WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

#443: Can We Get From Paris to Peace?

The Paris attacks leave my head and heart full of jumbled thoughts and feelings.
Philippe and Marie-Paule were parked at the curb when I exited the Oberkampf Metro station into the cool November evening.  They had agreed to meet me for dinner at a small place I’d been wanting to try on the edge of Paris’ 10th and 11th arrondissements. 

We spent half an hour window shopping in the Place de la République (Marie-Paule was after shoes, and Philippe could always use another of his trademark garish ties).  Then we strolled up the Rue des 3 Bornes to the tiny triangle-shaped Place de la Fontaine Timbaud, with its modest green fountain--one of nearly 80 “Wallace Fountains” sprinkled across the city, named after the English philanthropist Richard Wallace, who financed their construction. They feature 4 sculpted female figures symbolizing “Kindness, Simplicity, Charity and Sobriety.”
La Place de la Fontaine Timbaud (fountain at left)
We took a window table facing the fountain and spent the next two hours relaxing into the rituals of French dining: three leisurely courses, with intervals long enough to enjoy the company, the venue, the conversation--and the wine.  It was a Friday evening, so we were in no rush.

The service was good, the food was decent, we loved the dessert (a very intense molten chocolate cake), and we were particularly pleased by the wine policy: after we left our second bottle of wine half-finished, our waiter took it back to the kitchen, measured the remainder--and billed us only for what we had drunk! 

It was a perfect way to start the weekend, and we gave no thought to our own safety. It was November 2008. 

But when news of last week’s Paris attacks broke, I checked the map and found what I suspected: that cool November Friday evening we were sitting 1000 feet north of the Bataclan Theater.  And the next street up from our table was the Rue de La Fontaine au Roi, where 5 diners  were killed at the Cosa Nostra pizzeria.

 Just 2 ½ blocks further west, two more restaurants (le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon) were attacked, killing 15 more diners.  In other words, we sat that quiet night almost exactly half way along a line that this week connected four of the six attack sites.  All are within ½ mile of each other, and none is more than ¼ mile from our seats. 

I guess I feel like the homeowner who returns home to discover the house has been ransacked by burglars:  I  was not there at the time of the attacks (even though I had expected to make a November visit), so I am glad to be safe--but I nonetheless feel invaded and even violated.  And I would feel this way even if no one had been killed, which of course is the principle tragedy of this event. 

In this I am like many people (including non-Parisians), who are sad for the city itself as well as for the victims. Many of us share this emotional attachment, as if Paris were a second home, and as if we, so far away and safe, nonetheless feel invaded, even violated. We feel the urge to rush "home" and embrace the wounded city and those we love there.

Canal Saint-Martin
I am especially fond of this neighborhood, just outside the Place de la République, a traditionally working class neighborhood, where my best Paris friend Philippe grew up. But it is only one block from the Canal Saint-Martin, which in recent years it has become gentrified, especially for younger Parisians attracted to its many nightspots. It also borders Belleville, which has a large Arab population.

On the hill just above those four attack sites is the Parc de Belleville. On a warm weekend day the park is full of young people smoking hookahs.
Parc de Belleville
 Strolling down the stairs through the park’s lower end, one sees clusters of Arab women in long robes and head-veils, gathered together on park benches. Five minutes further down the slope are the men, standing near the Couronnes subway stop, wearing head caps and speaking Arabic.

Signs of Arab culture are everywhere. Couscous bistros and Middle-East groceries. Travel agents offering packages to Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. Kids sporting soccer jerseys for North African and Mediterranean teams. A woman crossing the street in full-length black veil, even her face covered, holding hands with a man in white head-cap, full white robe, and basketball shoes. An Algerian pastry shop with 60 varieties of tiny pastries displayed under a glass counter. A teen-age girl wearing a full-length lavender robe over jeans, a white baseball cap, and cellular earphone. Muslim bookstores featuring religious education materials for all age groups. Tea parlors with chairs lined up with men sipping tea and smoking tall water-filled hookahs. A shop selling “Ready-to-Wear” robes and veils.

