CCL volunteers rally Catholics around the Pope’s message of care for creation

Catholic climate action Chicago

(L-R) Michael Terrien, a mover and shaker with the Archdiocese of Chicago on Creation Care, Father Joshtrom Kureethadam of the “10 Green Commandments” book fame, and CCL volunteers Steven Coleman and Andy Panelli.

CCL volunteers rally Catholics around the Pope’s message of care for creation

By Gabriel Aguto

Faith communities have stepped up as vocal supporters of climate action, and the Catholic Church is no exception. Pope Francis has been a consistent environmental advocate, notably demonstrated in his 2015 encyclical letter, Laudato Si, sent to all Catholics and addressed to all people. In Laudato Si, the Pope states that “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.” 

Beyond calling for general climate action, many faith communities are expressing support for a particular bill: the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is among those offering supportive statements about the legislation. Bishop Frank J. Dewane, Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, praised the bill for accounting for the “full spectrum of costs” associated with climate change. 

Catholic climate action in Chicago

CCL volunteers Steve Coleman and Andy Panelli have worked tirelessly to spread the message of climate action. Steve Coleman is a retired engineer who lives in Marshall, Wisconsin. With Catholic teaching certification and experience as well as extensive private study on climate change, Steve is well equipped for his role leading CCL’s Catholic Action Team. Andy Panelli is a former Fortune 500 marketing executive who retired early in part to spend more time advancing environmental protection and sustainability. Andy has centered his advocacy in his home city of Chicago. These two men have bridged climate science and Catholic teaching through both a top down and bottom up approach. 

Steve started his environmental work with his local parish of St. Dennis, forming a Creation Care Team, a group that educates people about environmental issues and organizes advocacy for legislative change. These teams are based on the model suggested by the Catholic Climate Covenant, a group dedicated to teaching about and advocating for climate change action. Steve points to the Covenant as an ally and invaluable resource for forming teams within parishes to support Laudato Si

Catholic climate action

Andy connected with the Archdiocese of Chicago, and they issued a statement of support for the Energy Innovation Act. This “opens the door for advocating for this legislation in Sunday bulletins at numerous parishes around the Archdiocese,” he said. Andy created Sunday bulletin inserts that feature a new sustainability tip each week and are currently being used in at least 16 parishes. Recently, the Catholic Climate Covenant created a webpage called the Creation Care Corner, which has the entire library of 45 print-ready stewardship tips. Through the Covenant’s website, the bulletin inserts are now available to a network of 300+ Creation Care Teams. Andy’s goal through the bulletin is to enable parishioners to “connect the dots between environmental advocacy, creation care, and faith.” Steve praises the initiative as a “simple tool that can be easily duplicated and used by other Catholic communities to advance the discussion of and solutions to climate change.”

Changing the conversation

Steve notes the climate action requires “creating political will for a livable world.” Doing so requires “changing the conversation within parishes.” People need to know “it’s okay to talk about Care for Creation. It’s okay to talk about climate change.” But before this dialogue can happen, Andy said, “you need to plow some ground.” He realized that “everything in CCL starts with a conversation to find out where [someone’s] head is at.” Steve also emphasized the importance of forming relationships and appreciating people before getting to your main message or ask. 

Catholic climate action

A tabling event with the Archdiocese of Chicago featuring CCL-crafted Archdiocese literature supporting the Energy Innovation Act. Ryan Lents of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Juliana Panelli of the St. Elizabeth Seton Creation Care Team are pictured.

Andy told of a “lightbulb moment” where he realized that while Pope Francis and the bishops are doing great work bringing attention to climate change, the bishops do not tell local parish priests what to say to their congregants. Since pastors often lack education on the Church’s climate teachings, the message will not be easily spread at Sunday Mass. This realization spurred Catholics like Steve and Andy to take it upon themselves to educate the pastors, the people with arguably the most direct influence over your average parishioner. Along with their own face-to-face advocacy, Steve wrote an informative booklet which can be used to assist parishioners in conversing with their pastor. 

Activate your faith community

Andy gave the following advice to any CCL member who may want their own faith communities to support the Energy Innovation Act: 

  1. Educate yourself on church teachings on climate change. Read the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si and other Popes’ and Bishops’ statements (or faith leaders of your church) on Creation Care, climate change and legislation it supports.
  2. Start at your local parish level with a conversation with your pastor (or local faith leader). Explore what they know about climate change and what kind of priority it is for them. Have a discussion on church teaching. Share information. See if there is a social justice ministry or Creation Care team focused on Creation Care activities at the parish. If not, consider starting one and see if they would support it.
  3. Your credibility will be enhanced if you are more broadly focused on Creation Care than one very narrow legislative component of it. You’ll need to establish some visibility, build awareness, educate parishioners on church teaching on Creation Care and climate change before jumping in on Energy Innovation Act advocacy. It’s a process.
  4. Then network with the Diocese to see what other parishes are doing similar activities, and establish what priority climate change is for the Diocese. Reach out to other parishes to create a louder voice to the Diocese.

Andy’s fruitful work in the Archdiocese of Chicago serves as a potential roadmap for the other 196 Archdioceses in the U.S. Andy says, “If we are successful, 70 million U.S. Catholics can be a powerful force for change.” Looking further, Steve speaks about a recent meeting he had with CCL members from the Jewish community. A resonating message he emphasized was that every faith has “a unique voice, unreproducible except to those in their faith.” There is common ground for caring about creation in every faith, and each must stand in solidarity to call for climate action. 

Steve’s booklet, “A Catholic Response to Global Warming,” along with many other useful advocacy resources, can be found on CCL Community.

Gabriel Aguto is a 2019 summer intern in CCL’s Washington D.C. office. He’s going into his final year at the University of Virginia at the Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy.