A few years ago at a wedding rehearsal, the groom’s parents mentioned they were now living in Usk, Washington, adding, “I’m sure you’ve never heard of Usk.” Well, they were wrong. I had not only heard of Usk, but I had driven through Usk, a community of about 200 people, 50 miles north of Spokane. As someone who enjoys visiting our national parks and driving on two-lane highways through forests and mountains, far from the big cities, I have passed through many places like Usk while on vacation. I have never spent an evening in Paris; but I have spent the night in western towns like Dolores, Chama, Paonia, Dubois, Douglas City, Bluff, Medicine Bow, Union Creek, Glacier, Quinault, and Stehekin. That is why I feel a personal connection with the lands that are on fire out west. Some of the names of towns and wilderness areas mentioned in the news are familiar to me. Is someone I brushed past in a convenience store or saw walking down the street one of those who died in the fire? Are some of the homes and property I drove past among those that have been destroyed? Is this another beautiful piece of God’s creation that has now been lost?
As I write these words on Tuesday morning, a little bit of the smoke has drifted as far east as Chicago. For us it produced some fascinating images of hazy sunshine. But it is a very different story close to a forest fire. I have driven through areas many miles from a forest fires, yet still felt the pressure of the polluted air in my chest and the choking in my throat. What enormous stress these firefighters are under! Of even greater concern is that what is happening this summer out west is becoming more and more common.
These huge fires are not a once in a century occurrence like our pandemic, but seem to be happening with greater destructive power each year. Summers are getting warmer and dryer and that makes forests ripe for fires. Predictably there is strong disagreement on the cause of these massive fires. The Democratic Governor of California blamed climate change, saying that we are now in the midst of a “climate emergency”. Our Republican President blamed lax forest management, and said that after about eighteen months dead trees and leaves can self-ignite. Perhaps there is some truth to both claims.
We have to remember that the fires out west, the melting of the polar ice caps, and rising sea levels are not just news items. They are matters that impact our Catholic faith. In the years following the church reforms in the 1960’s there was a popular saying that you can tell a liberal Catholic from a conservative Catholic by which church teachings they choose to ignore. During the 1970’s when there was a lot of unsanctioned experimentation with the liturgy, conservatives were quick to point out the priests and pastors who were violating liturgical norms and discouraging popular devotions. Progressives, who applauded the Church’s efforts to take a stronger stand on social issues, criticized conservatives for ignoring papal teaching on economic justice, racism, and the evils of war. Although the issues have shifted over the decades, these differences over what it means to be “a good Catholic” have certainly not disappeared. Five years ago, when Pope Francis issued his groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), he landed firmly on the side of scientists who are warning us about the impact that human activity is having on the environment and our ability to inhabit the planet. He framed his presentation, as he often does, on our obligation to care for the poor, who are usually the first to suffer from climate change and are the ones least able to adapt to changing conditions.
Some conservatives were quick to distance themselves from the Pope’s teaching, pointing out that Pope Francis is not a scientist. The claim that because he is not speaking on faith and morals, we are free to ignore this teaching. But that is not the way the Pope sees it: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (LS, 217). In other words, we are free, if we so choose, to disagree with the vast majority of scientists who have concluded that human beings are contributing significantly to global warming and climate change. We are free to believe, as President Trump says, that we are in a natural cycle and that global warming will reverse itself over time. However, we are not free to regard care for God’s creation as a peripheral issue in our faith life. It is, in fact, a pro-life issue, since it touches on the survival of life on this planet.
by Father Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M. Profiles in Catholicism