Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Interview with William Patenaude, Author of Catholic Ecology

In the coming weeks, I will share with you interviews with three writers on issues of sustainability and faith.  As my readers know, I work within the nexus of science and policy.  However, science and policy can only do so much to try to deal with the environmental issues we are facing.  Our broader culture has a great influence on the planet in ways that transcend any type of policy directive we can try to bring forward.  Religion is a great way to examine the environment and the human condition.

William Patenaude, author of
Catholic Ecology.
Today's interview is with William Patenaude, the writer of the blog, Catholic Ecology. William is an environmental regulator with a Master of Arts in theology. His thesis examined the influences of St. Bonaventure on Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. In 2010 he was inducted into the Theta Alpha Kappa honor society for theological studies. Most recently he presented at the 2012 International Congress on Medieval Studies. Bill is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island in mechanical engineering. He is a 24-year employee with Rhode Island's Department of Environmental Management, for which he has received numerous state and federal awards. Since 2004, Bill has been writing “Catholic Ecology” for the Rhode Island Catholic. He also writes about Catholicism and social commentary for local and national publications, including Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insights. Bill has most recently completed his new book Catholic Ecology: Its place in Orthodoxy, a Culture of Life, and the New Evangelization. Mr. Patenaude is also a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

1.  Your blog, Catholic Ecology, has an interesting mix of science, policy, and Catholic teaching on the environment.  How do you think the Catholic Church adds to the discussion on the environment?

Good question. First, I’d note the importance of recognizing how the Church is described as being universal—that’s the origin of the word catholic (“καθολικός” in Greek, an adjective meaning “universal.”) The Church has been around for just under 2,000 years. She’s seen all sorts of cultures and nations rise and fall around her for all sorts of reasons. So the Church brings to the table an immense memory about humanity’s choices and the consequences thereof.

Photo by Mario Gomez.
In our own age, the Church is present most everywhere on the planet. And even for all the faults of individual Catholics, the Church remains respected in lots of circles. Many nations consider it valuable to maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican and many scientists appreciate the work done by Church organs such as the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And so the Church can hold a unique place in discussing global sustainability.

Interestingly, the Church’s voice in ecological issues benefits from the same sorts of teachings that often result in criticism against it. Within her teachings, the Church speaks about the need for restraint and self-control. The virtue of temperance comes to mind. These are consistent themes in Catholic teachings and they impact all areas in which human beings exist and interact with each other and with the entire cosmos. So whether we’re speaking of individual sexual mores, social welfare, or the over-consumption of Earth’s resources, the Church wishes to offer a word about the laws of nature, which we ignore at our peril. These laws exist within natural ecological systems and they exist within what Blessed John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis call “human ecology”—that is, how humans relate to each other, the entirety of creation, and with God. The consistency of these messages about individual responsibility offer important insights to the many social and environmental issues that governments and private organizations sometimes struggle with.

2.  You are have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, but you also have a masters in theology.  This is a very unlikely combination.  What moved you to get a masters in theology and how have these two degrees influenced how you see the world?

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
I was raised Catholic and left the Church when I was 15, after receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. As a young man I was extremely interested in science and I wrongly thought that Church was not. I was also influenced by the culture around me and I didn’t get many answers that satisfied my questions in my religious education experience. So I wandered. I was an atheist for a brief time; also an agnostic. I dabbled in pagan religions. This all happened in high school and during my studies in engineering, as well as my twenties and early thirties. Then, fourteen years ago, I met a joyful priest that let me ask all sorts of questions, as engineers will do. This priest introduced me to other priests and laity that enjoyed chatting about my questions and concerns. Hearing their thoughtful and informed answers, I began to see an inner logic and a historical continuity within the Church that no one had taught me before (or if they had, I hadn’t paid attention.) I reentered the Church and developed a passion to learn and teach all this “new” information. Eventually it made sense to do this formally. I am blessed that Providence College—run by the Dominican Order—is in my backyard and that they have a wonderful graduate theology program. And so I entered knowing that I would need a master’s degree if I wanted to keep writing on Church issues.

