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How Green Is the Catholic Conscience?

In a diocese whose leaders say little in defence of the environment, Sister Victoria Marie chooses her own path.

By Adam Pez 7 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

For the last 13 years, Sister Victoria Marie has provided spiritual guidance and material support for guests of Samaritan House, a small shelter on East Pender Street near Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

An African American, she grew up in 1950s New York. She's had to overcome racism and alcoholism, sobering up in the 1990s before becoming a nun.

She speaks quietly, with the soft rasp of someone who's smoked a long time. She pauses between words to consider each sentence.

"It's the air, it's the water, it's the soil, it's global warming -- it's everything," said Marie. She said she's worked with her sisters to help spread knowledge about fracking and what Canadian mining companies are doing in the developing world. She has offered prayer services for those concerned about global warming.

Marie has been a member of a relatively new activist group of nuns -- the Franciscan Sisters of Joy, which work in higher education and in relieving poverty in refugee families. And she has worked on ecological issues with Vancouver's Catholic Workers, lay persons who commit to a life of poverty and non-violence as they embrace social justice issues. But Sister Victoria Marie now is pursuing a different calling:

This July, Sister Marie will be ordained a priest -- although not in the disapproving eyes of the official church. In fact, not only must Marie as a result of her decision leave the Franciscan Sisters of Joy, but she will be automatically excommunicated by an earlier Vatican decree, said a Suzanne Thiel, a representative for Roman Catholic Women Priests.

Excommunication means Marie will remain a Catholic but will no longer be able to receive communion and cannot be buried on church ground, said Thiel.*

At over 60 years-old, Marie lacks mobility and has trouble standing.

But Marie, who possesses two Masters degrees and a PhD, said she gave a lot of thought to the path she is choosing.

"I didn't want to be a priest just to be a protest. That wasn't my thing. To see that there's really, really a need as well as being prophetic, that appealed to me. And I talked it over with a lot of people before making this decision," she said. 

The Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver is among the most conservative in North America, and Marie is not alone in saying its leaders are "missing out on a lot of opportunities on a lot of different things."

Green issues, like the state of the air, the soil, and water and climate change are getting little talk at the pulpit of the Holy Rosary Cathedral downtown.  And that's in stark contrast to the wishes of many Vancouver Catholics, who quietly say that want a greener, more outspoken church.

Cascadia's green spirituality

Green spirituality is gaining a foothold in B.C. and in nearby Washington State. And it meshes well with the "Cascadian" spiritualism of many Lower Mainland residents.

Faith in Cascadia -- which includes Oregon, Alaska and everything in between -- is deeply influenced by environmentalism, writes Vancouver Sun religion and ethics reporter Douglas Todd.

Todd was lead contributor to Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia -- a collection of essays on the nature of religious belief in the Pacific Northwest. The region's rugged terrain and the coast's distance from eastern centres of power has resulted in a unique Cascadian religiosity, wrote Todd. 

As a result, established religion is weaker here -- supplanted by a green spiritualism inspired by outdoor recreation, influenced by Asian faiths and driven by environmental concern.

Indeed Vancouver, a city once nicknamed "Lotus Land," provided the cradle for Greenpeace, which formed out of a mingling of Vietnam War draft dodgers and local B.C. activists.

And some Christian congregations have recently started to speak more explicitly to an emerging green faith movement.

This past April, representatives from Anglican parishes across the Lower Mainland -- with a mix of representatives from other denominations -- met in downtown Vancouver's Christ Church Cathedral to discuss the Trans-mountain and Northern Gateway pipelines. They called their event "Compassion for Creation."

Among Vancouver Catholics, environmental advocacy is less heard from the pulpit and more often within classrooms.

Students at the all-boys Vancouver college busy themselves picking up trash and learning about water-rights issues as part of the school's environment club.

The Catholic school, located in the affluent Shaughnessy neighborhood, is one of Vancouver's oldest and most prestigious, and for a decade it has given students from elementary to high school the opportunity to participate in environmental work.

According to its website, the school itself has also been proactive in cutting down on paper waste, using biodegradable cutlery and plates in its cafeterias and staff rooms, promoting earth hour, and raising money for environmental causes.  

"We're really into water, and how water should be free. This coming year we want to make people more aware not to use disposable water bottles," said school Spanish and art teacher Shireen Cotterall, who also runs the senior environmental group for Grades 10 and 11.  

As part of a city program, students go out and paint yellow fish near storm drains to remind potential polluters that those drains lead to the ocean, she said, adding the group also participates in the adopt-a-whale program.

The school also hosts "a water for life day," she said. "That's a really big deal; the kids wear blue and we dunk the teachers and we sell freezies."

Those programs in turn create an opportunity to educate students on their religious obligation to remain environmentally aware, she added.   

"For example, the water bottle thing," she said. "I lived in Mexico and Latin America for a long time, and I had no water. People would walk for miles to the town well with a stick on their back, and also being in Latin America, a huge part of the population is Catholic. So I showed them pictures and I told them my stories and that's how I connected."

"They were like wow, oh, really?"

"So often kids live in their own little bubble and their own little reality. Exposing them to other people is a way of really making it a reality for them," she said, noting the students also often go out into the neighbourhood to pick up trash.

