Pope's encyclical brings 'new hope' to Catholics at diocesan environmental forum

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PROVIDENCE — A crowd from around the diocese gathered in McVinney Auditorium last Thursday evening to hear leading scientists and theologians present on the state of environmental affairs in Rhode Island and the appropriate Catholic response at “Lessons from Laudato Si’: On Climate and the Common Good.”

The forum, hosted by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and the Office of Faith Formation and moderated by environmental columnist William Patenaude, was organized to facilitate discussion of Pope Francis’s groundbreaking environmental encyclical among Rhode Island Catholics. The June document critiques the “throwaway culture” of contemporary society and the adverse effects of environmental deterioration on the world’s poor and vulnerable from a perspective of Catholic environmental and social ethics.

“The program tonight is the beginning of our first steps in discussing and implementing ‘Laudato Si’,’” said Bishop Tobin during his opening address.

The evening opened with presentations by two prominent voices in the local scientific community, Dr. Malcolm Spaulding, professor emeritus of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, and David Vallee, hydrologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service’s Northeast River Forecast Center. Dr. Spaulding discussed sea level rise and coastal flooding due to climate change, while Vallee addressed the rising frequency of extreme weather events in and around Rhode Island.

“Life is a whole lot different now than when I was a kid kicking a ball around in West Warwick,” said Vallee, a Rhode Island native. “And it scares me because we’re seeing impacts now that I never thought we’d see in my lifetime.”

According to Dr. Spaulding, rapid sea level rise around Rhode Island – scientists project Narragansett Bay will rise seven feet from its current level by 2100 – will wreak havoc with the state’s infrastructure, posing problems for both residents and natural ecosystems. Rhode Island’s coastal location makes it particularly vulnerable to the altered flooding patterns that result from climate change, a point Vallee expanded upon.

“Never before have we seen such a rapid fire pattern in these massive flood events in the New England area,” he said.

Vallee pointed out that the region has already experienced the impact of shifting weather patterns during events like last winter’s storms and the historic flooding of 2010. He shared a photo he took from the steps of St. Joseph Church, West Warwick, in May of 2010 of an inundated CVS parking lot.

“New England has become a hotspot for record floods and heavy rainfall in the past ten years,” he said.

Following the scientific presentations, the evening transitioned into theology as the remaining speakers answered the call of “Laudato Si’” by reflecting upon the ethical Catholic response to the data. Keynote speaker Dr. Jame Schaefer described how academic and scientific research provide an important backdrop to the theological conversation, as Catholic social teaching requires a foundation of both faith and reason.

“Everything is connected. Everything is interrelated,” she said. “And we need to tend to all aspects of knowing in order to address ecological issues because of the ramifications that they do have for us.”

She echoed Pope Francis in warning of too much dependence on science and technology, pointing out that technology alone cannot solve the current environmental predicament. Instead, she urged the Catholic concept of “integral ecology,” an approach to God, the environment and each other that seeks to repair the human relationship with all three.

“Our human dignity is at risk if we do not address these issues,” she said.

The final speaker for the evening, Dr. Dana Dillon, described how the relationship between humans and the earth goes back to the biblical creation story and is an important part of our relationship with God.

“What it means to be human is to be created out of earth, on the earth, to care for the earth and each other,” she said. “To move each other forward toward union with God.”

Following the presentations, audience members had the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers. When one participant asked whether a Catholic could in good conscience disagree with the encyclical on projects such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline that promise jobs in the immediate future, Dr. Dillon warned against falling into the political trap of either/or thinking that makes a long-term solution mutually beneficial to all seem impossible.

“[Jobs and the environment] are like two pieces of low hanging fruit, and we think those are our two choices,” she said. “We need to imagine a third, fourth or fifth choice for the good of each and the good of all.”

Audience members were engaged throughout the presentation, taking notes and asking questions of the speakers. Many participants, like Elizabeth Reardon of Christ the King Parish, Kingston, planned to implement the Catholic teachings described at the parish level.

“I read a lot about [the encyclical] as it was coming out,” she said. “For me, it inspired me with new hope for the Church and for the earth.”

Reardon and fellow parishioner Mike Marran serve on the Peace and Justice Committee and Stewardship Council, respectively, at Christ the King, where initiatives are already underway to reduce the parish’s environmental footprint. The church building underwent a “green audit” to assess its energy efficiency, and Reardon and Marran hope the pope’s encyclical will spark interest in other green initiatives among parishioners.

“Part of this is the challenge to figure out how we respond as individuals and a parish to the pope’s challenge,” said Marran. “How to give that knowledge to parishioners to do that in their own homes.”