One day I noticed saw a butcher standing in his shop doorway, next to a poster advertising the “21st annual meeting of French Muslims,” sponsored by the National Union of Islamic Organizations. I noticed the conference title was written in both French and Arabic: “What is the Place for Freedom of Religion in Today’s Society?” I also noticed the conference dates had already passed.

So I introduced myself and, pleading a journalist’s interest, asked the butcher if I might have the poster. He immediately pulled it down for me, chatted amiably about the issue for a few minutes, then apologized when a voice called from within the shop.”Excuse me he said, “I must get back to my meat.”

Many "mainstream" Parisians do not even know this area, and tourists seldom see it.  Once I used a Belleville anecdote during a Parisian parish workshop. Listeners reacted with surprise: Belleville was a place they would never go.

Thus this part of Paris is a kind of symbolic venue for Euro-Arab relations.  The attacks straddled the fault line between two Paris populations, and offered a tempting, simple-minded model for the myth about terrorism that is embraced by both the terrorists themselves and many westerners on the far right.  Both agree: this is a “clash of civilizations” which requires “boots on the ground.”

This view of terror—“Islam vs. the West”—depends, of course, on ignoring the facts. 

It ignores all the Muslim victims killed last Friday. It ignores last week’s attacks in Kenya and Beirut. It ignores how much of terror does not target the west.

It depends on focusing on Paris, while ignoring Muslim on Muslim terror in Iraq, Syria, and Africa.  

One example of such ignoring: The same week when 17 Parisians were killed at Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram murdered up to 2,000 civilians in Baga, Nigeria, and a few a days later  used a 10-year old girl as a suicide bomber to kill at least 16 people.  Those tragedies commanded much less attention—as if western lives matter more. Are we surprised if the southern hemisphere concludes that we care less about their lives?  Do we really believe that sending that message helps us fight such violence?

Such a simplistic view (“Islam vs. the West”) also ignores the fact that modern terrorism is not recent at all.  It dates at least from my student days in Paris, when “the troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland from 1969 to the Good Friday accords. It ignores the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof and Munich Olympic attackers in the 1970s, the death squads in El Salvador and the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the bombers of New York (1993), and Paris (1995 and 1996), the sarin gas attacks in Japan, the Madrid bombings of 2004, U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, bombings in Bali and Mumbai, Boko Haram abductions and massacres, etc. In fact, terrorism as we know it probably dates from WWII, and has been a global problem without a solution for nearly 80 years.

Such ignorance brings bliss—specifically, in the appealing and powerful idea that we can wage and win a “war on terror.”  But if we wage war, can it lead to peace?

My long-time view is that the very idea of a “war on terror” leading to peace is a fraud. In 2003, Pope John-Paul II and virtually all the world's bishops (among others) predicted that the US invasion of Iraq would destabilize the entire region and worse. Indeed, the invasion killed 200,000, mostly civilians, created 2+ million refugees, and spawned a fanatical counter-attack—ISIS, led by Saddam's former subordinates—that is worse than Al Qaeda . Why are we shocked?

The brutal fact is that human history reveals an unending supply of people willing to employ evil tactics--even to kill the innocent--to gain their goals.  One cannot end terrorism by killing all the terrorists, because one cannot uproot from human nature its potential for evil. The “last terrorist” does not exist.

For me, the key notion is that terrorism IS a “counter-attack"--so we should start with the question: "WHY is there a counter-attack against us?" After all, solutions will eludes us as long as we insist on missing the point of that question (which is why all solutions attempted since 9/11 have only made things worse).

Nearly all terror attacks of the last century reflect the attackers’ resentment for perceived injustice.  That resentment has nearly always been fueled by poverty.  Arguably, terrorism and poverty go hand in hand: the more poverty, the more terrorism--and the less poverty, the less terror.

This premise cries out for urgent consideration.  For it implies that the trillions we spend on military invasions are futile--and worse, they preclude our chance to spend such resources on reducing poverty.  If the links between terror attacks and poverty are compelling--and I believe they are (just look at profiles of suicide bombers)--then attacking poverty becomes our number one weapon, our number one hope, against terrorism.

Pope Francis has gone even further, connecting the dots that link terrorism to all aspects of our current global crisis. He links climate change to excessive carbon emissions to a consumption-obsessed society that generates massive global inequality, which in turn breeds massive resentment that is fertile soil for recruiting terrorists.  In this view, the current global system is neither physically nor politically sustainable.  Physically, the earth has insufficient resources for the whole world to duplicate the wealthy nations’ lifestyle.  Politically, global inequality is a recipe for permanent conflict—the ongoing piecemeal violence that Francis has called “World War III.”

I think he is right.  I think terrorism reflects a global dysfunction we must face, or peace will never be possible.

And as I pray for the victims of the Paris attacks, I pray too for our leaders to stop ignoring the facts, to face reality as it is, and to lead us on a path where “Kindness, Simplicity, Charity and Sobriety” can prevail.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Monday, November 9, 2015

#442: “Spotlight” Gets the Story Right

Cast Members and the Boston Globe people they play

“Spotlight,” which portrays the Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy sex abuse, is possibly the best newspaper movie ever made.  Certainly it deserves comparison with “All The President’s Men.”  Viewer reactions will of course vary widely—but for me, this brilliant film provoked a myriad of memories.    

In 1989, as editor of the weekly  Catholic Free Press in Worcester, Massachusetts, I organized our coverage and wrote editorial comment on a sex abuse scandal at Mount Cashel Orphanage, operated by the Congregation of Christian Brothers in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.  I assumed, like many others, that this was an isolated incident.  But Owen Murphy, my editor emeritus with 34 years at the paper, assured me that it was the tip of an iceberg. 


One day in 1990 Murphy’s phone rang.  It was our bishop and publisher, Timothy Harrington, enraged that our recent annual directory for the Diocese of Worcester included the name of a priest under the heading “On Assignment Outside the Diocese.” It turned out the priest had abused a Worcester child, and the bishop had cut a deal with the family: if they would keep quiet and avoid court action, he would remove the priest, and he promised them the priest would never work with children again.  But the directory listed his location at a parish in the southwestern U.S., and the family, infuriated, had already called the bishop.  Since the bishop was our boss, Murphy apologized for embarrassing him--when the truth was we had exposed the bishop as a liar.


In 1991 my father asked me a favor.  It seems our hometown paper, the Saugus Advertiser, had printed a letter to the editor attacking a former priest of Blessed  Sacrament Parish by the name of John Geoghan. The writer accused Geoghan of molesting several altar boys, and called on the diocese and local authorities to punish him.  This upset my father, an old school Catholic who considered such letters anti-Catholic scandal mongering.  He wanted me to write a reply letter both rebutting the writer and scolding the newspaper for publishing such inflammatory “trash.”

As gently as possible, I told my father that I understood his reaction but felt it would not be prudent to write such a reply.  I pointed out cases where priests had abused children, and I said there was no reason to believe Saugus was immune to such dangers.  It was possible, I told him, that the accusations were true.  The very idea stunned my father.  He was disappointed by my reaction, but to his credit he was not disappointed in me.   
John Geoghan

Years later, of course, Geoghan was exposed as the molester of up to 100 children in six parishes, was convicted in 2002, and was subsequently beaten and strangled to death in prison in 2003.


In 1993 I wrote a short piece on clergy sex abuse for the Atlantic Monthly.  In it I reported many of the points, on a national level (and relying especially on the work of Jason Berry and Richard Sipe) that the Globe’s Spotlight Team uncovered in Boston in 2001-2002.  First, such abuse was widespread.  Second, the Church faced huge liability payments and even bankruptcies.  Third, church authorities (especially bishops) were systematically covering up the problem.  Fourth, this cover-up involved “recycling priests” to new locales where they often molested more children.  Fifth, Bishops also cut deals with families to keep cases from going public.  Sixth, the phenomenon was finally coming to light, after decades or even generations, for one reason: some Catholics, after generations of submission, were finally willing to sue the Church. (“Spotlight” portrays what happened when a newspaper decided to sue the Church.)

The Atlantic accepted my piece, paid me for it, then told me they would not publish it “for lack of space.” (Ironically, the 1993 was the same year the Boston  Globe published James L. Franklin’s piece revealing that priestly abuse in Boston parishes might be widespread.  The story was buried in the Globe’s Metro section, and it took eight more years for the full story to reach the front page.)


