Southeast L.A. County residents know well how pollution and environmental degradation alters the lives of many, especially those in low-income neighborhoods.
Last year, Exide Technologies agreed to permanently close its plant in Vernon, demolish it and clean up all pollution. It was a victory for residents, many of whom organized through Resurrection Church under the leadership of Msgr. John Moretta.
A seven-month investigation found that Exide had been emitting lead, arsenic and other toxic substances into the air, water supply and even highways during transport.
The massive cleanup that could take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars has outraged residents in the affected communities of Commerce, Bell, Huntington Park, East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.
Pope Francis spoke about how environmental degradation has a profound impact on the poor in his encyclical Laudato Si’, which was promulgated last May.
‘Care for our Common Home’
The subtitle of Laudato Si’ is “On Care for Our Common Home.” In order to be able to care for it, human beings have to first understand what it is that is happening to it.
The pope discusses crucial environmental issues: pollution and climate change, depletion and contamination of water supplies, the loss of biodiversity and destruction of ecosystems and weak responses from the international community in terms of regulation and policies.
Pope Francis, however, forces readers to look squarely at themselves in light of the Gospel message, showing us the related effects of the breakdown of society, the decline of the quality of human life caused by degradation of the environment and global inequity.
As we approach Earth Day, the words of Pope Francis ring out with urgency. “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change,” he wrote.
“Pope Francis is talking about how we view ourselves in relation to all of creation. Are we separate from creation or are we part of creation?” says Patrick Carolan, executive director of Franciscan Action Network who is also involved with the Global Catholic Climate Movement. “The change has to start within ourselves and the change has to be transformative of how we view ourselves.”
He noted that many are frustrated because they feel they can’t personally create change. If they write to the president, their senator, the Secretary General of the U.N. or other world leaders, they feel their voice falls on deaf ears.
“We are promoting what you can do personally,” said Carolan. “We need to simplify our lifestyle considerably. Doing that within our own homes, within our community, within our Churches — that’s the message of Pope Francis, and that’s a message we want to get across as part of Earth Day.”
Pope Francis highlights the human causes of climate change, turning the lens on individual actions. “We claim that we are the Body of Christ, but none of us actually believe that, because if we believed that we wouldn’t be destroying the climate. If we believed that we wouldn’t be buying products produced by slave labor in Bangladesh so we can have cheap products,” he said.
“That’s the transformation that has to happen. That transformation has to happen to us in the United States very soon, or we’re going to destroy the world,” Carolan said. “Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ calls for a bold cultural revolution. He’s not calling for a revolution of guns, he’s calling for a revolution of spirit, a revolution of how we view ourselves in relation of all creation.”
A moral, spiritual and ethical issue
In the anticipation of Laudato Si’, Carolan and other faith leaders were approached by the Green groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Sierra Club. “They would say, ‘We think this document is going to be so critical. We want to work with you on it. We want the faith community to take the lead in the environmental justice movement now,’” Carolan said.
Betsy Reifsnider, a volunteer Catholic climate ambassador for Catholic Climate Covenant, shared a similar experience.
“It makes me happy that Laudato Si’ has been embraced by people who are not Catholic, or not religious in any way,” Reifsnider said. She noted a woman who said she wept the whole time she was reading it and then started telling other environmental lobbyists that “it is such a wonderful document, it includes everything that all of us are working on, I feel so validated in my work because this pope has put into words what I feel,” Reifsnider said.
“We need the faith voice in this because we realize it is not a political issue. It is a moral, spiritual and ethical issue,” said Carolan. “That’s what we have to start thinking about. As a nation we have to have a discussion — what does it mean to be a moral nation?”
Carolan believes that Pope Francis has sparked that discussion, awakened a spirit of renewal and helped move it forward and now it is up to us to carry it. It’s also become a reference document, Reifsnider said.
“Laudato Si’ is a core resource. If anybody asks me to speak about climate change from the Catholic perspective, Laudato Si’ is really the entire organizing principal of any talk that I am giving,” said Reifsnider. She noted that people have been really engaged, with a hunger to talk about all these issues.
“At the end of my talks I mention that I read Laudato Si’ as an examination of conscience and, though I can’t really explain it, I feel something has shifted. I can’t explain it, but I feel it,” said Reifsnider. “As I say those words, I see people in the audience nodding and saying, ‘Yes, I feel it too.’ So it goes deeper than the intellect. There is something at the heart level, at the spirit level.”
Earth Day is every day
“Earth Day is nice, rallies are nice, but if it just a one-time thing, then it doesn’t really serve any purpose,” said Carolan. "We really need to think about, particularly those of us who live in the global north, those of us in the United States, what can we do?" he added.
“I think people are understanding that every day does need to be Earth Day. Just as a special feast day can remind us of the importance of certain truths, Earth Day can be an important organizing tool and date,” Reifsnider said. “The secular world will have Earth Day festivals and I am hoping that at some places, interfaith groups and the local Catholic church will be invited to have booths.”
So what about climate justice for the poor around the world — or for those struggling to get by in the inner cities? What about people like those in the working-class neighborhoods in East L.A. affected by the irresponsibility of Exide?
“Instead of an intellectual checklist of things I should do for the environment, people should feel and understand a connection with all their brothers on earth. Truly a sense that we are all connected and that whatever I do on the earth is having an effect on my brothers and sisters around the world, human and otherwise,” Reifsnider said.
“We need to have a consistent ethics of life. We need to say that all life matters, all life is important, no life is more important than any other life,” said Carolan. “Jesus’ message in Matthew 26, ‘What you did to the least of my brothers, you did unto me,’ that’s what we are going to be judged on. That is what we should focus our time and energies on is those issues.”
Toward a Catholic ecology
There are many ways for Catholics to get involved in efforts to respect the environment or work for climate justice. Here are some resources:
Catholic Climate Covenant: www.catholicclimatecovenant.org
Global Catholic Climate Movement: www.catholicclimatemovement.global
Franciscan Action Network: www.franciscanaction.org