Lent and Inconvenient Truths

Francis’ impending environment encyclical will be the Church event of the summer, but as we arrive at the Lenten season, taking stock of our own lives and choices seems timely. Our culture’s imbalances must be addressed at a systemic level… but that systemic change can’t happen without what Benedict called “a serious review of its lifestyle” that “is prone to hedonism and consumerism…. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51). While Lenten carbon fasting doesn’t get us to sustainability any more than fasting from food gets us to health, attempts to seriously cut down the key aspects of our carbon use remind us of our preoccupation with comfort. Lower the thermostat a few degrees, and we walk around the house chilly. Forego driving, and the 5-minute trip to the store becomes a 20-minute walk – and you’re cold, too. Give up that Florida getaway vacation, and the winter seems that much longer. But the sum of all these things we take for granted is what adds up to climate change, day after day, year after year. We can’t blame anything (or anyone) else.

In this regard, Bill Patenaude is an important and powerful voice: an environmental regulator by trade, he runs the blog Catholicecology.net, and unfailingly provides serious, in-depth, knowledgeable writing for Catholic environmentalism. He has a wonderful piece on Pope Francis’ Lenten Reflection, a striking intervention in the debate between Robert George and Michael Sean Winters over the forthcoming encyclical, and a powerful piece on the link between pious spiritual practices and the environment. Most recently, he has a lengthy post on “lessons for Lent” that intervenes between Maureen Fiedler – who is impatient for Francis to change teaching on contraception in order for the environmental message to be heard – and Maureen Mullarkey – who in First Things raised the level of hostility toward a sitting Pontiff to a shocking level, accusing Francis of being an “ideologue” and an “egotist.” Patenaude writes:

 This bickering from both perspectives must please our ancient enemy, who relishes it when people don’t see what they share. In this case, the Fiedlers and Mullarkeys of the world do share an urgent call—whether in regards to our duty to protect the planet or to protect people. They both call our attention to the more fundamental duty of sacrificial self-restraint in all areas of our lives. And at all times. 

Patenaude’s piece includes extensive commentary from Fordham’s Christiana Peppard and Charles Camosy, both of whom caution against any hasty connection between overpopulation and climate concern. Patenaude also quotes Tobias Winright: “The immediate problem seems more to do with quality of life (overconsumption that disproportionately harms the environment) rather than quantity of lives, although at some point these may intersect.” Peppard puts it in her typically striking way: “Our population problem is that we are overconsumers…. [F]oisting blame onto other bodies—without gazing hard at how our own consumptive habits create environmental problems like scarcity—can be tantamount to yet another form of neocolonialism.”

One may or may not agree with some of Patenaude’s commitments, but he is worth reading and engaging for three reasons: (1) He’s clearly no free-market libertarian, (love Matt Boudway’s recent piece calling out many conservatives for game-playing in trying to avoid this label) (2) he is not dodging the lifestyle issues associated with genuine environmental commitment, and (3) he is probably working out the position that we are likely to see in Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. This makes his commentary inconvenient, just as Francis is making himself inconvenient to American Catholics across the spectrum. But precisely this sort of commentary is the sort that destabilizes us from our sometimes-self-righteous sense that it is only others who are in need of conversion. What can sacrificial self-restraint look like for us? A good question for the start of Lent.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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