Catholic Vancouver Jan. 23, 2019

Environment has staunch ally in Catholic Church: scientific sister

By Agnieszka Ruck

The Catholic Church has answers to some of the wicked and complex environmental problems facing the earth, says Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE. The Dean of Science and Sustainability at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., was visiting Vancouver. (Agnieszka Ruck photo)

In the worldwide arena of human versus earth, the competition between sustaining human life and preserving the natural world, there is an unlikely, yet powerful, force that can bring harmony.

That force, according to environmental scientist Sister Damien Marie Savino, is the Catholic Church.

“In my mind, the Catholic Church is the institution that could really solve some of these wicked environmental problems that are global and really complex,” she said.

Sister Savino, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist with a doctorate in environmental engineering, believes the Church’s 2,000-year history of intellectual tradition and moral teaching makes it a particularly good candidate for promoting the well-being of all of creation.

“Our robust view of who we are as human persons,” with souls, bodies, and inherent dignity, is “central” to how Catholics can contribute to the solution, she said. “We are the gardeners in the system.”

Laudato Si’, the encyclical Pope Francis released in 2015, has been labelled, and even criticized, as an “environmental epistle.” Sister Savino argues this narrow view doesn’t accurately describe Pope Francis’ writing, which is actually a “huge resource” for Catholics who care about the planet and each other.

“The marriage of human ecology and natural ecology is pretty central to the Catholic approach for creation care,” she said. “What I see the encyclical trying to do is to bring those together into a consistent life ethic.”

This life ethic combines human dignity with care for creation, said Sister Savino. For example, hormones and chemicals that may act like hormones are cycling into rivers, lakes, and oceans and have been discovered in water in remote places, including in Antarctica.

“This is a huge problem that many people are not aware of,” said Sister Savino, who spent her childhood in the lakes of New England.

“Some of it is industrial chemicals,” and some is the result of personal behaviours such as using birth control pills. Some hormones and chemicals are not typically filtered in waste water treatment and can have profound effects on animals; one study in Colorado found fish populations downstream of a wastewater treatment plant had abnormally high numbers of hermaphroditic fish and higher infertility rates than the fish living upstream.

“It’s a very natural argument for why we shouldn’t be using contraceptives, on top of health effects for women” and the Catholic moral argument, said Sister Savino.

Another example of combining human dignity with care for creation, she added, are the small, daily sacrifices people make. “If you use less power because you care for creation, and you do it out of love, that is a noble act and an act of virtue.”

Sister Savino, currently the Dean of Science and Sustainability at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., shared her thoughts in Vancouver during a visit to the John Paul II Pastoral Centre Jan. 18.

She told her 70 audience members that despite the immense challenges humans face over trying to clean up and preserve the planet and its inhabitants, they should not lose heart.

“We have to approach it with a sense of hope and a sense of what we as humans can do for good.”


What is “Ecological Conversion”?

Sister Savino suggests:

  • Recognition of our sins and failures 
  • A heartfelt desire to change 
  • Awareness of our interconnectedness 
  • Assuming responsibility 
  • Using our creativity and God-given gifts 
  • Gratitude