"I think all schools should do this, because kids dump garbage all the time in their area," she said.  

'Life issues' versus green issues?

So far, the Archdiocese of Vancouver has been reluctant to also take a similar leadership role in educating its flock on green issues.  

The mandates of the archdiocese's 20-some-odd offices address topics ranging widely, from First Nations and social justice to "life issues" -- defined as euthanasia, abortion, contraception and so on. Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller has been vociferous in his opposition to a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling supportive of assisted suicide.

Life issues and giving and ministering to the poor are the archdiocese's immediate responsibility, not environmental issues, said Paul Schratz, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, who said the Archbishop was not available for an interview.

Schratz noted the archdiocese' vocal opposition to human trafficking, and its support for refugees from war-torn countries like Iraq and for migrant farm labourers in the Fraser River Valley. 

"We see the number of people around us who are in need of our services. Until we're satisfied we're doing everything we can to help them and reach out to them, I think it would almost be irresponsible to divert our resources to causes that other groups are doing very well at covering," Schratz said, mentioning Catholic individuals, environmental organizations and the media as examples.

"The environment is not something the archdiocese has an official office over," he said, noting division amongst lay members of the church keep it from releasing a statement on proposed oil sands pipelines. Instead, he said, "we have priests who are sort of specialists in ecology and environmentalism."  

Global, green, Catholic?

"The Catholic faith is a very 'earthy' religion," said Father John McCarthy, chaplain at the University of British Columbia's St. Mark's College, who might be one of the ecological specialists Schratz had in mind. McCarthy is a Jesuit with a strong background in science, holding a UBC doctorate in forest ecology. His work in boreal forest conservation earned him a gold prize from the Royal Geographical Society of Canada.

Theologically, he said, God's role as creator should steer Catholics towards a reverence for nature. He added concern over the purity of baptismal water and that of the bread and wine consumed during communion also lends itself to a concern over the health of air, water and earth. As a result, he said, Catholics are a natural environmental constituency, and that's often reflected by their leaders.

"You get all sorts of ecumenical and papal statements in support of the environment," he said. Starting in 1998, Philippine bishops convened a conference called "What is happening to our beautiful land?" over deforestation in their home country, he said, noting in Queensland, Australia, bishops also released a letter on the Great Barrier Reef. More recently, a St. Paul, Alberta bishop put out a letter on the "tar sands" detailing what the project means socially and ecologically. "Especially ecologically," McCarthy added.

But when asked what Catholic green activities were going on locally in Vancouver, McCarthy paused.

"There's not a whole lot, to tell you the truth," he said. That contrasts sharply with what's going on to the south of British Columbia, where Washington State Catholics are involved in opposing coal power and other environmental causes, with the approval of high church officials there (see sidebar).

McCarthy later wrote in an email statement that often Catholics get engaged at a parish, congregation or even individual level, even if their diocese does not. He also noted the archdiocese has done some work, pitching in to a five-year plan to bring eco-justice to drought-stricken Africans.

McCarthy added he has often thought of helping the archdiocese draft a letter on sustainability to help spur action amongst Lower Mainland congregations, but he wrote he hasn't had time, given his work.

Crackdown on liberal clergy

While Vancouver's Catholic hierarchy has consistently hewed conservative, overall, North American Catholics aren't as traditional as the church's reputation might imply. A 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found support for gay marriage amongst American Catholics exceeded that of the general American public itself.

That liberalism amongst professed American Catholics is probably shared in Canada, and it's evidence for the need for more guidance and education from church clergy, said Schratz. In recent months, the Vatican has taken steps to enforce orthodoxy amongst North American Catholics.  

The Vatican has exerted more control over the continent's nuns, appointing the Archbishop of Seattle (incidentally) to oversee the nearly 50,000-strong Leadership Conference of Women Religious. A recent Vatican investigation concluded that many North American nuns have strayed too far from church teachings by embracing a "radical," "feminist" creed at the expense of "life" issues.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver has itself earned a reputation as a diligent enforcer of church edicts on issues like homosexuality, women's participation and abortion. And it's also generated some concern in the past over shoving out Catholics who voice public criticism of the church's ultra-orthodox approach, according to the Vancouver Sun.

The archdiocese's stringent orthodoxy is one of the reasons Marie says she wants to become a priest. She said she wants to service those "hurt or alienated by the church."

She is unhappy with the church treatment of openly homosexual people and of divorcees without church annulments -- both of which cannot receive communion, she said. She also doesn't understand how church clergy can be dismissive of gay marriages.

"There's a lot of people in the homosexual community that are Catholic and religious," she said. "When the issue of gay marriage came up, a letter was read in all the parishes against gay marriage -- a lot of people who had been going to church up until that point stopped going, because it was really an insult invalidating their love."

Marie is also critical of recent changes to the English-language translation of the liturgy -- the lines said during mass. She says the translation has become less inclusive, while preaching has become too focused on sin and guilt, rather than compassion and God's love.

Environmentalism, she said, is just another topic the archdiocese should show more leadership on, or stand to lose out -- meaning fewer people in the pews and fewer dollars in collection plates.

"I don't think they emphasize our environmental obligations enough in our spiritual commands," she said.

*Story corrected Sunday July 8 at 11 p.m.  [Tyee]

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