Encyclical on environment will spur dialogue and action

August 15, 2015


The encyclical that Pope Francis released in late spring on the issue of environmental degradation is a call for global dialogue and action to address the damage he says people are doing to the Earth. Catholic health ministry leaders told Catholic Health World the pontiff's treatise already is bringing new attention to environmental concerns and inspiring people worldwide to make real change. They said they believe the encyclical will have a deep and lasting impact on the work of Catholic health systems and facilities, motivating even the most environmentally conscious systems and hospitals to pursue a deeper commitment to the cause.

Providence Health & Services of Renton, Wash., is among the many Catholic health systems that already have robust environmental programs. Here, Ulysses Hammon, center, explains his responsibilities as an employee of Portland, Ore.'s Providence Health & Services Recycling Center to a group on a pre-CleanMed tour in May. CleanMed is a national conference for leaders in health care sustainability.

Sr. Susan Vickers, RSM, vice president, corporate responsibility, for San Francisco-based Dignity Health, said of the Catholic health ministry, "We have an opportunity to lead boldly — and I think this encyclical will bolster our efforts and give greater priority" to environmental efforts.

Colleen Scanlon, senior vice president and chief advocacy officer of Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives, said, "This encyclical heightens our sense of urgency and the depth of our commitment — this is the right and moral thing to do. The pope saying this provides the needed impetus for action." The encyclical will inform and influence CHI's environmental work, she said.

A challenge to act
In the pope's nearly 190-page encyclical letter "Laudato Si … On Care for Our Common Home," dated May 24, he uses scientific information to make the case that human activity has caused much harm to the planet and that environmental degradation has had a disproportionate impact on the world's poorest people. He writes that the pursuit of material possessions and of profit is a key culprit in environmental destruction. He calls for solutions that address poverty, respect human dignity and protect the Earth.

In the encyclical's closing chapters, Pope Francis urges dialogue and corrective action — at the individual, local, national and global levels. He writes, "An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption which affect us all; more importantly, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries."

Said Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, CHA president and chief executive officer: "Pope Francis has called us to face the issues. His constant plea in the encyclical is for people to recognize their responsibility to the Earth, to each other and to God. I am hopeful we will see people taking more seriously the urgency of this problem" of environmental destruction.

Ministry alignment
Catholic health care leaders said they were heartened to see how closely their systems' values, environmental efforts and strategic direction are aligned with the perspective of Pope Francis. And these ministry leaders said they foresee his encyclical providing incentive for intensified efforts going forward.

Sr. Vickers said she expects that when Dignity Health's governing board and the system's sustainability council meet, they will discuss plans "to further engage on climate change issues." She expects that work will have to do with climate resiliency, public health impacts of climate change and greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Sr. Andrea Nenzel, CSJP, is chair of the board of Vancouver, Wash.-based PeaceHealth — that board is both the fiduciary governing body and the private juridic person sponsor of the system. She said environmental stewardship long has been a priority for the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and for the 10 PeaceHealth hospitals they operate in the northwestern U.S. PeaceHealth facilities incorporate green design components including in lighting and heating and cooling systems.

Sr. Nenzel said when the congregation meets this fall, and then later this year when the board meets, she expects the leaders to evaluate how well existing efforts line up with the pope's priorities, and she expects both groups to reflect on how to build upon those efforts. She said it is possible they will discuss how to intensify PeaceHealth's water conservation efforts — a focus of Pope Francis. She said the system may explore new ways to reuse greywater, which is easy-to-process wastewater from sinks, dishwashers, baths, showers and the like — not from toilets. Sr. Nenzel thinks the leaders may consider how to encourage PeaceHealth associates to increase their use of public transportation. She also foresees that the system may encourage small-group gatherings and internal communications, such as newsletters, to get associates thinking about and studying the encyclical.

Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif., expanded its connection to the city’s reclaimed water system with this link that feeds the hospital’s air conditioning system. According to information from Providence, using reclaimed wastewater will save about 16 million gallons of water a year, an important move in drought-stricken California.

Sr. Pat Eck, CBS, is chair of Bon Secours Ministries, the public juridic person of Bon Secours Health System of Marriottsville, Md., and Dr. Don Seitz is a member of the fiduciary board of that system. Both said that at those leadership groups' meetings, which were to happen the weekCatholic Health World went to press, they expected that board members would discuss how the health system's directional statement, past work and strategic plan align with the papal focus on protecting the Earth. Bon Secours' directional statement calls for the system to "steward the resources of the ministry in creative and pioneering ways to ensure sustainability," and its three-year strategic plan ending in 2018 includes plans to expand the system's efforts to conserve water and energy.