As “Spotlight” shows, the Globe’s 2002 stories triggered an explosion of accusations.  In one scene reporters scan a list of suspect priests.  At the top of one page is the name of my B.C. High debate coach, with whom I traveled for 20 weekends a year over a three year period.   

 Atop another page was another Saugus priest, George Rosenkrantz, whose “Marriage Encounter” workshop my wife and I had once attended at Blessed Sacrament. He was also giving away
George Rosenkrantz
some of his library; my bookshelves still have books bearing his signature.  A third abuser worked with me when I ran the Religious Education Program at Saint Ambrose Parish in Dorchester.  Many church workers like me gave our trust to priests who were molesting children.  We also feel betrayed, though our suffering cannot compare with that of the survivors.


But perhaps my most vivid memory came the week in January 2002 when the Spotlight team’s story hit the headlines.  That week my work included conducting a retreat day for a parish staff whose pastor, Father Jack, was an old family friend from his days as a young priest in Saugus.  The Globe story overwhelmed our planned agenda, and became the day’s central topic.  

 During the long sharing we learned that many staffers knew victims, often family members.  But the bombshell was Fr. Jack’s own confession of triple suffering.  First, he told us what he had never told anyone: that he had himself been abused in the 1940s by a seminary professor, and chose to say nothing because he believed (1) no one would believe him and (2) he would be expelled.  Second, he was assigned to St. Margaret’s in Saugus in 1950 to assist the new pastor, who was replacing a molesting priest (that man was exiled to Ireland for “penance” but later would be recycled to another Boston parish).  The new priests had two orders: clean up the mess, and keep it quiet.  They did—so Jack was silent a second time.  Third, in the 1960s Jack became chaplain at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, where much of his work was spiritual counseling and confessions.  He found himself counseling students who reported being abused by their pastor at nearby St. Ann’s in West Bridgewater.  It happened that St. Ann’s pastor was the very same priest who had abused Fr. Jack in seminary nearly 20 years before!  Jack could only pray that his silence was not the reason more kids were suffering.

But Jack’s silence ended that retreat day in January 2002, and later that week he told his family for the first time.

At the end of the day, Jack drove me to the nearby station for my train back to Boston.  Waiting for the train in his car, we spoke of the day and his feelings.  He admitted feeling relieved to finally get the truth (and its heavy burden) off his chest.  He expressed hope that more people would speak up.  He proclaimed his own goal to get his abuser’s name removed from the front of St. Ann’s parish center.  (To my knowledge, that name remains on the building to this day).  But amid all these cathartic emotions, he seethed with anger at the Boston Globe for parading the Church’s shame as front page news, in full public view.  In his eyes, it was high time to tell the truth, but it was the business of individuals and families and parishes--not newspapers.  Some of his venom, I knew, was rooted in a common perspective that the Globe was anti-Catholic.

I could not not reply.  “But after all, Jack,” I said, “the Globe is just doing its job.  This story is the Church’s fault, not theirs.  And, to tell you the truth, this is just the kind of public service investigative reporting that wins Pulitzer Prizes.”

Naturally, Jack was not happy to hear that--but I was right: the Globe Spotlight Team got its Pulitzer. The movie shows how they earned it.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

#441: An All Souls’ Souvenir

I’ve chosen to share a personal “souvenir” from one All Souls’ Day past. 
I am writing this on All Souls’ Day--a sort of poor stepchild among Catholic feasts.  All Saints’ Day on November 1 has long been a day of required worship for Catholics, whereas All Souls’ Day on November 2 is not.  And now that Halloween has emerged as a major commercial event even for grownups, All Souls’ Day ends up as the invisible tail-end of this 3-day observance. But for me, the tail wags the dog.
All Saints’ is of course dedicated to the honoring of Catholicism’s Hall of Fame: those whose heroic lives made them memorable for future generations.  And All Hallows’ Eve became the popular way of remembering that no one gets to heaven (or hell) without dying first.  But if All Saints’ was about the elites and Halloween was about the buried, All Souls’ was about the ordinary folks who had gone before us and whose prayers we both offered and sought.  In that sense, All Souls’ was the day we venerated, not our heroes, but our ordinary ancestors. It was the people’s feastday.

