Mark Stoll, Washington Post.
Stoll recently wrote a column about the Pope’s support for environmental issues and the Catholic tradition for environmental justice, citing CHEJ’s founder Lois Gibbs as “the first Catholic to become nationally known for environmental activism.”
Just about every person who led and shaped the American conservation and early environmental movements grew up Protestant. What irony, then, that the one person who has done more to get people talking about the environment than anyone in decades is the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.
Every pope since Paul VI has addressed environmental issues, but Francis’s encyclical this summer made many people aware for the first time of a Catholic concern for the environment. Even dedicated environmentalists might have a hard time naming a major Catholic environmentalist.
The average person could probably more easily name the seven Catholic Republican presidential candidates, who deny or downplay environmental problems like climate change.
Up through the 19th century, Protestant ministers wrote most of the great works about nature as the creation of God. The pantheon of great heroes of environmentalism is thoroughly Protestant — Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey. Exceptions have generally been Jewish, like Paul Ehrlich or Michael Pollan.
Francis’s encyclical framed global warming and environmental issues in a very Catholic way, in terms of their injustice to the poor. Since Vatican II in the 1960s, the Catholic Church has made social justice central to its teaching. It’s no accident, then, that the environmental justice movement is exactly where Catholics have participated most enthusiastically in American environmentalism.
The deeply devout Cesar Chavez might be said to have been the first major Catholic environmental leader in the late 1960s and 1970s, when his farm worker movement protested workers’ exposure to agricultural chemicals.
But the first Catholic to become nationally known for environmental activism was Lois Gibbs. Developers had built Love Canal, her neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on top of 20,000 tons of buried toxic waste. Horrific health problems, especially for children, finally made headlines in 1978.
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