Sr. Eck and Seitz said that while Bon Secours has a very robust and practical approach to sustainable use of natural resources, the two believe the encyclical challenges the system's board members and sponsors to consider additional ways to promote green energy use and curb pollution.

Personal reflection, collaborative change
Pope Francis writes that action is needed on the individual level, too. He challenges people to consider their own personal impact on the environment, to simplify their lives, reduce their consumption and to pray for positive change. Sr. Eck said that Bon Secours is encouraging associates to consider the implications of the encyclical in their own lives — the system has included references to the papal treatise in prayer and educational resources sent out to employees.

CHA and other Catholic organizations are creating information hubs for those seeking resources on the encyclical.

Sr. Vickers said, "I'm hopeful the encyclical will facilitate real, meaningful policy change on a global level." She noted that the encyclical is well timed — world leaders will convene in Paris late this year for the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The event's goal is to achieve an international agreement on actions to address global warming. Sr. Vickers anticipates that the Dignity Health board and the system's sustainability council will develop a plan to participate in — and influence — the Paris negotiations.

Daniel Misleh, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Climate Covenant, said he believes the encyclical already has raised the level of dialogue globally about environmental damage.

Encyclical resources
Many Catholic organizations have created online information hubs, related to the encyclical. They include:

  • CHA: chausa.org/environment/environment-encyclical, with links to encyclical coverage in CHA's Health Care Ethics USA and in Catholic and secular news outlets as well as links to prayer and discussion resources
  • The Catholic Climate Covenant: catholicclimatecovenant.org/pope_francis, with a "Current Action" section that provides the means for taking action on the pope's message, including by sending letters to congressmen and signing petitions on environmental protection
  • The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: usccb.org/about/leadership/holy-see/francis/pope-francis-encyclical-laudato-si-on-environment.cfm, with a USCCB statement on the encyclical as well as prayer, advocacy and learning resources from the conference and from other Catholic organizations
  • The Ignatian Solidarity Network: ignatiansolidarity.net/papal-encyclical-on-ecology-2015/, with prayer, reflection, advocacy and learning materials

Papal insights provide inspiration for ministry
In "Laudato Si … On Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis provides many insights that can serve as inspiration for Catholic health care leaders as they assess their organizations' environmental work and consider how their systems and facilities might respond to the pontiff's treatise.

Julie Trocchio, CHA's senior director of community benefit and continuing care, said the following excerpts may prove particularly inspirational and informative for ministry leaders:

"Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another." (Section 42)

"… we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness." (Section 53)

"When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them." (Section 87)

"Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth." (Section 92)

"The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone." (Section 95)

"Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God." (Section 119)

"Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good." (Section 157)

"In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters." (Section 158)

"Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently: we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others." (Section 159)

"Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most." (Section 169)

"Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy." (Section 189)

"… it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress." (Section 194)

"Living our vocation to be protectors of God's handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience." (Section 217)

"The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person's face." (Section 233)

"In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present." (Section 245)


Green practices prevalent at PeaceHealth facilities

PeaceHealth of Vancouver, Wash., is among the ministry providers already using numerous green approaches and practices in its facilities.

Some of its facilities have floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights to maximize the amount of natural light that comes in — a design element called daylight harvesting. All PeaceHealth facilities have automated smart lighting, which use timers, light sensors, occupancy sensors and self-adjusting blinds to regulate lighting for maximum efficiency given the specific conditions in the space.

PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center in Friday Harbor, Wash., uses a geothermal heat pump system. According to Gary Hall, system director of facilities for PeaceHealth, the system relies on a series of wells drilled deep into the ground, below the groundwater table. Pumps tap into the water and move it through a series of tubes. Generally, the ground temperature warms the water in the winter and cools it in the summer. The water is pumped through radiant heat panels in the building. The facility uses the system instead of traditional boilers and chillers.

PeaceHealth facilities also use efficient irrigation and water recycling to conserve water, though Sr. Andrea Nenzel, CSJP, chair of the PeaceHealth board, concedes that water conservation is not always seen as a top priority in the communities PeaceHealth serves in the Pacific Northwest — many of those communities are in close proximity to waterways.

PeaceHealth also is expanding its efforts to cut its waste, including medical waste generated in clinical areas such as operating rooms. Clinical waste goes into a separate waste stream and is expensive to process. One relatively simple way to reduce this waste is to ensure only medical waste goes in to medical waste containers. Medical supply companies normally use heavy packaging to protect the sterile field in surgical supply trays, and this packaging often ends up in red medical waste bags, when it could go into recycling containers. PeaceHealth environmental service team members are working with surgical staff to determine how best to ensure that as much packaging material as possible is recycled.


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.