During the visit of Pope Francis to New York City in September, the television cameras panned over the newly renovated St. Patrick’s Cathedral while media commentators giddily detailed its décor, including the numerous side altars where, in former days, multiple priests would say private Masses simultaneously.  In fact, on All Souls’ Day, priests were allowed the exceptional privilege of saying three masses in one day--often three private masses in a row!
One of the Side Altars
And so the pope’s first visit to New York City reminded me of my own first visit to New York at the age of 14.  I had arrived the day before, November 1, with my father, who was attending an important union conference, and when we woke up in our hotel he announced we were going to All Souls’ Day Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

But my father did not intend to be a simple tourist, nor even an ordinary pew-dweller.  His plan was to fulfill an old altar boy’s lifelong dream: to serve Mass in New York’s great gothic cathedral.  As we entered there were perhaps 20 priests saying private masses at the side altars while the main altar remained empty.  First he installed me at one side altar where a priest was just beginning Mass, then he went off to find a Mass of his own. 

I had been trained in the “old Latin Mass,” and made my way fairly routinely through the call-and-response typical of that liturgical form.  This priest moved through the Mass fairly rapidly, and within 20 minutes or so he was returning back down from the altar for what were customarily the final prayers in English.
 Old-Style private Latin Mass at a side altar
But then he caught me by surprise, because he began in Latin the “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar” that begin the Mass.  I suddenly realized that he was starting over!  The immediate sensation was of being trapped: if this man planned to say three consecutive Masses, I could be stuck here for some time.
But as the priest moved back up to the altar to begin the first readings, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.  Turning my head, I saw my father beckoning me to come.  I assumed this meant I had permission to leave, so with some relief I got up and walked to him, thinking it was time for breakfast.
Instead, my father’s glowing eyes hinted at a different message, as his arm reached out and pointed toward the main altar.

“There is a priest getting ready to say Mass at the main altar!” he whispered.  “This is your chance!  Go!” His urgent command was clearly non-negotiable.
And so it was that, on my very first visit to New York City, on my very first morning in New York City, I found myself serving Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in the very spot where, just one month ago this year, Pope Francis presided.
Main Altar in 1960
Vatican Council II was underway, but its reforms were yet to be announced. So aside from the venue, the Mass felt just like any other weekday Mass: an intimate sort of exchange between the priest and the altar boy, with the other worshippers invisible and silent behind us.  I did not even know how many there were.  So I quickly relaxed into the familiar routine until the moment approached when I prepared to ring the altar bells for the first time.
Looking down to my side, I saw no bells.  There was a stick with a large white felt ball stuck to its end.  There was also a brass-colored, metal-dome-shaped something, standing on a 1-foot tall white marble pedestal.  Thinking it might be a bell, I tried to lift it, but it was attached to the pedestal.  Thinking next that there might be some way to ring it in place, I reached as discreetly as I could underneath to feel for a clapper.  But I felt no clapper.  In fact, I could feel no moving parts at all.
With about three minutes to go before bell-ringing time, a slow panic began to set in.  How could I ring the bells without a bell?  How could this thing with no moving parts supply the sound that I was supposed to make?
That slow panic kept rising within me for the next two minutes when, with about a minute to go, the corner of my eye saved me again. 
For off in the periphery of my vision was someone who appeared to be a younger priest, dressed in a white robe, gesturing with his eyes locked on me.  I turned my head, and looked directly at him.  His right arm swung out to the right, his palm out in an underhanded gesture, and then his arm swung back rapidly to a position directly in front of him.  He repeated this gesture three more times before I realized what I was seeing: he was imitating someone sharply hitting the side of the brass thing in front of me with the stick. 
I had no idea who this man really was, or if he knew what he was gesturing about, but I was desperate enough to trust him.  What else could I do?  Do nothing, and risk humiliating myself at the main altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral when the priest celebrating Mass would swing around, glaring at me for the silence I had committed?
No way.  Instead, I picked up the stick, and when the moment came, I swung out to my right arm and brought it sharply back onto the side of the brass thing next to my knees.
For one instant, I felt my effort had been futile.  For one instant, nothing happened.  Then, softly, almost stealthily, a steady tone began to emanate from the brass thing.  As the volume of this single tone grew, I realized what I had done: I had rung, not a bell, but a gong!
Success!  I thought.  But then I realized that tone had not ended.  Far from it.  In fact, it was growing in volume to fill a wider and wider area of the cathedral’s space.  No bell-ringing I had ever done in all my career as an altar boy had ever made such a long, ever-louder noise!
Was I supposed to stop it?  Put my hand on it?  Put the stick on it?  Was it really supposed to get louder and louder for so long?
I turned my head again, and saw the young priest quietly nodding his head and smiling with satisfaction.  The message was unmistakable: this is exactly what is supposed to be happening right now
So I was suddenly able to relax, and for the first time I appreciated what I had done and why.  Ordinary hand bells, I realized, would sound distant in the cathedral no matter how large and loud.  But this gong was sending its single tone to the furthest reaches of the cathedral. 
THIS was the unmistakable sound of the main altar at the high point of the Mass.  THIS was the sound that would command the attention of all the worshipers and tourists and even all of the priests saying their private masses at their private altars.  It was the Big Gong that made THIS Mass, on this altar, the center of the cathedral’s universe--and I was the one who had rung it!
Over the next few minutes I got to repeat my feat several times. But 30 minutes later the Mass was over, and the priest graciously and generously thanked me-- expressing some surprise that his altar server was a Bostonian, not a New Yorker. 
My father soon joined me and, as he congratulated me, I felt a father’s love in a special way.  For while he was delighted that I had had this opportunity, I knew without doubt that he had sacrificed his own opportunity by giving it to me. He had realized his dream of serving Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and that was a memory he would always treasure.  But perhaps the memory he would treasure more was witnessing his young son, on his first New York visit, kneeling to ring the Big Gong at Saint Patrick’s main altar.
So while All Souls’ Day may remain a poor stepchild in the three-day observance October 31 – November 2, for me it will always remain a special memory of a special place, a special opportunity, and a special man.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Friday, October 30, 2015

