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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

Women healing earth, healing church

While a handful of men such as Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry, who calls himself a “geologian” and Jesuit Fr. Al Fritsch, director of Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, have made major philosophical and analytical contributions to the green movement in the church, it’s largely women religious who are living the green vision by making changes in their personal and community lives.

Fritsch has led 200 environmental resource assessments for colleges, parishes, farms, and religious communities in 33 states and Canada -- 80 for Catholic women’s congregations, just a handful for men’s -- in 25 years. A full assessment examines a group’s land use, water, food, energy, shelter, waste recycling systems and contemporary lifestyle patterns and serves as an instrument for long-range planning to achieve greater natural resource conservation and sustainability.

“I don’t think there is anybody in America who has looked into the attics and back 40s of religious women’s residences more than I,” Fritsch said with a chuckle. He said he is proud of the communities that have completed most or all of the steps he has recommended, some of which were described in the main article. “The truth is women are doing it so much better than men.”

That disparity disappoints Norbertine Br. Steve Herro, who coordinates the peace and justice activities of his 90-member community and is active with a DePere, Wis., environmental group. He recently surveyed men’s communities “to see how they might support more green actions” but received only “five or six” responses and no success stories to report.

“From my own experience,” said Herro, “the people making the decisions haven’t quite seen the moral reasons as much as the economic reasons.” Men are more likely to address mechanical changes such as a installing a more energy-efficient heating system than they are to make personal lifestyle changes such as choosing to buy locally produced food or change their transportation patterns. He added, “I would like to see us become more proactive.”

Sisters say they’re inspired by fellow women religious as well as feminist theologians and role models such as Sallie McFague, St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and Dominican Sr. Miriam Therese MacGillis, and they may tend to be more open-minded and less inhibited by conventional dualistic thinking. Some commend the U.S. bishops for pastoral statements on such environmental matters as the Columbia River watershed and sustainable agriculture but admit that religious women are more likely to be living green values at the grass-roots level.

“Some spiritualities still rest, I suspect, in that old duality of nature and spirit,” observed Sr. Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence. “We have started to lay that aside.”

“Women get it that bodies matter!” said Sr. Gabriele Uhlein of the Wheaton, Ill., Franciscans. Her community deeply connects their work for social justice, such as their efforts to end the trafficking of women and children, with green values. “By reducing our carbon footprint, we are more life-giving. To arrange our lives in such a way to witness to and celebrate the beauty of the interconnection of earth and all our brothers and sisters is another way of saying to live simply so others can simply live.”

Fritsch more bluntly calls sexism a barrier: “[Many] men just don’t see women as role models.”

But ultimately, the answer to the environmental crisis of our time rests not in “knowing,” but in “doing,” said Fritsch, and the sisters know how to dig in and get the job done.

“I have yet to be invited to a women’s community that is not already environmentally aware and taking steps” to green their lives, agreed Uhlein.

The wider community seems hungry for the leadership women religious are providing within the green movement by example.

“The movement has generated an enormous amount of goodwill in their surrounding communities,” reported Sarah McFarland Taylor, whose research included interviews with more than 100 sisters for her book Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology, “and not just among Catholics but among people of diverse religions traditions. When I visited these communities, people of all different faiths are volunteering in these ministries, thinking extremely well of the work the sisters are doing. Green sisters embody a very positive face of the Catholic church.”

-- Kris Berggren

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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