Re-Energizing Public Theology: Recommendations for an Updated USCCB Energy Statement

Catholic Social Ethics

Daniel R. DiLeo

 

In 1981, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Social Development and World Peace (now the Committee on Justice, Peace and Human Development) published a statement on energy titled Reflections on the Energy Crisis. In this statement, the bishops utilized Catholic Social Teaching (CST) to offer insightful considerations about various questions related to energy production and consumption. Although this statement continues to offer a useful framework for Catholic reflection on energy questions, three decades of technological innovation and environmental challenges have brought about the need for an updated USCCB energy statement. Towards that end, this post will summarize the 1981 USCCB energy statement, identify aspects of the statement that continue to be particularly relevant, and briefly propose ways in which an updated energy statement can offer more pertinent Catholic guidance regarding today’s most pressing energy challenges.

Reflections on the Energy Crisis

The USCCB’s 1981 energy statement is made up of five sections. The “Introduction” frames the impetus for the bishops’ statement: in the face of the impending “peak” of oil and gas production, the world—led by the U.S.—must “find some way of switching over to dependence on alternative sources of energy without sinking into economic chaos.” Next, the bishops outline “The Moral Dimensions of Energy Policy” by highlighting six key principles: protection of human life and dignity; creation care; moderate consumption (i.e., “temperance” in virtue language); justice; priority concern for the poor and vulnerable, especially workers in relevant energy sectors; and political participation.

Following the articulation of these principles, the bishops go on to discuss “Making the Transition: Sources of Energy.” In particular, the bishops reflect on the relative advantages and disadvantages of shifting the nation’s energy mix with respect to “conventional oil and natural gas,” conservation, coal, nuclear, geothermal, synthetic oil and gas, and solar (which for them “includes energy from the sun; from wind, wave and falling water; and from biomass”). This section about energy technologies is then followed by “Making the Transition: Energy Distribution and Control,” wherein the bishops consider the various methods of, stakeholders in, and systemic challenges regarding energy distribution. Finally, the statement’s “Conclusion” reiterates the need for thoughtful public debate about energy policy and invites various Catholic communities to play distinct roles in this discussion.

Enduring Contributions from 1981

Given this overview of the bishops’ 1981 energy statement, several insights from this document seem especially appropriate to twenty-first century energy questions. First, there remains a pressing need in the U.S. for a large-scale transition to alternative energy sources. Additionally, there is a necessity to move beyond “the hard and rather narrow analytical tools that have guided energy development in the past.” Moreover, the bishops’ six moral principles continue to provide a sound ethical framework within which to consider energy questions.

In addition to these points, the bishops’ emphasis on the need for energy conservation and the large-scale implementation of solar power—an emphasis repeated by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in veritate(no. 49) and his 2010 World Day of Peace Message(nos. 9-10)—continues to be especially germane. Furthermore, the bishops’ emphasis on the need for both market economics and select government interventions to achieve just energy distribution—which is rooted in the CST principle of subsidiarity—is especially important (especially in the face of Catholics who disproportionately affirm one to the near—

or total—exclusion of the other). Moreover, the bishops’ recognition of “structural sin” with respect to “energy distribution and control”—wherein “some corporations neglect or deny their social responsibilities, government sometimes acts without due regard for the common good and pressure groups relentlessly pursue their narrow goals in defiance of others’ legitimate concerns”—is perhaps even more important now in the post-Citizens United, post-McCutcheon v. FEC-era of Super PACs and limitless individual campaign donations. Finally, the bishops’ call for all Catholics to faithfully engage in public discussions about energy policy remains a bedrock principle of all political and public theology.

Necessary Revisions to an Updated USCCB Energy Policy

Although the bishops’ 1981 energy statement thus continues to make important contributions to contemporary energy discussions, there seem to be several important updates necessary to a Catholic energy statement for the twenty-first century. The first is that the real and present reality of anthropogenic climate change is one of the most—if not the most—pressing energy challenge facing humanity. This is due to the fact that this challenge—which is accepted by 97% of climate scientists as well as the Catholic Church—is both largely driven by fossil fuel combustion and rapidly approaching a “tipping point” beyond which its adverse consequences will likely become both runaway and irreversible.

In addition, and in light of the bishops’ statement Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, an updated USCCB energy statement must be more firmly grounded in the virtue of prudence described by Aquinas as “right reason applied to action” (Summa  Theologiae, ST, II-II, 47.1 s.c.). Given that prudence is “perfected and helped” by counsel, understood as conference with wise persons (ST II-II, 47.2), an updated USCCB energy statement should furthermore insist that public discussions about energy be guided by the consensus of mainstream science and environmental economics. As a result, an updated USCCB energy statement should furthermore: advocate for a national economic price on carbon dioxide emissions; reprove energy sources that propel rather than mitigate climate change; and denounce agenda-driven efforts to confuse public understanding of climate science.

Conclusion

In keeping with article 43 of Gaudium et spes, the 1981 USCCB energy statement “offers no solutions to the swirling controversies that surround the formation of energy policy.” Rather, the bishops present ethical insights and prudent recommendations through which they seek to aid all persons of faith and goodwill in the advocacy of just energy policy. The last three decades have generated both new technologies and pressing environmental challenges, and in view of these developments there is an urgent need for the USCCB to update its energy statement for the twenty-first century.

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