#440: Our Faith Is Going “Green”--And We Can Help!

It was one of those weeks when separate events converge to signal a trend that touches us all. 
The Washington Post just reported that representatives of Catholic Bishops “from around the globe” signed an appeal calling on next month’s UN climate conference in Paris to “approve a ‘transformative’ and legally binding agreement that set the global temperature limits.” This appeal reinforces the campaign of Pope Francis to protect “our common home.”

The Post also reported a study in the journal Nature Climate Change warning that five major Persian Gulf cities could become physically “uninhabitable” (due to heat) by the end of the century.

And the Boston Globe reported interesting data from the U.S. Census Bureau.  In the 2005-2014 decade, the number of Bostonians commuting to work by bike tripled.  Public transit commuting also increased, as did walking to work and working at home.  The only decrease: people driving to work.

Reading that last report, I thought first of my own past.  I bike-commuted to downtown Boston for 10 summers (except rainy days), 1978-1987.  I had also commuted by bike across Boston’s north shore while in college for two summer jobs, and then biked to my senior year classes from off-campus.  On one of those bikes I mounted a small green-and-white mini license plate that read “Non-Polluting Vehicle.”

Thinking back, it occurs to me that I was emulating two older role models.  The first was John McGrath, a 60+ co-worker who rode his three-speed bike to General Electric’s West Lynn (Massachusetts) plant every day. The second was my own father, who rode his bike 6 miles to GE’s Everett (Massachusetts) point in his 40s and 50s.

These men were thinking “economizing” and “exercise,’ not “ecology”--but their example remains for me today.  And my son Chris often gets to his La Jolla (California) job by bike--a 3rd generation “cyclo-commuter” !

What do all these things signal?  Three things, I think: (1) The consensus on the man-made threat to our environment is now so strong that only people in denial can doubt it; (2) The Catholic Church is now throwing its weight squarely behind the push to reduce carbon emissions; (3) Pope Francis has made this push a moral imperative even for individuals and families. As Francis wrote in his encyclical “Laudato Si”:

A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products…This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.” Today, in a word, “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.”

