August 17, 2015

WASHINGTON - The Catholic Committee of Appalachia has called on the 26 bishops of the region to engage Catholics in the pews, the mining industry and elected officials on Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment.

Members of the organization, which includes dozens of parish and organizational representatives throughout the 13-state region stretching from New York to Mississippi, asked the bishops "to speak boldly and act publicly" in response to the encyclical.

Brian DeRouen, chair of the committee's board of directors, said the organization decided to urge the bishops to address the encyclical in homilies and parish programs.

The call comes after the organization learned of public statements by Bishop Michael Bransfield which seemed to downplay the urgency to reduce and eventually end fossil fuel usage as called for by the pope.

In West Virginia, where the coal industry remains powerful despite massive losses in employment since the 1980s amid declining demand for coal, such a call can be controversial.

In a recent interview, Bransfield said the pope's calls to action on climate change in Laudato Si' were conditioned on whether it was "economically feasible.

"It's not economically feasible in West Virginia," he said.

The question of economic feasibility is not raised in the encyclical, however.

"We're encouraging the bishops to engage on this. We're saying to them, 'Get involved. Mix things up. Ask questions,'" DeRouen said.

"This is a wonderful opportunity. I don't think the pope is saying these are easy questions. I think the pope is saying this is what we have to be talking about.

"Our faith demands that we engage with these issues. Not just to be on the right side of history but to be on the right side of our faith," DeRouen said.

A day before the encyclical's release on June 18, Bransfield in a statement on the diocesan website urged West Virginians to take time to read the document and to embrace its "overall message.

Change behaviour

"On the environment, everybody has to change their behaviour. Even the person who drives a Prius and is a vegetarian," said DeRouen. "We are living a consumptive lifestyle that isn't sustaining, even the greenest of us."

DeRouen acknowledged the Catholic Committee of Appalachia took a strong stance in pushing bishops to act to bring the encyclical to people of Appalachia.

"We are talking about the future of the planet," he said.