My engineering and theology degrees actually have much in common. One educated me about what we know of the laws of nature and how to be mindful of these laws as we go about building earthly cities. The other educated me about what has been revealed to the human race about God and how we can be mindful of that as we seek to build a more just, merciful, loving, and sustainable world here on earth. Moreover, the training in logic that I received in my engineering studies helped me with the logic needed in studying theology. (Seminaries, for instance, train future priests in philosophy and logic before they study theology.) 

3.  You are an expert on the writings of Pope Benedict the XVI.  Many people do not know that he wrote quite a bit about the environment, nature, and creation.  Can you briefly summarize some of his contributions to the modern discourse on the environment in the church?

Photo by Mario Gomez.
Summarizing Benedict is both impossible (because he was so prolific) and at the same time quite simple. The overriding theme of his life is preaching that God is love, which we read in the New Testament’s 1 John (chapter 4, verse 16). The first Christians used a Greek term for love that was rarely used in the first century. This term meant love that sacrifices—that gives itself away so that the other may live. There is a lot to unpack here. But given today’s crises—ecological and otherwise—it’s easy to see that loving sacrificially is necessary to live in a sustainable fashion. Benedict XVI deconstructs all this in his three major letters to the Church. The first is titled just that, “God is Love.” The second is on hope. The third, “Love/Charity in Truth” looks more formally at how Christian themes impact people, cultures, nations, and ecosystems.

Elsewhere, Benedict XVI taught us that this love must reorient our “interior attitudes” so that we can live in a more sustainable, charitable way. There’s lots more to say about all this, clearly. But that’s the short answer.

4.  Pope Francis has made many statements about the environment since he became Pontiff.  Plus, his simple style and directives have made a number of Catholics take note about the change of tone in the leadership of the church.  You wrote about one of his statements in your blog post on his critique of our modern culture of waste here:  http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/2013/06/pope-francis-culture-of-waste-requires.html.  For my readers who don't know anything about Pope Francis, what should they know about his views on the environment and sustainability?

Photo by Mario Gomez.
There’s an unfortunate sense that Pope Francis is a huge departure from Benedict XVI. Putting aside style and personality, that is simply not the case. They both teach us the same things. As for formal teachings on ecology, those began bubbling to the surface with Pope Paul VI in the 1960s. John Paul II repeatedly elevated the issue in ways that most never would have expected. And then a great many were surprised when Benedict XVI did the same, incorporating them more deeply into Catholic theology and social thought. Now early on in his pontificate, Pope Francis is doing the same. And really, this should come as no surprise. Ecological issues are real; they relate to issues like life, justice, and virtue that deeply concern the Church. Pope Francis has seen the destruction done by man’s seemingly insatiable appetites in a unique way in South America. He’s seen how these issues connect with issues of poverty and social justice—not to mention salvation. And so he can build off the work of his predecessors as he maintains the challenge for humanity to change our ways—to sacrifice—or suffer very serious consequences.

5.  What does the Catholic Church teach one individually about living a more environmentally-friendly life?

Living a sustainable, environmentally friendly life is really just part of the Church’s desire for individual holiness. As we see in the lives of the saints, holiness implies virtuous living, and virtuous living means temperate, sober lifestyles. This does not mean that we don’t enjoy the beauty and goodness of creation. It means we do so in moderation so that this goodness and beauty can be passed along to future generations. If your aim is to be holy, you’ll be working to protect creation whether you want to or not.

6.  While teaching about environmental policy in universities, we often focus on the government actions and well-known non-profits that drive policy such as The Sierra Club or The Center for Biological Diversity.  Churches are not particularly well-known for driving environmental policy.  Of course there are some well-known exceptions and I don't want readers to think that faith based organizations aren't concerned about the environment.  But overall, how do you think churches can contribute to the development of environmental policy?

Photo by Mario Gomez.
First, Christians need a culture that allows us a voice in public affairs, and I believe that of late just the opposite is happening. We must be allowed to offer the fullness of our teachings on what it means to be human and what it means to be holy. Most importantly, for believers, the Church offers a place for communal connections with divinity—with God’s grace—because God seeks to be in relation with the human family. As I know firsthand, elevating our personal natures is not easy. We really do need God and a family to help us with this.

