RAVENNA — Pope Francis’ pronouncements about the immorality of social injustice and environmental degradation have rattled economic conservatives worldwide, and nowhere more than in King Coal’s Appalachia.
But the message isn’t new for Catholics in some parts of Kentucky, where Albert Fritsch — Jesuit priest, scientist and activist — has been writing, preaching and teaching for nearly four decades.
“I call myself a true conservative,” Fritsch, 81, said when I visited him at his home beside St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Estill County. “I am fiscally and socially conservative.”
But the jovial minister with a shock of white hair, who most people call Father Al, has always been a critic of economic conservatism. Now, he has some powerful backup.
Pope Francis, the Argentine cardinal elected pope in March 2013, issued an encyclical, or statement of church doctrine, last month that sharply criticized capitalism, consumerism, pollution and denial of human-induced climate change.
These are not political issues, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said, but moral and religious issues. Christians must start behaving differently, he said, or risk destroying the Earth.
I thought this would be a good time to visit Fritsch. As expected, he is pleased with Pope Francis’ leadership. “What he says is, to me, great stuff,” he said. “We need him in this age very badly.”
Fritsch said his interest in the environment began on his family’s farm near Maysville, where his father grew their food and cared for the land. His love of nature led him to science.
Fritsch earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Xavier University and a Ph.D. in chemistry at Fordham. He did post-doctorate research at the University of Texas.
But Fritsch became disillusioned that advances in chemistry were being used and abused for corporate profit. He went back to school to become a priest, studying theology at Bellarmine and Loyola universities.
Fritsch threw himself into advocacy, first as a science adviser with Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law and then, in 1971, as a co-founder and co-director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
By 1977, Fritsch decided he could have more impact in Kentucky. He moved to Mount Vernon and started Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, which focused on environmental issues.
Since 2002, Fritsch has ministered to Catholic congregations in Frankfort, Somerset and, currently, Ravenna and Stanton. But half his time is still spent on environmental work through his non-profit Earth Healing Inc.
He has authored or contributed to dozens of books and articles. Berea College Special Collections recently came to get his personal papers for preservation.
Fritsch writes daily reflections and records videos for his website, Earthhealing.info. His website manager thinks that Francis, before his election as pope, was among Fritsch’s online readers.
By focusing on wealth and its moral consequences, the Pope has made a lot of powerful people nervous. “The system that we have today, the capitalistic system as such, is really a state religion,” Fritsch said.
Pope Francis’ message is especially tough to hear in Kentucky, where the coal industry has a big influence in politics and the economy.
“A lot of Catholics are not taking this too well,” Fritsch said. “So many of them are committed to their way of life. One fellow got up and called me a communist and walked out.”
The man came back, Fritsch said, and asked him to lead a series of congregational meetings to discuss the encyclical. They begin next month.
Fritsch said one of the things that frustrates him most is that environmentalism has been politicized.
“When I started in environmental work in 1970, both Democrats and Republicans were in favor of the environment,” he said, noting that Republican Richard Nixon presided over creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Only after Reagan and with time did it become a partisan issue.”
The real issue is money, which is why Fritsch thinks politicians in both parties and institutions that depend on corporate money are dragging their feet. Renewable energy threatens investments in fossil fuels.
The Pope’s encyclical doesn’t offer solutions. Rather, Fritsch said, it calls for society to change and for people to frankly discuss these problems and seek solutions.
“We need to do a lot of talking in Kentucky,” he said. “This is a new frontier in theology, that we have a duty to save an earth that is threatened with destruction. Our grandparents didn’t have this. It’s a secular thing, but it’s also deeply religious.”
The biggest challenge, Fritsch thinks, is that the pace of climate change leaves us no time to waste.
“Things are changing, and we’ve got to be prepared for these changes,” he said. “I think that’s what Pope Francis is trying to say. And I think people are listening, because there’s a whole world out there that knows something is deeply wrong.”