Tucson bishop honored for environmental justice advocacy

4 mins read
Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson, Ariz., is seen in this undated photo. The bishop was acknowledged for his vocal support locally and nationally of new clean air standards at an event March 18, 2024, at the University of Arizona's St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center in Tucson and hosted by The Catholic University of America -- Tucson. The event also served as a platform for the voices of young Catholic environmental advocates. (OSV News photo/courtesy The Register)

(OSV News) — The environmental future — says Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson, Arizona — is in good hands.

“I do want to say how grateful I am to these young people,” Bishop Weisenburger declared, as he began his comments at a forum dedicated to environmental initiatives, “Clean Air Saves Lives: Moral Action to Protect the Environment,” held March 18 at the University of Arizona’s St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center in Tucson, and hosted by The Catholic University of America — Tucson.

“They represent our future,” Bishop Weisenburger said. “You’re the ones that matter; you’re going to get things done in the future. We can only do what we can do now — but you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, and you’ll do it well. I have great faith in you.”

Local Catholic school students presented Bishop Weisenburger with cards and drawings, eliciting a broad smile of appreciation.

Initiated by Tucson’s Catholic Adventure Young Adult Community, or CAYAC — a youth and service organization for Catholics ages 21-39 — the event not only served as an occasion to thank Bishop Weisenburger for his role in supporting new clean air standards locally and nationally, but also as a platform for the voices of young Catholic environmental advocates.

As OSV News previously reported, Bishop Weisenburger was among a group of Catholic leaders — including three U.S. Catholic bishops and the head of a conference of women religious — who met with Biden administration officials Nov. 17, 2023, to discuss the Catholic Church’s priorities for what Pope Francis has called “our suffering planet.”

On Feb. 7, 2024, the Biden administration finalized a significantly stronger air quality standard intended to better protect Americans from the effects of fine particle pollution, also known as soot. The accompanying Environmental Protection Agency press release stated that the “updated standard will save lives — preventing up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032. For every $1 spent from this action, there could be as much as $77 in human health benefits in 2032.”

People walk through Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in Tucson, Ariz., May 21, 2023. Sabino Canyon is located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Tucson Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger was acknowledged for his vocal support locally and nationally of new clean air standards at an event March 18, 2024, at the University of Arizona’s St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center in Tucson and hosted by The Catholic University of America — Tucson. (OSV New photo/Bob Roller)

The EPA also emphasized the disproportionate impact particle pollution has on Americans with heart and lung disease, asthma and other health conditions, as well as on “already overburdened communities, including many communities of color and low-income communities.”

America’s environmental impact

Pope Francis has been particularly critical of America’s outsized environmental impact, noting in his 2023 apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum” that, “if we consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries, we can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”

Bishop Weisenburger shared his personal reaction to Pope Francis’ strong words.

“I’m a very proud American — but I was so grateful the Holy Father had the nerve to go after us,” the prelate reflected. “He said, ‘America, you’re causing a huge amount of this. Now get with the program.’ I heard that — and it resonates within me. And so I want to be a part of that program.”

As Bishop Weisenburger observed, many environmental indicators of climate change are speaking with a specific urgency.

“When the earth is suffering and crying out; and sea levels are going up; and heat is burning things up; and the soil is being degraded; and we’re losing plant life — whole areas of plant life — it’s the poor, it’s those without a voice, that suffer the most,” he said.

What can be done

Bishop Weisenburger recently conducted a diocesan-wide survey asking how the Diocese of Tucson cares for God’s creation. Forty-seven Catholic organizations responded; as the diocesan online news outlet, New Outlook, reported Feb. 27, “Twenty-five percent of respondents have installed solar panels, 32% use Energy Star appliances and multi-paned windows, and 21% use aerated water faucets.” Another 13% have rainwater harvesting systems and 21% had a Care for Creation team.

“There’s so many things an individual can do,” Bishop Weisenburger said. “We can use a lot less electricity; we can be careful with water; we can recycle — and we can lend our voice.”

Bishop Weisenburger also shared with the audience that he has ordered an electric car.

On March 20, the EPA announced final national pollution standards for passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and medium-duty vehicles for model years 2027 through 2032 and beyond. The EPA statement reported, “These standards will avoid more than 7 billion tons of carbon emissions and provide nearly $100 billion of annual net benefits to society, including $13 billion of annual public health benefits due to improved air quality, and $62 billion in reduced annual fuel costs, and maintenance and repair costs for drivers.”

Brian Eller, a Pima County, Arizona, Health and Community Services staff member, and a self-identified Catholic, said the EPA’s proactive action on air quality is poised to have measurable health outcomes.

“The potential health benefits that we’re going to see from this … is this adjustment is going to save people’s lives,” Eller said.

One family’s story

Gabrielle Cardenas, a Catholic young adult leader and South Tucson resident, said exposure to the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE, had caused illness in her family. Forty years ago, high levels of TCE — a solvent used to clean airplanes — were found in drinking water on Tucson’s southside.

“Although I have seen much beauty in Tucson — being from here; native — I have also become familiarized with the gloomy challenges of environmental injustices in my own extended family,” Cardenas shared. “My family is just one of many other stories among Tucson’s community of color. These are real concerns that have actually affected real people’s lives.”

As the evening drew to a close, Mariana Gonzalez, lead organizer of the event through CAYAC, shared hands-on environmental opportunities with the audience, including tree planting, waste collecting and hard-to-recycle plastic recycling.

In later comments to OSV News, Gonzalez noted the impact of Bishop Weisenburger’s witness.

“I studied environmental science in undergrad; I care about environmental issues,” said Gonzalez. “But his visit to the White House and his participation in the event yesterday really helped me learn more — it helped teach us what Laudato Si‘ means, and our responsibility in how we can live it out.”

Amid a turbulent election season — when discussion of climate change has the potential to become political — Bishop Weisenburger had some advice.

“The more we repeat truths, the more we help,” he said. “And so I think the key is, not (being) confrontational, and not with anger and hostility, but with a sense of loving-kindness, we continue to say the truth, the truth, the truth — and that will make a difference.”

Kimberley Heatherington

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.