Climate Change, Poverty and the Catholic Church

Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth Administration Building, Convent Station, NJ (public domain image)

When I was in high school, I had a Religion teacher named Sister Peggy. Peggy was the kind of nun who usually didn’t wear a habit. Instead, she sported soft pastel turtlenecks with a tiny cross necklace on the outside of the collar, and a tan skirt. When she did wear a habit, it was a very simple piece of cloth pinned to her hair, with her bangs still resting on her forehead.

Peggy was the kind of nun who mentioned handing out condoms at the last school where she worked. In other words, she was about as cool as a nun could get while still being a nun. Peggy eventually left the convent and got married (or so I heard), making the whole arc of her career a perfect metaphor for how I view the Church.

Let me back up. What did I learn from Peggy? It was 1988, and we already knew a lot about climate change. Calling it global warming, Ms. Chorba, the biology teacher, made it the central focus of our freshman science education. Sister Peggy also made it the focus of our religious education, moving seamlessly from talking about the creation story to stewardship of the planet to causes (and effects) of income inequality and resource use. The most memorable thing Peggy said all year: “In order for the Third World to become Second World, the First World must become Second World.”

Peggy was very clear that we middle- and upper-middle class young women would need to give up some of our comforts and privileges in order to bring poverty closer to an end. Not complete end. Jesus said, the poor we will have with us always. But we should try our hardest. I don’t know if the other girls in my class took her message to heart, but 30 years later, I think about it every day.

I think about her every time I’m in an air conditioned room, every time I throw away plastic wrap, when I fly for a one-day work event, when I drive alone somewhere I could have reached by public transit if I’d planned better. Things that harm the planet and which I can do which a poor person somewhere doesn’t have the luxury of doing.

The practices of considering the poor and considering my impact on the planet — and understanding how those are connected — are the best gifts the Catholic Church gave me. I know it’s hard for non-Catholics to imagine that prioritizing climate change and poverty and critical thinking is a tradition that some Catholics received, but we did.

Like Sister Peggy, many of us who follow that tradition have since left the Catholic Church. It is too much associated with its pedophilia and misogyny to be rescued by its social justice message. They are at odds, and we’d rather practice our faith in other ways. There is a part of me that hate the formal Church, but a larger part mourns that Sister Peggy’s message did not become our guiding light over the past thirty years. I wonder where we would be if it had.

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