASA science that “The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since 1880… (and) the 10 warmest years in the instrumental record…have now occurred since 2000.” Just recently the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2015 is ending up even hotter than 2014. NASA and NOAA may have the facts, but the Congressman has his beliefs, none of which are likely to be challenged at the church he attends.
My dialogue with Father Tom began in March 2015 when I read the church’s pastoral plan and saw no mention at all of addressing climate change. As we communicated, I discovered a decent and gentle man, a good shepherd of his flock, but one who was not going to take the lead on a contentious issue like climate change that might offend some of his parishioners.
Father Tom told me: “We had our recent Vicariate Meeting with Bishop Zubik and our focus right now with the Priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh is ‘On Mission for the Church Alive!’ in which parishes are starting to work together to look at ministries and staff and clergy distribution. If I get a directive from Bishop Zubik to focus on environment issues or to preach on the Pope’s Letter, then I will do what I am asked from my superiors. My main task is to focus on parish life and the liturgy and evangelization.”
“What about what the Pope is saying?” I asked. Imagine the evangelizing power of a church taking the lead on climate change to save God’s Creation for future generations. Is not saving future generations of earthly species, including humankind, as pro-life as we can get?
Instead Congressman Rothfus’ wife will be leading a bus of parishioners who will go to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. on January 22 to defend the unborn. The bus is likely to be packed, yet as much as they are sincere about protecting the unborn already gestating, will they even think of these words from Pope Francis?
“The children who die of hunger or from bombings, the immigrants who drown in search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden; the victims of terrorism, wars, violence, and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters.”
This is not likely a legislative agenda that her husband Congressman Rothfus will support.
I looked into what Father Tom told me is the priority of the Pittsburgh Diocese. “The Church Alive!” at its heart is a capital campaign, something which all institutions do. It supports many good programs and services like Catholic Charities. However, it seems not to intersect at all with the Pope’s encyclical that is primarily about social justice in a world deteriorating from human greed, a world dying from our excessive and selfish emissions of greenhouse gases.
At this moment there is no effort to educate the clergy and adult Catholics in the Pittsburgh diocese about climate change. Something really big appears to be missing from the priorities of the diocese. It is not the fault of Father Tom; let me be clear about that. He is a good guy by just about any metric of what a pastor should be.
A priest at Duquesne University wrote to Bishop Zubik on June 29, 2015 asking how the Diocese planned to make the content of Laudato Si’ known throughout the parishes. It took until November 3, 2015 (4 months!) for the Director of the Diocese’s Office of Marriage, Family and Life (an odd choice) to respond to the priest by noting the Laudato Si’ resources that the Diocese has posted on its website, including a memo from the bishop.
Basically the Diocese was saying that they had touched that base and no more needed to be done.
In lieu of any action by Bishop Zubik, some priests took it upon themselves to hand-deliver copies of the encyclical to the parishes in the Diocese – a mission of spiritual mendicancy to beg the pastors to take a look at what the Pope was saying. I cannot think of another papal encyclical that became a beggar’s burden to distribute.
Bishop David Zubik’s priests are awaiting his leadership on Laudato Si.’ The seriousness of the climate change issue that compelled the world’s leaders to gather in Paris requires more than the one memo about the Pope’s encyclical that Bishop Zubik published on the Diocese’s website. When will we hear from him? When will his priests be directed to make sure every Catholic knows how to access the resources for study and reflection that he has posted on his website? Would it be too much to ask for a letter to be read from the pulpits at Mass?
CONTACT: J. Stephen Cleghorn, PhD
Currently worships at St. James Parish
Cell – 814-932-6761