In addition, from my previous answer I’d stress that the Church’s encouragement of holiness can bring about what John Paul II called an “ecological conversion” on an individual and communal level—and that can have major impacts on cultures. But these teachings can only be offered. There is an old saying that you cannot legislate morality. Unlike any other assembly of people, churches can help people connect with a moral foundation that includes a radical care for the created order, but we really cannot force it (or any of our views) on others.

7.  What are the roots of environmentalism in the Catholic Church?  How far back does it go?

Photo by Mario Gomez.
It goes back to the beginning—to those early mystics within the nascent people of Israel who recorded (orally at first and then in writing) that in the beginning God created everything good and orderly. Hebrew Scriptures are a love story about God’s relationship with humanity and the entire cosmos. It’s a revelation about the innate goodness of all creation. What we often don’t appreciate is how this message was a radical addition to human thought made by the early Jewish people. All around them—in ancient Babylon and Assyria—much more powerful nations taught that evil existed before the creation of the world. The Jewish people, inspired by God within human history, said no to this. Interestingly, this teaching on the goodness of creation that we find in Genesis (which we all know is not a science book) survived and remains with us today while the Babylonian creation stories (which presupposed evil) were lost for centuries in the sands of the Middle East.

This insistence that creation is good because God created it is a central reality within Christianity. Christians proclaim that the Word of God entered the human condition in Jesus Christ. That alone elevates the natural world. And then, as taught by Christ, the natural world becomes a vehicle of coming into contact with God’s grace—for instance, through baptism with the use of water; Communion through the sacrificial offering of bread and wine; reconciliation, with the familiar use of human dialogue; healing, with primitive oils. And then there is Mary. She also connects creation with the divine in an amazing demonstration of love and relation. Again, there is much more to say about her, but we’ll have to leave that for another time.

All of this presupposes that mankind must be wise, just, temperate stewards of creation. Of course, mankind has not always acted so—especially in the West. But that is not an error of authentic Christian teachings; it is an example of what happens when you don’t live what the faith professes.

8.  Some Catholic Parishes have been active with environmental sustainability issues and some have not.  Why do we see such differences in Catholic practice if environmental and sustainability concerns are part of the overall teaching of the Church?

Photo by Mario Gomez
Every Christian community—Catholic parishes included—eventually form a particular spirituality. One hopes that this communal spirituality embraces all Church teachings, but that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, Catholic parishes reflect the cultural realities of the wider community in which they reside. Thus some will be more attuned to matters of social justice, some will focus on personal sanctification, and some will focus on other aspects of the faith. St. Paul talks about this with his language of the Church having many parts, like the human body has different parts that do different things but they all make up one body.

All that said, the message of environmental protection is slowly filtering into parish communities. My own parish just added a section on ecology to its pro-life newsletter. But other of my brothers and sisters are suspicious of the environmental movement—and they are not always without justification. There are voices in some secular environmental communities that suggest solutions that run counter to Christian teachings. And so there is a tension—as there is in all things in which humanity exists. That’s why dialogue, like this interview, is always so very important. Dialogue helps build relationships, which help build understanding and trust, which, when oriented toward truth, can work miracles.

9.  Do you find that your knowledge about the environment deepens your faith?

Absolutely. There is a long Christian tradition of better knowing and loving the Creator by better knowing His creation—and science is an important way of doing that. The early Christians extolled this; St. Augustine did the same three centuries later. The little known St. Giles did so in the seventh century. So did St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Francis, and St. Bonaventure in the twelfth and thirteenth. And on it goes. Again, creation is good for a reason—many reasons. Helping us to better know God is just one of them.

Photo by Bob Brinkmann
10.  Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes: my profound thanks for offering to interview me and share this thoughts with your readers. While it may be surprising to some today, there is an ancient Christian appreciation for the relation between faith and reason. This interview and the work that we share is a modern example of how this relation benefits us all. I look forward to more collaboration in the future!

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