by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What parish do you attend and what impact had your parish had on your faith?
Dan: My parish growing up was St. Savior Parish in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The parish also had a school that I and my sisters and brothers attended. In many ways, the parish was a center for our lives. The boys (four of us) were in the Boy Scout troop sponsored by the parish, the girls (three of them) in Campfire Girls or Girl Scouts. We all received the sacraments of first communion and confirmation at St. Savior.
When I was in college (a commuter to Xavier University), I participated in the parish’s “Christ Renews His Parish” program and discovered a depth to my faith that I hadn’t experienced before. I learned that faith was more than just church on Sunday, it also meant relationships, service, and accompaniment. The men that were part of that weekend experience offered powerful witnesses of struggle and loss, sin and redemption, and how their faith brought them back from lives that could have taken a very different turn.
At the same time—my junior year in college—I took a Catholic social teaching class and realized then that I wanted to go deeper into my faith through service. This led me to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and leave Cincinnati for Fairbanks, Alaska, to live in community with other volunteers and serve those in need in the state.
JVC, I realized pretty quickly, was also an early version of “match.com” as I that is where I met my future wife, also a volunteer.
Gordon: When you earned your Masters's degree in Theology at Franciscan School of Theology, what was the most challenging course that you took and why?
Dan: I had an American Baptist professor of New Testament and it was perhaps the most eye-opening course I took. For the first time, I really understood the cultural, geographic, and social context of first-century Palestine and the historical Jesus. Wrapping this context around gospel stories made them so much more alive and vibrant. For me, those lessons continue to help me understand the implications of the Good News for life today and in our own cultural context.
Gordon: When you served as Director of Diocesan Relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, what were your primary responsibilities?
Dan: The USCCB Department of Justice Peace and Human Development assists the U.S. Bishops with international and domestic policy concerns, particularly how federal policies impact the poor and vulnerable at home and abroad. As director of diocesan relations for the department, my primary role was to help make those policy positions actionable for diocesan peace and justice coordinators and other Catholic partners. So, the role was largely educational: sharing why the bishops were taking these policy positions, what they were saying, and how diocesan directors might assist their own bishop and Catholics within their dioceses to advocate their members of Congress for specific policies.
Another role was to manage the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering which brought 500 or so people to Washington to learn about Catholic social teaching, public policy, and to send them to Capitol Hill to meet with their state’s congressional delegation.
Gordon: What prompted you to found and serve as Executive Director of Catholic Climate Covenant?
Dan: After about 10 years of working at the USCCB, I was looking to move on to something else. I had begun to learn more about the issue of climate change and what I was learning was alarming. Saint John Paul II had written about the issue as well as the U.S. Catholic bishops so the moral implications of our neglect of the earth were clear and becoming more evident. I expressed my desire to move in this direction and my boss, along with a funder, asked me to start a Catholic Climate Covenant. The idea was to take my knowledge of Church teaching on creation care, my relationships with other national Catholic groups and diocesan staff, and my growing understanding of climate change to develop programs and projects that would help implement the bishops 2001 statement, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good.
Since the summer of 2006, our work has grown in impact and importance and I believe we have the right people and powerful programs in place to help Catholics act on climate change in ways consistent with both the urgency of the problem and Catholic teaching on creation care.
Gordon: Please share with our readers some of the factors contributing to climate challenges and what can we do to help address these challenges?
Dan: In a nutshell, the primary factor driving climate change is our consumeristic lifestyles along with a lack of awareness that our planet offers abundant but finite resources. In the U.S., we have enjoyed amazing economic development driven largely by the use of fossil fuels: coal and gas for electricity, oil for heating and transportation. But we now know that the burning of these fossil fuels is dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in amounts never seen in 600,000 years or more of scientific measurements. CO2 concentrations are nearly double pre-industrial times (the late 1,800s).
Without quickly curbing our appetites for economic growth based on hyper-consumption and the burning of fossil fuels, we will subject current and future generations to untold suffering in the shape of extended droughts, massive flooding and rising sea levels which will threaten lives, property and food systems.
Who among us would remain in a house full of radon gas, lead paint and asbestos once we knew these hazards existed? Would we not do all we could to eliminate those threats so our children would not suffer the consequences of that kind of environment? This is what we face globally. We have the knowledge of what is happening to our planet and we must now do what is necessary to heal our planet and provide hope for the future.
For the Catholic community, we have a treasure of teachings and practices that help us get in touch with whom we need to be at our core. As Pope Francis has said, there are three inter-related relationships that we must attend to: with one another, with the creation and with God. Once those relationships are balanced, I believe most everything else will fall into place. We know we must live more in keeping with a finite planet, using only what we need, leaving resources for others. Daily choices about how we live have consequences. Can we drive less, keep our homes cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer, recycle, repair, and reuse? Can we gently nudge our family, friends, co-workers and even our pastors and bishops to do more to reduce our environmental footprint? Can we ask our legislators to have the courage to put in place public policies—both carrots and sticks—that incentivize behaviors that reduce energy consumption and support the common good of all, especially those most vulnerable to environmental injustice: the poor and vulnerable at home and abroad.
Gordon: What impact has Donald Trump’s denial of climate change had upon the global efforts to address climate challenges?
Dan: It is astonishing what this administration has done in just a few short years. Nearly 100 regulatory rollbacks of environmental regulations including pulling out of the Paris agreement, an international effort that tries to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the globe. As a result, years of necessary action have been stunted in the name of “economic progress” resulting in the need to accelerate actions in an even tighter timeframe with potentially more economic and human pain.
Clearly, there must always be a dialogue and a balance between business and government, particularly in the realm of regulations. However, those discussions must also grapple with ethical and moral arguments as well—which is especially the purview and role of the faith community—and should focus on the common good of all. Too often, ideology gets in the way of common sense and compromise. Our choices (as Catholic social teaching clearly teaches) should not be either unfettered, profits-at-all-cost markets or overzealous, unnecessary or outdated regulations. Both business and government have proper roles to play and both should work to ensure a sustainable future for all and to advance the common good.
With the ongoing use of fossil fuels and other drivers of climate change that are clearly linked to a warming world, local, national and global efforts to reduce their use should be embraced and governments must step in.
Gordon: What impact has Greta Thunberg had upon the global efforts to address climate challenges?
Dan: I have been deeply impressed by Ms. Thunberg. She has been a very capable spokesperson and a compelling symbol of the hopelessness that too many of our young people feel as they look to a future threatened by our human behaviors. But, like so much of the discussion about climate change, she has been a lightning rod for those who enjoy the status quo, especially for some politicians and fossil fuel industries.
She has sparked a youth movement, for sure. But the role of the faith community is to help young people understand that creation care is a core part of their tradition beginning with our creation stories. We must show them, in word and indeed, that their concern is not just one based on science, but on their own faith and how to properly live that faith in a complex world.
Faith communities, including the Catholic community, must also provide some hope for future generations. In my view, this can happen best if we recapture and rearticulate ancient teachings about care for creation, being good stewards of creation and embracing our role as co-creators with God. We must also provide practical tools and abundant resources for them to pray, act and advocate on behalf of God’s good gift of Creation.
Ms. Thunberg has become a symbol and a powerful voice for a generation. The challenge for those who wish to emulate her is to take responsibility for their own actions and to step up with their own leadership skills. To solve the climate crisis, each of us will need to engage in whatever way we can.
Gordon: Thank you for your exceptional insights into these global challenges.