For Catholics, this means reflecting on actions within our control.  As Francis says:

We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other…Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society.

The point is not for all of us to take up cycling (my trip to my client on Martha’s Vineyard, for example, is 70+ miles overland, plus a 45-minute boat trip—too far to bike!).  No, the point is to ask: “what is possible for me? How can I adjust my way of life to make it more sustainable, more eco-friendly?  How can I take some stewardship for our common home?” In  Francis’ words, it is about building new habits:

An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits. Many people know that our current progress and the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them...A milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits. We are faced with an educational challenge…Yet this education, aimed at creating an “ecological citizenship,” is at times limited to providing information, and fails to instill good habits... Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.

It’s easy to misunderstand this challenge.  When I told a recent group that Vatican City became the world’s first carbon neutral state by buying up a large forest, many investors were skeptical.  “That doesn’t even reduce their energy use!” They said. 

True enough--but no one can live modern life by reducing their carbon emissions to zero.  Even all-electric cars mostly depend on power generated by burning fossil fuels, since hydro and wind-generated electricity (“clean electricity”) still supplies less than half our power.  Nearly everything we buy, even food, has been produced, directly or indirectly, by burning carbon--and has burned more carbon while shipping to the store.  Many homes would go dark and unheated and/or uncooled without carbon emissions, and without  burning carbon all our batteries would fail to recharge.

No, the reduction of our carbon footprint is a more complex challenge.  To become “carbon neutral” means balancing carbon emissions with carbon absorption.  This requires both reducing carbon emissions and increasing offsetting measures.  So the Vatican’s forest, for example, will absorb as much carbon (trees do it naturally, of course) as Vatican City emits.  By buying the forest, those trees are preserved for that purpose. 

For us, such balancing must be done on a case-by-case basis.  There are many ways we can reduce emissions.  We can convert our heating, cooling, and cars away from carbon-burning fuels.  We can alter our thermostats: lower for heating, higher for cooling.  We can drive less, we can use more public transportation, conserve the electricity used by our appliances, lights, and machinery.  Some of us can convert to solar or wind power. We can shop locally more to reduce shipping emissions.  Many online sites provide tips for planning ways to reduce our domestic carbon footprint.

But in addition to reducing emissions, we can also boost carbon absorption to offset our emissions and bring our carbon footprint closer to zero. One obvious way is to plant trees:

According to the Urban Forestry Network, a single young tree absorbs 13 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. That amount will climb up to 48 pounds annually as trees mature. Just one 10-year-old tree releases enough oxygen into the air to support two human beings.

In my case, for example, two young dogwood trees were planted on our property the year before we bought it. They joined another 7 trees on our plot. Without actually calculating the benefits, we know these trees offset some of our emissions.

It’s also possible to support offsets remotely, as Vatican City did:

This is done by purchasing ‘carbon credits’ from accredited companies which offer this service, who will then invest those dollars in (for instance) renewable energy projects or planting trees. (from the website Mashable)

Most experts believe it’s impossible to offset all the planet’s current emissions. But one eco-conscious site, Brave New Climate, suggests our efforts can still serve a spiritual purpose:

Carbon offsets should definitely not be seen as the solution, or as a relatively pain-free way to expel your carbon guilt. There is nowhere near enough offsetting potential in the world for this to be an option for most of the world’s population. But in conjunction with other methods of kicking the CO2 habit, offsets can help make a difference and allow you to pay a small penance.

PENANCE! Imagine using such an old Catholic term for our eco-efforts. But it makes perfect sense: our common home is struggling, not by accident, but because our way of life is exhausting its resources, and even depriving others of resources they need.

In short, our ecological crisis poses a moral imperative because it comes from a moral failure. As Pope Francis explains in his critical reading of Genesis:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

In other words, the failure to understand Genesis provided past excuses for mistreating the planet. This may not be our own moral failure, but the failure of past generations of whom we are heirs. In that sense, “going green” CAN be seen as a “small penance” for the sins of our ancestors—and a commitment to leave our childrens’s children’s children a “common home” that is more respectful of God’s great gifts.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015