‘A moral imperative’: Monastic sisters in rural Midwest make faith-based case for climate action
By Ayurella Horn-Muller (Climate Central). With reporting and news segment by Amber Strong (Newsy)
Massive bee hives can be found on the grounds of Mount St. Scholastica, a 158-year-old Benedictine monastery in Atchison, Kansas. Image Credit: Stephanie Sandoval/ Newsy
ATCHISON, KAN. — Nearly 100 sisters make up Mount St. Scholastica, a Benedictine monastery in a city of 10,000 in northwestern Kansas, where acres of rolling fields surround a chapel. Inside, sisters teach about the moral and spiritual call to live sustainably.
This is the third story in Faith for Earth.
“Over the years, we really have been trying to reduce our carbon footprint, how we can be less dependent on fossil fuels,” said Elizabeth Carillo, a Benedictine sister at the monastery working towards a graduate degree in religion and ecology.
Through collaborations involving Climate Central, Southerly and Newsy, this three-part series led by reporters Ayurella Horn-Muller and Amber Strong investigates ways in which religious leaders and faith-based communities across the U.S. are responding to climate change.
At Mount St. Scholastica, some like Carillo not only make the faith-based case for action in the face of worsening climate change, they live by what they advocate. A 150-kilowatt solar system helps power the site. The sisters reduce water usage, capture and use rainwater, and sow native plants to preserve biodiversity and feed pollinators.
The Benedictine sisters at Mount St. Scholastica are among the Catholic communities in the rural Midwest preaching and living by the principles of sustainability in the face of the climate crisis.
Faith-based institutions like these across the world are increasingly vocal in making religious cases for climate action by promoting environmental sustainability, deploying their own clean energy solutions and even advocating for climate-friendly legislation.
Theological ethicist and Kansas’ Saint Paul School of Theology associate professor Joshua Bartholomew says local faith leaders' mobilizing for climate-friendly policies could bring about regional political and social change. “I can tell that religion is a huge part of the culture here,” said Bartholomew, who is new to the Midwest.
According to the Christian ethicist, religious groups in rural areas advocating for better climate policy and living sustainably, like the Benedictine sisters in Atchison, are “great examples” of the ways faith-based institutions can engage their communities with climate change.
“It would be a dream for this [to] become sort of a center in this area for sustainable living,” Carillo said, describing how she aims for the monastery to attract community members looking to learn how to live more sustainably.
Judith Sutera is another sister at Mount St. Scholastica thinking about combating climate change and the faith-based role in environmental action.
“I think water and drought is becoming much more of an issue in this part of the country,” said Sutera, explaining the ways people living in the Midwest are experiencing the effects of the climate crisis.
Rising temperatures, drier soils and increasing water scarcity are weighty consequences of the warming climate in a state where 40% of the economy is associated with agricultural production.
Climate change is starting to drive ranges of plants, insects and other animals northward and to higher altitudes, worsening risks of crop failures and yield declines.
The combination of increasing heat and humidity caused by pollution was recently projected by scientists at Columbia University to reduce yields of major crops by 5 percent globally during the second half of this century, with Kansas and adjacent states identified as global hotspots for impacts. Kansas corn and soybean yields could decline by 20% to 30% this century, an economic analysis of the projections shows, potentially costing some Midwestern counties more than $50 million annually.
Mount St. Scholastica’s grounds house a garden for organic vegetables, and a small apiary where some of the sisters act as beekeepers. The European insects are a crucial tool in agriculture; pollinating crops, increasing the amount harvested, and serving as the foundation of the $9 billion honey industry.
Climate change is among the threats to pollination by native species — a 2021 United States Department of Agriculture study found that warming temperatures and increased rain and snow are among some of the biggest contributors to the decline of wild bees.
To Sutera, the impacts of worsening climate change in the Midwest are clear, and the case for action is a spiritual responsibility to protect and preserve the world around us.
“If there is no planet, there will be no other right to life issues,” Sutera said. “I mean, that's pretty basic.”
Greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels and other industrial activities has driven temperatures up more than 2.1°F (1.1°C) globally so far, worsening storms, heat waves, wildfires, droughts and flooding. Scientists warn unchecked emissions are on track to drive global temperatures beyond the international goal of 2.7°F (1.5℃) within two decades.
Unless fossil fueled energy systems are urgently swapped out for renewables, temperature projections for 2100 show some of the strongest warming in the nation will be in the Midwest, heightening deluges, flooding, heat streaks and crop failures.
In Atchison, the sisters at the monastery have turned to pursuing better global, federal and local climate policies to try to ward off these threats. They're members of the Benedictine Coalition for Responsible Investment, a coalition that invests in public companies to drive changes by exercising shareholder rights.
Involvement in climate advocacy by faith-based communities could have powerful implications for curbing carbon emissions, according to Nadia Ahmad, an associate law professor at Barry University in Florida and visiting associate professor at Yale.
“We’ve seen historically that faith leaders have been at the forefront of social justice issues, whether it's immigrant justice, climate justice or even looking at racial equality,” Ahmad said.
In rural parts of Kansas, where a state legislature has historically avoided acknowledging human-induced climate change, let alone acting on it, and some policymakers continue to be misleadingly skeptical of the accuracy of climate science, the political sway of local religious leaders could have far-reaching ramifications.
Sister Carillo believes all religious people have a responsibility for “caring for creation,” or environmental stewardship as a means of “respecting God.”
“These are dire circumstances and so much of it is an emphasis on upholding the dignity of human life,” said Carillo. “It’s like, when the planet’s dying, how much more of a life issue is there?”
Sister Elaine Fisher maintains the hives at Mount St. Scholastica, which is part of the Midwestern monastery's efforts to live a life of sustainability. Image Credit: Stephanie Sandoval/ Newsy
The ethical component of the faith-based case for climate action is critical when considering who is most affected by rapidly warming temperatures and rising seas. Across the U.S., those that suffer the most from climate change’s impacts belong to Black, Indigenous and Latinx lower-income communities. In Kansas, more than a hundred thousand people of color live below the federal poverty line.
“Most of the individuals and nations that feel the disproportionate effect of climate change are the least responsible for this sort of social issue,” said Saint Paul’s Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s research focuses on the relationship between economic justice and racial equality, and he spends much of his time working with Black churches.
More than a quarter of Kansas’ population makeup frontline communities, living in polluted neighborhoods where collective wealth is low. These are the communities that are facing the greatest repercussions of the climate emergency.
A 2019 Climate Accountability Institute dataset identified 20 fossil fuel companies as predominant contributors to more than one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — a problem exacerbated by carbon-emitting corporations in industries like agriculture and construction.
Bartholomew says that exploitation can be explained by connections between white supremacy and environmental degradation.
“It’s the same enemy,” he said. “The enemy in the system of racism and white supremacy is the same enemy of environmental degradation. And that's basically human beings' domination of one another, and nature.”
As climate change’s fallout is being felt across every industry, every place and every walk of life, frontline communities are also being forced to rebuild in the wake of costly disasters, which have surged in frequency during the past forty years. Research investigating links between rising wealth inequality and rising disaster costs has found that these populations are left with little to no federal resources and financial support in the aftermath of increasingly frequent extreme weather events.
For Sister Carillo of the Benedictine monastery, living sustainably and advocating for climate action are important steps faith-based communities can take to help mitigate the severity of such impacts, while aiding the most vulnerable.
“It really is a moral imperative,” said Carillo. “That care for the Earth was integrally connected with uplifting the marginalized, and helping those who have not had access to power and resources, find their strength and regain that opportunity.”