[Editor’s note: Bill Patenaude is the co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a coalition of Catholic organizations devoted to resisting climate change and promoting environmental awareness. It includes the Franciscan Action Network, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Climate Covenant, the U.S. branch of Catholic Charities, and the Jesuit European Social Center. A 28-year employee of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, Patenaude has degrees in both engineering and theology. He recently spoke with Crux’s Charles Camosy about early moves on environmental policy by the Trump administration.]
Camosy: So, the Trump administration is changing environmental policy in the U.S., and Rome isn’t pleased. Can you tell us a little from a regulatory perspective about what’s happened?
Patenaude: Since November, there’s been growing uncertainty about some long-standing environmental programs. This is both on the federal level and state, where agency managers are wondering about funding that may no longer be available.
A message President Trump is sending in all this — especially with the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and now this executive order — is that the feds will need to rethink how to weigh social and health costs when writing or enforcing environmental rules. The fear is that the executive order will be just one step to prioritize costs on business — as if we have to consider environmental and business needs to be inherently opposed, which, from a Catholic perspective, isn’t the case.
You’ve written often that this false business-environment conflict runs counter to what the Catholic Church has been saying. How so?
Pope Francis and his predecessors, as well as clerics such as Cardinal Peter Turkson, continually call to mind that the words economy and ecology have the same root—eco, home. Our common home. Sound, job-creating businesses and a healthy environment are mutually necessary goods. Both must be achieved by building a virtuous social environment — which, mind you, begins in the family.
This gets to what Pope Francis calls an “integral” ecology — that our faith sees all things and all people in relation. After all, we are made in the image of the Triune God, in essence a perfect relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That should inform how we build our communities.
I see this as a regulator. When you build communities founded on mutual respect for human dignity, you encourage the kinds of people that go to work with one eye on the common good, even when no one is watching.
This was the message of the 2014 document Vocations of the Business Leader, issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. You hear this same theme in the writings of Benedict XVI, and then in Laudato Si’.
But it would seem this administration isn’t listening, much as the previous administration didn’t listen on issues of marriage or the dignity of the unborn.
Why do you think that the Church’s teaching on ecology-related issues has been so widely ignored?
Catholic teachings on ecology are really hard to live by. It takes sacrifice to live out this integral ecology. “Sacrificial self-restraint,” I called it in one of my Lenten posts. But then, adopting new lifestyles, as Benedict XVI and John Paul II urged, is difficult when your current lifestyle isn’t so bad.
This is why the Christian’s symbol is the crucifix — the cross of self-denial. But the cross is why many people flee the Gospel, as I can attest to personally. That’s why many flee the deepest social, sexual, and environmental challenges of documents such as Laudato Si’ or those of Benedict XVI or Saint John Paul II.
This is really part of why we hear criticism about the Church being engaged in complex matters of public policy, like energy and ecology. The magisterium is simply looking at the environmental and social consequences of sin — our sins — and telling us to repent and embrace the Gospel — to love our neighbor and be mindful of how our consumption and energy policies impact everyone.
Of course, we humans often don’t want to hear this. So rather than critique the Gospel, many criticize the Church’s analysis of what’s happening around us.
You’ve often stressed the unity between teachings, if not style, between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. How much of the discomfort on the right with environmental issues and climate change is really an issue with Pope Francis?
Sometimes when I quote Benedict XVI — especially his 2010 Message for the World Day of Peace, or Caritas in Veritate, his third encyclical, which includes a mini-manifesto on ecology that is foundational to Laudato Si’— and people think I’m quoting Francis.
I often lead with Benedict XVI to help more conservative Catholics warm up to the Church’s ecological teachings. One problem I encounter here is something I mentioned in my post on Pope Francis’s fourth anniversary as pontiff. As he once said, he sees it beneficial for the Church to “make a mess.”
I pointed out, for example, that his apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia, has many conservative Catholics furious and afraid with the mixed messages that that document seems to be offering about marriage. Social conservatives who don’t trust the pope on issues like marriage are not going to listen to him about environmental protection.
Here’s the problem: when you read about Catholic displeasure with Trump’s executive order, for example, it’s mostly the voices already supportive of environmental protection. But if the Church is going to be an effective prophet and advocate for the kind of changes needed to protect God’s creation, which includes life, we need our conservative brothers and sisters on board. Catholic eco-efforts cannot be taken on by half the Church.
So where should Catholic ecological advocacy focus now in this age of President Trump?
First, as always, Christ charged us to go make disciples. He didn’t say much about fighting Caesar’s policies. So first and always, preach the Gospel and baptize the world wherever you find yourself. There’s a saying I like: You can’t legislate love. But you can ennoble others to love — to build a strong, loving community — by sharing the word and grace of God.
Second, on the worldly front, the executive order signed by President Trump couldn’t unilaterally undo the regulations he targeted, so he called for a review. Those sorts of processes often have a public component. How those unfold will be important to watch and engage in, and it will be important for the Church to bring her voice to them.