The Most Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, read Pope Francis' stern paper on the environment while he sat outside at Pokagon State Park in Indiana's far northeast corner — on retreat this week with the diocese's priests — noting, “What a great place to read it, in nature.”
The pope's encyclical, calling on rich nations to clean up human actions that have turned Earth into a “pile of filth,” spurred the bishop to think of new preaching, decisions and, perhaps, advocacy in the diocese.
At Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend, the Rev. Tom Shoemaker said he's already received a flurry of questions from parishioners “in a way I haven't seen for other encyclicals.”
They are asking whether the parish should host a speaker on the issue or a discussion group or extra prayers, Shoemaker said Thursday as he studied the encyclical. The priest feels the pope's words do fit the responsibility of the church, as with other moral issues, saying, “All that God has created we need to take care of."
Across the globe, the pope's encyclical could stir debate over climate change at levels it has never reached.
“He's doing something (that) science can't,” said Jessica Hellman, associate professor of biological at the University of Notre Dame, whose work mirrors the pope's message.
She's research director for Notre Dame's Global Adaptation Index (nd-gain.org), a key program that helps to predict which countries are best prepared to deal with natural disasters that result from climate change.
Hellman points out that science can show the implications of what's happening with global warming. And ND-GAIN's can even show how poor countries are the most vulnerable to these effects — and particularly African countries. But the pope, she said, takes it further and states “what should be and how we should behave.” The pope and religion speak to “what we value.”
Now that it's stirring “a whole new group of people” to talk on the issues, such as pastors and bishops, she is certain the pope's words will have an impact.
Bishop Rhoades said he “totally” agrees with the pope's words, which aren't new, having been preached by popes John Paul II and Benedict.
But, as an encyclical, this gives the message a higher level of “teaching authority,” the bishop said in a phone interview Thursday. He said there are parts of the document that are “nonnegotiable,” such as the pope's theme that creation is God's gift and that it's our duty to protect it, along with the idea that every person on the planet has the right to clean water and other essentials to a healthy life.
But the pope lets the world decide “how you do that,” Rhoades said.
Carolyn Woo, who'd served as dean of Notre Dame's Mendoza School of Business until 2012, was among five thinkers who spoke Thursday at a press conference in the Vatican to release the encyclical. She reiterated the pope's call for sustainable development. Woo is now president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, a humanitarian relief agency that works with the world's neediest people.
“The pope warns us about the dangers of short-term thinking and a selfish mindset … that the focus on the short term is self-defeating,” Woo said of the pope's message to business. “If we stop investing in people in order to gain short term financial gain, it is bad business for society and, if the pope allows me to add one line, I would say it is actually bad business for business also.”
On sustainable development, she said: “Unlimited growth at the cellular level causes cancer. Unlimited growth in economy and society will cause us to run into planetary boundaries.”
Woo spoke at the Vatican alongside a cardinal from Ghana, a climate expert, an Eastern Orthodox leader and a member of Christian community in Italy that serves the poor.
Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, mentions ND-GAIN in his perspective piece in Thursday's Chicago Tribune, where he implores: “Yet if the pope's encyclical becomes simply another salvo in the give-and-take of our political debates, we will have missed its point. … The pope is not out to declare a side but to challenge the consciences of all of us. We should all feel the sting.”
In retreat this week, Bishop Rhoades said he asked the diocese's priests to pull together small groups to reflect on the encyclical since “it needs study and reflection.”
Advocacy may be needed globally, but Rhoades said, “We may need to apply that locally — I have to think more about that.”
From recycling to saving energy to the whole “culture of waste” that comes with a consumer-driven society, he said the church needs to preach more. And if the diocese builds a new church or school, he said: “We need to make sure we are not damaging the environment. I'm not sure we've made that a high priority.”
He said politicians need to be held accountable, and he's disappointed in critics who say the pope shouldn't get involved in issues of policy.
Rhoades argues this is an issue of morality. He notes how the pope's encyclical also reaches out to the issues abortion, calling for the protection of nature — in Rhoades' words — at the “highest act of creation.”
“It calls together the totality of creation,” the bishop said.
Some local houses of faith — not just Catholic — have already joined a statewide effort to cut their energy usage. Three South Bend congregations have signed onto a challenge from the nonprofit Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light in what it calls “a faith response to climate change.” The group offers grants to buy solar panels if the congregation cuts energy usage by 25 percent in its building and gets a third of its members to cut their energy usage at home by one seventh, which is documented via a survey.
Madeline Hirschland, director of the group's Seventh Day Initiative, said the local churches are among 20 statewide: Kern Road Mennonite Church, First United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of Michiana. And at least one or two other local churches are applying, said Hirschland, who feels the pope's words can only help to bolster its efforts.
The idea is to save the church some money but also to “take responsibility to preserve creation,” said Victor Myers, a Kern Road member who's overseeing his project to cover his church's southern roof with 96 solar panels, which could happen late this summer.
He's also part of a small, interfaith group that meets every other month to share ideas for energy conservation. Their next meeting, at 7 p.m. July 13 at First United Methodist Church, 333 N. Main St., South Bend, will feature a speaker from Indiana Michigan Power.
“We can't have sustainability if we don't address poverty,” said Bonnie Bazata, director of the St. Joseph County Bridges Out of Poverty Initiative, which works with low-income people at the local level.
Echoing the pope in spirit, she said that poverty drains local resources and human potential, and that impedes the success of green initiatives.
“We'll make greater strides in environmental degradation if we address poverty as well,” she said.