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Choose life: the environmental edition: it's not easy being green, but this moral theologian says the Catholic faith calls us to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

David Cloutier envisioned that he'd one day be a university professor who lived in a small college town within walking distance of campus. But Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where Cloutier teaches theology, is surrounded by fields on the side of a mountain. Thus the only way for Cloutier to get to work is by car. And as an ethicist concerned with his environmental footprint, he says, the least he can do is carpool.

Cloutier admits such decisions aren't easy. Carpooling cuts down on carbon emissions by reducing the number of vehicles on the road, but it also means sticking to someone else's schedule and giving up some personal freedom.

"It's inconvenient, but it's a choice," he says. And choices to change patterns of behavior--like carpooling versus driving alone--add up. Over time, they can make a real difference in the planet's health.

For Catholics, Cloutier argues that making these kinds of choices is a matter of faith. But a commitment to caring for creation, he says, begins with understanding how the Catholic faith informs our view of the environment.

"It's important that we appreciate the beauty of God's creation before we get to the uncomfortable lifestyle choices," Cloutier says. "People have to come to see the beauty of the earth and then come to see that we're endangering it in various ways."

Why should Catholics be concerned with care of the environment?

This is not an issue that the church comes to because it's a hot political issue. Rather, it is an integral part of our basic doctrines, the scriptures, and our understanding of the sacraments. All aspects of Catholic teaching suggest that we have a responsibility to care for and protect the environment.

Why do you think some Catholics fail to see the connection?

The focus in Catholic moral thought has for a long time been on personal issues, particularly issues related to sexuality. Those are very important issues, and there is no reason to think that concern for the environment means the church is not interested in those other issues.

I think people have heard about the church's focus on these personal moral issues for so long that when they hear Pope Francis speaking out about the importance of protecting creation, they don't understand it. They wonder why this issue of environmentalism that they hear about on the news is popping up in their religious life.

The second problem is that some people see the environment as an issue associated with one particular political party. I think that's a mistake. I always like to point out that the founder of the national parks and the first conservationist president was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. There's every reason to think people who are politically conservative should also be concerned about conserving the environment. It's not an issue that should divide us politically. Unfortunately, this is the way it has evolved in American society.


Catholics have to push against those misconceptions. The church has to help Catholics recognize why this issue should be important to them, no matter what political party they belong to.

Do you think that conflict between faith and politics makes some Catholics uncomfortable?

The gospel should make us uncomfortable with many of the ways in which we're living our lives. I don't think this is restricted to the problem of the environment. There are a lot of controversial issues where Catholics may be uncomfortable with the clear positions of the Catholic tradition. How do we deliver these uncomfortable messages in a pastorally compelling way?

That's why we need to start with the beauty of creation. One of my favorite stories in the gospels is the story where Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a treasure in a field. The way the story goes is that a person finds a treasure in the field. They're so excited that they go off and sell everything they have in order to buy the field so they can have the treasure. I've always liked that story because it's one of the selling-all-you-have parables where getting rid of all of your possessions doesn't sound uncomfortable at all--it sounds thrilling, right?

The order, the symmetry, and the abundance of God's creation has to be like finding a treasure in a field. If you are so excited about the treasure, then the sacrifices required to protect it do not feel like a problem. If Catholics really do believe that God's creation is beautiful, and they come to see that we're destroying it, they're going to want to respond. They're going to want to make the uncomfortable lifestyle choices because they'll recognize that those choices will result in the preservation or enhancement of something beautiful.

What kinds of changes can people make in their daily lives to be more environmentally friendly?

When people are introduced to environmental thinking, they are often presented with a very long laundry list of all the things they can do to live a more green life. These are very important lists, but they can be overwhelming. People can easily become discouraged because there are so many things to think about.

It's like dieting or exercise. Experts recommend that when people start a new exercise regime, they shouldn't try to do everything at once. They should not try to work on building muscle and building endurance and doing all of the things that you may need to get physically fit.

Rather, you should focus on certain simple changes that will make the biggest difference. For example, if you sit all day, the most important thing is to get some walking in, even if it's a small amount. You have to change the pattern where you spend too much time sitting.

I think there are specific patterns that can provide the most bang for your buck environmentally. If people look at the way these patterns operate in their lives and make changes, that will allow them to live more sustainably.

How would a person know what changes to make?

The first thing I would say is get to know the facts about what will make the most impact. Again, you can compare it to your diet. I am skinny, and I can eat a

lot of food and not put on much weight because I have my father's metabolism. But my father also has high cholesterol, so I still have to pay attention to what I eat. I know what to consider when making eating choices for my health, but this may be different from what someone else needs to consider in their diet.

