The Polish Church should join the conversation on ecology. It is not, as many church leaders believe, another threat to Christianity, but one of our greatest civilisational challenges. Michał Olszewski reports
June 20, 2013 saw an event of symbolic importance. Seven hierarchs wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk, calling on him to take on responsibility for the upcoming climate summit in Warsaw. The bishops and archbishops pointed out that Poland would soon “have a pivotal role to play, not only among diplomats and world leaders, but also for people all over the world, particularly the most vulnerable ones who are already suffering the effects of climate change”. Another signatory to the appeal was Theotonius Gomes, Auxiliary Bishop to the Archdiocese of Dhaka in Bangladesh, a country suffering ever more severely the effects of the climate crisis. Interestingly, the clerics sent the Polish government a message gently criticising its actions, writing: “Poland has been criticised for not engaging sufficiently in Europe to tackle climate change. However, knowing the perseverance and faith of Polish people, we trust that your country can become a climate leader, positioning itself at the forefront in creating sustainable and low-carbon societies.” The letter went unanswered, but that is beside the point here: it can be seen as further evidence of a growing interest in ecology within the Catholic Church, and among Christians in general.
Recent decades have seen believers take a range of spectacular actions in the name of environmental protection. Some have paid for their engagement with their lives. Christian clergy are not afraid to speak out on ecological issues, because they realise that they are clearly associated with the social obligations of the churches, which tackle not only eternal questions but also worldly activities. These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive – after all, respect for animal rights and the economical management of natural resources are congruent with the image of man as a fair master, taking brief custodianship of the Earth from God. For now, the crowning achievement of this activity is the Encyclical Laudato si’ by Pope Francis – the first document devoted entirely to environmental protection. For it, incidentally, Franciszek met with a wave of criticism. “How is it the Pope’s job to criticise fossil fuels? What authority does he have?” were the questions of irritated right-wing journalists.
Compared to other countries, Catholics in Poland are very disengaged from environmental protection. Since the days of Archbishop Muszyński and Bishop Andrzejewski, who in the 1980s drew up an examination of ecological conscience, there has not been any significant attempt to reflect theologically on environmentalism in the Polish Church. Father Wacław Hryniewicz, whose works condemn man’s brutal attitude towards nature, is seen as a heretic within the church. The Saint Francis of Assisi Environmental Movement, the oldest Catholic organisation concerned with environmental protection, currently consists of only a few dozen people, and its chairman, Father Stanisław Jaromi, is probably the only clergyman not afraid to discuss the Catholic view on environmental protection openly. In general, Polish Catholics remain passive on matters of ecology, and do not audibly or openly engage in the debate.
The hierarchs’ reluctance to discuss ecology might be a diplomatic stance towards Polish society. Bold engagement in the secular world and commenting on matters beyond the realm of the Church are seen in a poor light in our supposedly Catholic country and attract instant criticism. According to a still very popular view among Polish Catholics, a priest should know about angels, the book of Revelations and all of the saints: about segregating garbage – not so much.
Yet, the division between what lies within the clergy’s sphere of interest and what remains outside seems very arbitrary. If priests can ignore criticism and discuss abortion, euthanasia, in vitro, religion in schools and TV programs, why can’t they talk about animal rights or environmental destruction? Burning plastic in stoves, which is a genuine plague in Polish towns and villages, is, if not a sin, at least a serious offense against social norms. Industrial farms are a far cry from the image of man as a good and wise custodian caring for his lesser brothers. Why are Polish Catholic hierarchs silent on such crucial matters?
There is a far more prosaic answer. For many clergy, environmentalism is a synonym for a new religion that is anti-Christian to its core. It is perceived as the domain of leftists, ecoterrorists and supporters of abortion and euthanasia, and arouses resentment and fear. A grotesque promise was made by a parish priest from near Augustów during the dispute over the Rospuda valley, that when environmentalists appeared in the village, he would ring out the bell in alarm. But it is no joke when we realise that many clergymen think the same way. Father Jacek Salij, for instance, warned against environmentalists, reminding readers in his book “Stars and People” that Hitler was a vegetarian, while Father Tadeusz Guz, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Lublin, compared environmentalists to Nazis.
And yet environmentalism is flourishing in Polish parishes. To persuade yourself of this fact, it is enough to visit the Kielce “Sacroexpo” trade fair, which brings together suppliers of everything related to sacral infrastructure – from monstrances to stone altars. For several years, energy efficient offers have constituted a large part of the exhibition. There is much to show off about – churches require very large amounts of energy to heat, and careful actions can significantly reduce energy bills. Priests are installing sectoral heating (why heat a whole church when attendance at Holy Mass is barely in double figures?), heat pumps, solar thermal collectors and photovoltaic panels; Równia Szaflarska in Nowy Targ is already home to the country’s first passive church – it consumes one seventh the energy of a regular church, and the insulation is very effective – to the point that not even the heat of the church’s light bulbs or candles is wasted. Meanwhile in Olcza in Podhale a parish hydro-electric power plant generates electricity for the Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a retreat home, and the presbytery. The Episcopate does not have a full record of such activities, but they certainly number in the hundreds. The example of local activities clearly shows that renewable energy sources and energy efficiency can pay off in parish budgets, while also benefitting the environment.
There is no reason to presume that ecologists and the Church will ever come together in ecumenical peace. It is difficult to imagine a compromise on the most emotive issues of demographics (where on one side certain ecologists are convinced that overpopulation is a major ecological problem, while the other holds that any attempts to reduce birth rates in poorer societies are unacceptable). The list of disagreements aside, however, there is plethora of common concerns: Catholics and atheists breathe the same air, bathe in the same rivers, and drink from the same water intakes. If only for this reason, Catholics must now more than ever join the conversation on ecology and abandon the belief that every pro-environmentalist’s hat hides the horns of a devil.