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Posted August 17, 2009

Spiritual lesson of caring for creation
seen in eco-friendly designs

By Carmen Blanco
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- While businesses have undergone "green" renovations for the long-term cost-effectiveness they can bring, churches and schools are turning toward eco-friendly designs and practices to demonstrate the spiritual lesson of caring for creation.

"We are now in a period where people of different faiths are becoming more conscientious and involved in this environmental phenomenon," Bill Dinges, professor of religion and culture at The Catholic University of America in Washington told Catholic News Service in a phone interview.

"The concept of 'green buildings' was new in the 1990s when we decided to renovate our convent," said Felician Sister Mary Alexander of Coraopolis, Pa.

"As Franciscans, we live by the rule of St. Francis. And living near Pittsburgh, we were aware of air pollution. We always recycled but it was mostly an individual effort. Now, it's our way of life," she told CNS.

The sisters' project began as a small renovation of their 1932 brick building, which had poor ventilation and steam heaters. It eventually became a project to make their convent and their 1960s high school building eco-friendly with sensor lights, solar panels, a greenhouse and ample natural lighting.

The decision to make the convent and high school green was an act of both fiscal and environmental stewardship.

"Once the buildings were finished, we decided we needed to change our habits. Our leadership team began an educational program to teach the sisters about green living. Everything we use now is a green product: no waxes, polishes or aerosol," she told CNS.

But green renovations do not have to be architectural. Educational programs, such as those the Felicians enacted, are popping up in churches and dioceses.

John Sniegocki, associate professor of Christian ethics at Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cincinnati, told CNS about the emergence of "green committees."

The Cincinnati Archdiocese formed a climate-change task force that aims to help the archdiocese and its parishes fulfill the elements of the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor, a national campaign instituted by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change.

St. John the Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Md., has an eco-ministry that holds monthly meetings and engages participants in various practical and spiritual efforts. At the beginning of this year, the eco-ministry offered a seminar to study the effects of climate change. The ministry is also headed by Dinges of Catholic University.

The Catholic Church in general has been no stranger to addressing ecological issues and incorporating Catholic teaching within an environmental context.

"(Pope) John Paul II's encyclicals demonstrate his growing sensitivity to the environment," Dinges told CNS.

The late pope's 1990 World Day of Peace message, "Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation" -- in which he talked about the Catholic duty to care for creation and the result its destruction would have on mankind -- is widely cited among Christian ecologists.

Dinges told CNS, "The document explicitly addresses the environmental crisis. He laid out a general theology of Catholic thinking and our responsibility in this regard. Most important, though, among other things, is the way in which he acknowledged and argued that the environmental crisis is also a moral and spiritual crisis."

The Vatican already has begun to reduce its carbon footprint. Last year, it began a reforestation project and installed solar panels atop the roof of the Paul VI audience hall which generates enough electricity to heat, cool and light the entire building year-round.

"We are no longer in a position, given what has come from the Vatican and magisterium to marginalize this issue. People can't write this off as tree-huggers gone mad," Dinges said.