The same is true for the environment. People are in different places in terms of their consumption and their lifestyle patterns. Therefore the changes they might make will be different. Each person should focus on the area where he or she can have the greatest impact.

People should pay particular attention to scale in their lives. A lot of environmental problems come about because were doing too much of something. People should be encouraged to look at their lives and think about what parts of it are overscaled.

For some people, that might be their living quarters. For others, it might be the extent to which they are relying on consumer goods. For some, it might be their commute and ways they could lower their regular fuel use. These changes will be different for different people depending on where they are.

I don't think there's one change that is the most important. And there's a connection between personal commitment to these changes and social changes. There are governmental policies and various kinds of social structures that could make it easier to be green.

In some ways, our social structures can make these trade-offs easier for us. In other ways, our social structures can make the trade-offs harder.

Can you give an example?

One example of a trade-off would be money: It's often more expensive to do things that are better for the environment. This becomes an issue for people who are on lower incomes and can't afford the more environmentally friendly option, such as buying organic produce.

Our government can make certain goods cheaper by subsidizing them or more expensive by taxing them. For example, we put a tax on tobacco to discourage people from smoking. But we subsidize home mortgages to give people a big tax break because we want people to buy houses.

It's important to try to change the incentives and disincentives to make it easier for people to make the right environmental choices. One of many examples is to make it financially advantageous for people to use public transportation as opposed to driving. There are all sorts of ways in which we could subsidize public transportation more heavily and discourage driving, especially by increasing taxes on gasoline.

That would make it easier, especially for people who have lower incomes and rely on public transportation anyway, to have more money for organic produce.

It would allow everybody to have more money for organic produce, except maybe the people who drive a lot.

It might also encourage people who drive frequently to take public transportation. The more people who use public transportation, the better it becomes. The big challenge is in medium-sized cities, where you need to get enough people to use public transportation that it becomes frequent and viable for people to think about sacrificing the convenience of driving.

Frederick, Maryland, the small city where I live, runs a kind of skeleton bus service. It is mostly used by people who are poor. Everybody else has cars and no one ever uses the buses, except for low-income people who live in some of the more run-down parts of the city and can't afford cars. They wait for the buses that come once every hour just to get to work. That's not a public transportation system I'd consider using.

Having a better public transportation system would benefit the poor in that situation. But it would obviously also benefit the environment. This is an example of how our faith informs our understanding of environmental issues.

It is an issue where Catholic commitment to social justice and the poor is helped by our commitment to the environment, and vice versa.

How can the church help bring about these kinds of systemic changes in our society?

I hope that Francis coming out with an environmental encyclical will influence U.S. bishops and Catholic politicians to take this issue more seriously than they have in the past. It is frustrating that this issue has so radically divided the two political parties.

That was not the case in the 1970s, or even the 1990s. There was an agreement across the political spectrum that we needed to protect the environment even if there might be disagreement about the details of how to do it.

It seems we've moved to where even saying that you're for protecting the environment is politically divisive. That is a big problem. I hope the pope's encyclical can help our parties find common ground on this issue.

How might parishes bring together Catholics who are divided on environmental issues?

Parishes need to figure out how to have good, charitable conversations about people's lifestyle choices. But Catholic parishes today have difficulty confronting people about their lifestyles.

It is similar to the problem of luxury, which I'm writing a book about now. It's not a surprise to people who have listened to the gospels most of their lives that Jesus frequently criticizes people who accumulate lots of possessions. For centuries the church fathers just went on and on about this to their congregations, especially the rich, telling them they were spending too much time worrying about their possessions when they should be worrying about the poor.

I don't hear that conversation in parishes today. It is very infrequent that I even hear homilies about it when the gospel passage is on this topic. Many Catholics will say, "Well, what I buy and what I do with my money is my own personal decision, and it has nothing to do with my faith." So the first thing to do in parishes is to figure out how to have constructive conversations about the fact that certain lifestyle choices should arise out of our faith commitments.

What might be a good starting point for that conversation?

Most people are interested in protecting the environment where they live. If you can get them motivated to save a stream in their community or to force a local business to follow environmental regulations, they will usually be for it, regardless of their political affiliation.

Having churches involved in local issues that do the right thing for the environment can help people see how local issues might be connected to larger environmental issues. You can ask the question, "Well, if you don't want the landfill located in your backyard, why should we put the landfill in other people's backyards?"

If we can think about that, we can then say, "Well, maybe if we produced less garbage, it would be easier to deal with this problem." If you get people interested in issues in their own communities, it often provides natural bridges to larger environmental problems.

