Building Green

Being Catholic Is Being Green

March 07, 2007


Beguinage - Bruges - BelgiumArchitects today are buzzing about green building, solar alternatives and LEED certification. What is this all about and how does it relate to Catholic liturgical architecture? Green architecture is not about style or color nor associated with any political party. It is a sustainable way of building that is respectful of the environment. The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Understanding the “how-to” of “green” issues is hard enough, but for faith communities there is a deeper dimension.  The tradition of our church and scripture tell us that everything God created is good and should be used in a wise and just manner.  A growing awareness about the environment and our relationship to it begins in official Roman Catholic writings long before the current concerns of environmentalists.

Concern for the Environment in Church Documents

Many people would document the beginnings of the modern environmental movement with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962.  In this book we find our about the connection between man-made pollutants and negative changes in the environment.  Roman Catholics have had an awareness of environmental destruction caused by human action far longer.  Beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 official Catholic documents have pointed out our responsibility to care for the earth and to share all that it produces.  Responsible sharing is stated as a given for peace and justice in Pacem in Terris from 1963. 

The issue of social justice is clearly and inextricably linked to our relationship to the earth and its products in all our documents that touch on care of the earth and right relationships.  They culminate in the World Day of Peace Message from 1990 delivered by Pope John Paul (The Ecological Crisis:  A Common Responsibility – Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all Creation), the first document devoted entirely to environmental concerns.  Pope John Paul speaks of specific environmental issues like acid rain, the greenhouse effect and deforestation and in paragraph 16 warns that consumerism and instant self-gratification are the root causes of these problems. He calls for concrete programs and initiatives and in paragraph 14 specifically states that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.

In the 1991 document from the bishops of the United States, Renewing the Earth:  An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching, the bishops name seven Catholic moral and spiritual traditions and identify them as “integral dimensions of ecological responsibility.”  These and other church documents are both specific in their call to action and specific in linking environmental issues with justice issues in the world around us. 

Scripturally Based Understanding

The first of the spiritual traditions which the Catholic bishops wrote about in 1991 speaks of a “God-centered and sacramental view of the universe.”  Our tradition supports belief in an immanent God and an Incarnational universe in which God took on human flesh. Through scripture we learn from the beginnings of Genesis that all that God created is good. God’s presence can be found throughout the created world. We use elements from the created world in our worship – baptizing with water, anointing with oil, signing with the ashes of Good Friday and renewing the lighted candle in the fire of Easter.  In our creating of sacred space – the place where we meet and worship God – we mirror the description of God’s creative activity.  We create a space that reflects and welcomes God’s presence.  It should be a place which in itself can support deep religious experience and insight. 

There are two very interesting descriptions in the Bible of the making of sacred space for worship.  The making of the Tabernacle which housed the Ark of the Covenant during the Israelites journey in the wilderness (Exodus) and the making of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (Kings) are described in ways that parallel the descriptions of God creating the universe. Care is also given to the naming of the artist and the recording of artistic embellishment just as is done in the more familiar description of Solomon’s Temple. The actual building of the Tabernacle, like the story of creation, occurs in seven symbolic stages.  It comes into being on God’s command and is blessed at the conclusion of its creation.  Blessing – and celebrating – the completions of a place of worship has a very long tradition.

Building “Green” is a Sacred Art

Looking carefully at these biblical descriptions and thoughtfully considering our Roman Catholic documents helps us to understand the importance and goodness of God’s creation and the moral imperative that calls for right relationships as well as reverence for the earth.  Thinking about church building in this larger context can compel us to look for ways to incorporate ‘green’ design into our churches.  What can this look like?  Does it mean we have to abandon traditional forms and detailing in favor of either a rustic or a high-tech look?  The answer is decidedly not so.  This is not a question of style, but rather one of making choices in process, programming and material selections.

When a parish is building or renovating a church, there are opportunities to carry these teachings into practice.  Decision making in the building process can impact the building in an environmentally positive way.  Here are some positive things you can do:

»  Begin with an educated building committee who study not only the church documents on building and renovating (e.g., the U.S. Bishops' Built of Living Stones) but also the Catholic tradition on environmental issues. 

»  As planning begins you make decisions about the siting and orientation of the building – decisions which take into account the advantages of your natural setting.  Careful siting of a building can not only bring beautiful views, but also welcoming sun in the winter or cool breezes in the summer – both of which help with energy consumption.

»  As you list the space needs – begin writing the “program” – for your building or renovation project there are many ways to include supportive areas in your program.  For example:  have the project LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, have space designated for social justice activities (such as a place to serve meals to the poor and elderly or a place for housing families in need), include views of the natural world, incorporate outdoor prayer spaces in your plan, or make renovations reversible.  Reversible renovations are ones that do not harm the existing building and can be undone in the future if there is a need to restore the space. 

»  Specific architectural ways to make your building “green” come with the selection of structural and mechanical systems and materials. For example:  select cork or linoleum or other natural materials in preference to synthetic or manmade materials, select high energy efficient HVAC systems.  Architects and designers are very much aware of beautiful, cost effective choices from which you can select. 

»  Finally, throughout your building project, you can educate the entire congregation about your choices and decisions and the spirituality and theology that support your decisions.

A Model for Restoring and Transforming

One specific example of thinking “green” and Catholic comes from Monroe, Michigan.  The Sisters, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) chose to renovate their 376,000 square foot motherhouse rather than build a new smaller facility because this choice reduced the impact on the environment. Some highlights of their efforts are the largest privately funded geothermal field in the country, high energy efficient mechanical systems, and a restored oak savanna ecosystem. The IHM Motherhouse is an award winning model of sustainable living and was the impetus for the State of Michigan forming a Green Building Council.  They have recently formed the River Raisin Institute to promote education about care of the earth. 

New plans have just been completed for the renovation of the Motherhouse Chapel.  During the process for the renovating their chapel, a commitment to sustainability was an important value identified by the sisters.  The proposed renovation honors this in a plan that fulfills the program needs of a changing congregation.  All work is reversible.  Many materials are to be repositioned or reused rather than new in the same way that windows and doors were reused in the Motherhouse renovation. Any new materials will be chosen for their sustainable qualities.  Creating a connection to the outdoors will be accomplished through discretely placed skylights and glass.  Underscoring an interdependent relationship with all life on the planet, connecting to the outdoors is seen as an important symbol of sustainability and one way to practice the principle of right relationships. The Motherhouse and future chapel renovation are both “green” and beautiful and they reflect Catholic thought and tradition.   In this renovation project, thinking Catholic and thinking “green” brought a congruence of faith and practice that has a lasting impact far beyond one faith community.

Carol Frenning is a liturgical design consultant in Minneapolis, MN.  This article first appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of RITE magazine and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 

Photo credit: "Beguinage in April" Bruges, Belgium by Johan van Parys, Minneaolis, MN


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