(Dateline: June 21, 2016)
Saturday, June 18 marked the one year anniversary of the release of an encyclical that was intended to get the entire world, especially the Roman Catholic world, talking about and taking action on climate change as a moral imperative.
About a month before the anniversary I asked a diocesan official if Bishop Zubik would be doing a special event to mark the anniversary of Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis’ path breaking encyclical about climate change. Here is what she said:
“Typically, the Church marks significant anniversaries of Papal Encyclicals, such as the 25th or the 50th” she said, adding this: “I am not sure of definitive plans at this point.”
“I wish you the very best in your noble endeavor to care for God’s creation,” she said.
All across the world in the week leading up to the anniversary, and especially in poor communities likely to be hit hardest and first by climate change, Catholics gathered as part of the Global Catholic Climate Movement to mark the anniversary, committing to take action toward sustaining the planet for future generations. However, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh there will be no such public acknowledgement of the anniversary of Laudato Si’ according to the diocesan official with whom I have been communicating for several months.
An Associate General Secretary of the General Secretariat of the Diocese of Pittsburgh had called me into her office last February after I circulated to parishes in the diocese a blog post about the experience I had at St. James Catholic Church in Sewickley.
My pastor at St. James had told me emphatically “end of discussion” as I pressed him on why we could not have a study group on Laudato Si’ or a sermon or two about it. He said that he would preach on the subject only when the Bishop and the Vicars of the diocese told him to do so.
Obviously the topic is a sensitive one in an area built on fossil fuels. This region of western Pennsylvania is going full bore on building a new cracker plant in Monaca and stringing pipelines to carry fracked gas to export terminals to sell it abroad. These kinds of economic development projects will lock in dangerous and polluting shale gas extraction for the next 50 years.
Many people in fossil fuel industries are pillars of their local Catholic parishes and major contributors to church coffers, so this is a sensitive topic indeed.
When we met six months ago, the official and I started our meeting with prayer, and we ended it with prayer. In between we talked about how the diocesan website resources on Laudato Si’ were good insofar as their content, although (in my view) were not enough to reach the people of the diocese.
“Who reads the diocesan website?” I asked. “Where is the Bishop Zubik’s letter on the encyclical to be read from the pulpits?” We brainstormed about how the bishop might make an address to Catholic schoolchildren to communicate the essential themes of the Pope’s encyclical. That was encouraging.
Then she sent me away with some pastoral letters that the bishop had sent to parishes of the diocese as examples of his leadership. I read through those. I searched the PDFs for a single mention of climate change. Nothing there.
Next came weeks of silence as I pressed the official about marking the anniversary with an event to be convened by Bishop Zubik, as we had discussed. Finally she answered that the bishop did have the Vicar General share information with pastors to assist them in marking the anniversary.
I asked her if I could see the email that the Vicar General had sent out, but she was not at liberty to share it. “Is it a state secret?” I asked her, but now she has gone silent again.
As to the answer she did give me, the problem with marking the encyclical’s anniversary at 25 years from its release (2040) is that the planet is warming rapidly. “We are currently headed into uncharted waters when it comes to the rate of climate change we are now seeing” says Michael Mann at Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. Arctic warming is expected to rise by 1.1°F per decade by 2040. Sea levels will continue to rise and cause widespread flooding and loss of coastlines.
“Present climate is warming to a level associated with significant polar ice-sheet loss in the past.” Dr. Andreas Dutton, a geochemist at the University of Florida, states that “Once these ice sheets start to melt, the changes become irreversible.”
It is time, past time, for Bishop Zubik to do his own pastoral letter on climate change. Pope Francis needs his help. We all need his leadership.