Monday marked three years since Pope Francis released his path-breaking ecological encyclical “Laudato Si’ — On Care for Our Common Home.” It was a clarion call to Catholics like me, but really to all peoples and faiths, to take decisive action on creating a future based on clean, renewable energy.
Pope Francis implored us to do so not only as a matter of being good stewards of God’s creation and ensuring human (and other species’) survival, but as a matter of present-day mercy and justice for the poor, who are suffering first and most from climate disruptions caused by human activity.
The anniversary got me thinking about how the dioceses within which Maryland Catholics worship — Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Wilmington, Del., have responded to Laudato Si’.
I researched statements made by the bishops — Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of D.C., and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington — some very good statements. I investigated actions taken to improve energy efficiency in church facilities, like a solar array for Baltimore church operations. I found rain gardens installed, LED lights in dozens of churches to conserve energy, eight new buildings in Baltimore constructed to the highest energy efficiency standards, over 1,000 trees planted and more than a dozen parishes that formed “green teams” to educate and act on climate change. I was encouraged. Many parishes and the archdioceses are leading by example.
Yet there was one glaring omission in the middle of it all.
As a member of Saint Matthew Catholic Church in Baltimore, I serve as liaison to the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC), the lobbying organization in Annapolis that represents Maryland Catholics. Naturally I looked there to see what MCC had done to push for clean energy legislation since Pope Francis released Laudato Si’. The answer: not much.
Even as my parish and other Catholics called for passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2018 (a bill to commit Maryland to 50 percent clean energy and the creation of many good-paying jobs by 2030), MCC was silent on that bill, according to its legislation tracker. The act did not rank as one of the bills important to Catholics.
I discovered that 226 Catholics representing 55 Catholic churches, religious communities and charitable organizations issued a call to action in 2016 for MCC to support clean energy legislation, yet no specific legislation was supported by MCC as a result.
MCC did ask legislators to consider principles of Laudato Si’ in voting on the 2016 Clean Energy Jobs — Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard Revisions and the 2017 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act — Reauthorization, and perhaps its testimony helped those bills to pass. But in each case the actual position taken by MCC was, unfortunately, stated as follows:
“The Conference is taking a position to neither support nor oppose this legislation.”
With all due respect, that is not really a position, certainly not the clear, clarion call for a clean energy future coming from our pope. It does not even comport with the warning Archbishop Lori articulated in a Baltimore Sun op-ed two years ago: “If we fail to take action, we ignore our moral obligation to protect human life, prevent suffering, care for the poor and leave behind a safe world for future generations.”
MCC did testify this past session in support of a Maryland Senate bill to increase the maximum capacity limit for an electric generating system, such as the solar array that the Archdiocese of Baltimore had built, but even that did not pass. If it had, it was not pushing the state of Maryland to ramp up its clean energy objectives.
I asked my MCC contact about this failure to act on clean energy legislation. She responded that MCC staff take their lead from the bishops on the MCC Board of Governors. In other words, MCC will not lobby for a clean energy bill unless instructed to do so.
Recently Pope Francis gathered executives of some of the largest fossil fuel companies on the planet.
“Will we turn the corner in time? No one can answer that with certainty. But with each month that passes, the challenge of energy transition becomes more pressing,” he said to them. “There is no time to lose.”
I have little hope that fossil fuel executives will pay attention to the pope, but I must hope that bishops shepherding Maryland Catholics will do so. It is time for the Maryland Catholic Conference to take a real position for a clean energy future in Maryland.
J. Stephen Cleghorn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the pastoral council of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore.