Kentucky priest thankful for Pope Francis’ environmental message

July 18, 2015
Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

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.

Father Al Fritch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

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.

laudato-si400-255x363By 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.”


History will remember this month of seismic social change

June 27, 2015
A Pride flag held by Michael Harrington of Berea is backlit by the sun during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday's marriage equality ruling, at Robert Stephens Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

Michael Harrington of Berea holds a pride flag during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday’s marriage equality ruling, at Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

 

Social progress can seem painfully slow. And then, almost out of nowhere, events bring public opinion and the law together to produce head-spinning change.

This month will go down in history as one of those epic tipping points on several issues that have simmered below the surface of American society for generations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Friday that same-sex couples in all 50 states have a constitutional right to marry. It was a landmark decision against discrimination that followed a seismic shift in public opinion toward gay rights.

Just a few years ago, gay marriage would have seemed unthinkable to most Americans. It was contrary to tradition and conservative religious beliefs, which were reflected in federal and state law.

But when the legal question finally reached the nation’s highest court, there was little doubt about the outcome. The legal arguments against same-sex marriage were almost laughably lame.

Equal protection under the law is one of this nation’s most cherished values. The Supreme Court majority correctly decided that gay people should not have their freedom to marry blocked by other people’s religious beliefs.

It was public opinion, not a court ruling, that swiftly turned the tide on another issue: state-sponsored veneration of the Confederacy, which has disrespected black people and fueled racial tensions since the Civil War.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Conservative politicians across the South were tripping over each other last week to call for removing Confederate flags from their state capitols, Confederate emblems from their state flag and license plates and statues of Confederate heroes from places of honor.

It was a stunning reversal. Many of these politicians, and others like them, had resisted this for years. Their predecessors helped erect these symbols, either to memorialize a mythical “Lost Cause” or to express defiance against federal civil rights legislation and court-ordered integration.

Then, suddenly, a heinous crime exposed these excuses and rationalizations for what they really were. A 21-year-old white man murdered nine black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church after touting his racism online with pictures of himself holding the Confederate flag.

Many white people defend Confederate symbols as expressions of “Southern heritage.” They view them as honoring the sacrifices of ancestors, most of whom did not own slaves and were fighting out of loyalty to their home states.

But these symbols have always had a different meaning for black people. Confederate leaders considered their ancestors to be less-than-human property, and they went to war to try to keep them enslaved.

Since the Civil War, white supremacists have often used Confederate imagery as a tool for trying to keep black people “in their place.” Celebrating the Confederacy for other reasons does not change that bitter fact.

That doesn’t mean every Confederate relic should be banished to a museum. But government, which serves all people in this increasingly diverse country, should be careful about how and where the Confederate legacy is enshrined.

Should Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue be moved from the state Capitol rotunda to a museum? Should statues of Lexington’s most prominent Confederate leaders, John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan, be removed from the old courthouse lawn and Cheapside?

A monument honoring the hundreds of slaves sold on the auction block at Cheapside or whipped on that courthouse lawn now seems more appropriate.

How do we preserve, acknowledge and learn from our complex history, while at the same time honoring values we want to shape our future? It is a delicate balance.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

The last major tipping point this month has received less attention, but it was a watershed nonetheless.

Pope Francis issued a strongly worded encyclical to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics that clearly framed environmental stewardship, climate change and related topics of social justice and economic inequality as moral issues.

But the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination will have a fight on his hands. His views are well-grounded in Christian theology, but they run counter to the way the world works.

Many powerful people worship a God found in bank vaults rather than Heaven. By shifting the moral conversation from sex to money, Pope Francis has made a lot of people nervous. It will be interesting to see what difference his leadership makes.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”