I'm trying to not be radical. I'm trying very hard when I give these examples not to say, "We should all go out to a farm and turn our lights out and live by the natural cycle of the sun."

Nothing I'm suggesting would require a lifestyle that looks a whole lot different than the lifestyles we live today. It certainly wouldn't look like going back to the year 1750.

Nevertheless, there are real changes, especially about food, fuel use, and housing, which are needed and do impact our daily lives. The church hasn't done enough to get people to think about these lifestyle choices.

How do you respond to people who think their small choices can't really make a big difference?

I try to focus on larger patterns of behavior, because some people might say, "Just this once doesn't matter." Saying "what harm does it do just this once?" is a reasonable response if it really is just this once. But in terms of things that we do routinely, it adds up. And especially when it's something we do routinely and millions or hundreds of millions of other people do routinely, it really adds up.

To use a trivial example, sometimes when I'm traveling I get coffee in a disposable cup. I go through my ordinary days with a refillable coffee mug that I fill up in the morning, at the office, or at the dining hall, and it's no problem at all.

On the rare occasions when I don't bring the refillable mug, I feel bad walking out with this disposable cup that I'm just going to drink and then throw in the garbage. Just that one time, it doesn't matter. It's good that we have disposable cups. The key is that some people go through three disposable coffee cups every single day.

I think it's an important thing to recognize. Are we talking about a pattern that could be changed to make a bigger impact over time, or are we really talking about "just this once" and it's not that big of a deal?

Do you think people aren't even aware of the impact small lifestyle changes can have?

I wonder sometimes whether people are simply not aware of these problems, or if they are vaguely aware but not concretely enough to do something about it. I think this is why climate change becomes such an important issue.

Yes, there is a lot of discussion about whether climate change is really taking place. Most people seem to be aware at some level that driving a car releases carbon into the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect that is slowly heating the planet. Are they aware enough to make different choices in their lives? I don't know the answer to that.

I think for some people on some of these issues, it might be a problem of awareness. I also think that even once you are aware of these difficulties, it can still be difficult to make the choices that you would need to make in order to live a more sustainable life.

How can people avoid feeling overwhelmed by all of the choices they'd have to make?

Environmental action is easier said than done, which is to say, it's easy to say all the right things about taking care of the environment. It's more difficult when it actually comes to the particular choices we have to make.

I would not want people to be discouraged. People can get discouraged by the size of the problem, by the number of different things you might do, even by bringing up the idea of not using disposable coffee cups. Like with a diet or an exercise regime, people should start where they are and take effective steps in the right direction.

Do not get discouraged if you feel like you can't do everything, or that you can't pursue some kind of environmental perfectionism. There is no environmental perfectionism. Instead, we need to focus on making the choices that will make the most difference. USC

The editors interview

David Cloutier

Associate professor of theology, Mount St. Mary's University, Emmitsburg, Maryland


President, Board of Directors The Common Market food cooperative, Frederick, Maryland

Author, Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press, 2014)

Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis's Environmental Encyclical (Liturgical Press, forthcoming, 2015)

Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (Anselm Academic/St. Mary's, 2008)

The eco-friendly Francis

How significant is it that Pope Francis chose the environment as the topic of his first encyclical?

It's very important. There has never been a papal encyclical specifically about the environment. The fact that there will be one is going to heighten awareness about how this issue is central to Catholic identity.

I think Francis is choosing this issue because it ties together so many other commitments Catholics have: to life, to the very existence of God, to the importance of social justice and helping the poor--all of which Francis thinks are very important. The key to the encyclical is going to be what connections he is able to make.

What might some of those connections be?

Obviously, Francis is not starting from scratch. If you look at the writings of John Paul II and particularly Benedict XVI, they spend an increasing amount of time talking about the environment. The way they've approached it is by connecting natural ecology to human ecology. They're saying that respecting the environment is essential for good human community.

I suspect the connection between natural ecology and human ecology will be the backbone of Francis' encyclical, but it's always dangerous to predict these things.

Do you think Francis has embodied the idea of living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle?

I think many people are impressed by his commitment to a simple lifestyle. Why is it that people respond to that? People take it as a sign that Francis is holy, sincere, and good. If that's true about Francis, why shouldn't it also be true about the choices we make every day?

Francis' example, and the fact that people find it so attractive, is one of the most important aspects of his papacy. I'm hoping that his example will not just be something people point to and say, "Well, that's nice that Francis does this," but rather an example people will take seriously and try to imitate.
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Title Annotation:expert witness: David Cloutier
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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