José Aguto: Climate change and the US Catholic church

Jose Aguto Catholic Climate Covenant header

José Aguto: Climate change and the US Catholic church

By Flannery Winchester

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal. Check out recaps of past speakers here.

For December 2017, we welcomed guest speaker José Aguto, the Associate Director of the Catholic Climate Covenant. Aguto began his remarks by giving us a broad picture of the challenge before us. “For us to envision a thriving future, and for us to prevent climate catastrophe, we need a miracle of love and unselfishness,” he said, quoting oceanographer Walter Munk.

Humankind has evolved in many ways, Aguto pointed out: physically, technologically, economically. “But what we haven’t applied in practice is our moral and spiritual values. We haven’t reflected them collectively, and this is an essential part of the crisis we’re in.” He referenced the Golden Rule, saying we need to embrace it the way no generation has done before.

Faith traditions have an existing moral framework that we can use to achieve this, Aguto explained, mentioning the concepts of reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness, and loving our enemies. “We need, I believe, to embrace our core moral values and issue forth from there.”

Interfaith moral call to action

Aguto has been working to activate those moral values and bridge partisan divides on climate for years. Back on December 12, 2012, when he was on staff with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, they launched an interfaith climate effort with members of the evangelical Christian, Catholic, Quaker and Jewish faiths. They called on Congress to recognize that climate science is real and to commit to action.

After 20 months and more 50 interfaith delegations meeting with legislators, a group of these members and a CCL volunteer met with Rep. Chris Gibson, who agreed to introduce a resolution on climate change. This “was a spark and a tinder to the firewood that Jay Butera had been laying, which we now call the House Climate Solutions Caucus,” Aguto said.

Working with the Catholic church

In March of this year, Aguto joined the Catholic Climate Covenant. He said, “I am a practicing Catholic. I wanted to help the US Catholic church more fully embrace Laudato Si,” the climate-focused 2015 encyclical from Pope Francis.

To put it simply, this is a big job. The Catholic church is nearly 2000 years old and is a complex body. “Within the United States, there are 75 million Catholics,” Aguto said. That’s “greater than the next seven faith traditions combined.” Approximately 16.5 million of those go to church on a weekly basis. There are 255 bishops and approximately 180 dioceses, which range in size from 4 million (Los Angeles) to 40,000 (Steubenville, Ohio).

“Their Congress, if you will, is called the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB),” Aguto explained. “They determine policy, writ large, for the US Catholic church.” When working with bishops, Aguto said, just like Congress, it’s important to keep in mind the area they serve and their own comfort level or familiarity with the topic of climate change. They also have a huge array of priorities and responsibilities, so to engage them, apply the same principles of engagement that we use with Congress. “Meet them where they are,” he said. Listen, find common ground, and work from there.

Catholic attitudes on climate change

“They largely reflect those of the American population,” Aguto said. “They lean slightly more supportive and concerned about climate change,” but there’s plenty of variation. He referenced the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s “six Americas,” saying, “We have Catholics across all six of those Americas. We have Paul Ryan on one side and Nancy Pelosi on the other. So you get a sense of the diversity and the challenge it is working in this space—or the opportunities to work in this space.”

In opinion surveys after Laudato Si came out, Aguto said, responses were similar to those in the general population as well. “Those who were skeptical of climate change were not moved. For those who were already concerned about climate change, it strengthened their positions, and importantly, it gave them permission to step into this space within the Catholic church.”

While Laudato Si did not launch any specific climate action from the Catholic church, Aguto said, “We’re seeing percolations of this both in theology as well as in practice.” He mentioned Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who created a Laudato Si program for his entire diocese. Aguto recently attended two Laudato Si “Care for Creation” conferences, one in Toledo, Ohio and one in Burlington, Vermont. 150 to 200 people attended both of those events, reflecting the same kind of increased engagement and interest that the Catholic Climate Covenant is seeing in its own programs.

Catholic Climate Covenant

Aguto said, “We at the Covenant work with 17 national partners, including the USCCB and Catholic relief services and Catholic charities, to help guide the US policy and practices with regard to climate change. We want to weave the green thread into the fabric of Catholic life.”

On the grassroots level, there are nearly 300 “creation care” teams across the country. “We have a pastors training program in which we’ve been helping educate pastors on the theology and science of climate change and also Laudato Si, and how they can speak about that with their parishioners.” Aguto added, “We have activities like the Feast of St. Francis program, which has thousands of downloads.”

He also talked about their Catholic Energies program, which is a “plug and play” opportunity to make Catholic churches, parishes, hospitals or institutions more energy efficient. He recommended this as a great program to engage Catholic groups who may be uncomfortable talking about climate change, but are open to discussing energy efficiency.

And when it comes to policy, the Catholic Climate Covenant follows the USCCB’s policy, which Aguto says is fairly broad. They support the Republican Climate Resolution and the work happening in the House Climate Solutions Caucus. Recently, they published a letter in support of UNCCC international climate funding, which 172 US Catholic leaders signed, representing health care, schools, NGOs and more.

“It was a marvelous, surprisingly successful effort,” Aguto said. “We hope to engage on this foundational level to lift up greater and more ambitious climate action.”

To hear José Aguto’s full remarks, listen to the December 2017 podcast or watch the call on YouTube. Follow the Catholic Climate Covenant on Twitter at @CatholicClimate.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.