Young Catholics and Climate Action: An Interview with Anna Robertson

Anna Robertson is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilization for Catholic Climate Covenant. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed her on her work, young people in the Church, and the role of lay Catholics in promoting climate action and social justice .

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up doing this type of work?

I’m originally from Nashville, Tennessee, where I lived until the age of 18, when I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for college at Xavier University. I graduated with a B.A. in theology and went on to complete my Master of Theological Studies degree from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Laudato Si was published when I was in the middle of my graduate program, and I remember being captivated by so much of what Pope Francis had to say. The way that he talks about mercy, a culture of encounter, integral ecology, and ecological conversion all continue to shape my understanding of the world, of what it means to be human, what it means to be creature, and how we might approach the question of right relationship. After finishing grad school, I took a job as a campus minister at Seattle University, and there’s a lot of that pastoral formation that informs the way I show up in this work now. I’m very curious about how we develop resilience in the face of the climate crisis, both as individuals and as communities. I’m interested in the ways we can evolve our movements toward relationship.

What are your goals as Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilization for the Covenant?

I really believe that young people have a particular power in this historical moment, both within the Catholic Church specifically and within the world more broadly. I couldn’t say it better than Cardinal Blase Cupich said it during the Q&A following his keynote address at this past summer’s Laudato Si’ and the U.S. Catholic Church Conference: “You have more power than you think, young people.” In the Catholic Church we are seeing this move toward synodality, toward drawing out and listening to the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” of the Body of Christ as genuine sources of theological authority, to borrow that brilliant phrase from Gaudium et Spes over half a century ago. Meanwhile, it’s no secret that young people are no longer embracing the paths of organized religion in the same ways that previous generations did. There is something about the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties of young people that we have failed to hear as a Church—if that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t see the rates of disaffiliation that we’re seeing. And yet, now with the Synod on Synodality, with the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, we are seeing these opportunities to speak and to listen as a family of God. As Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilization at Catholic Climate Covenant, I want to create a platform and community for young Catholics across the country to come together and amplify the call to care for creation, both within the society and within the Church, especially at this crucial moment in history—with, on the one hand, the urgency of the climate crisis and, on the other, a church freshly committed to listening, especially at its own margins, which include young people.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing?

I think one of the biggest challenges to working with young people in a religious context is young people’s shifting relationship to organized religion. People have so many diverse ways of relating to Catholicism. There are cultural Catholics, devout Catholics, former Catholics, ambivalent Catholics, Catholic-adjacent people (e.g., non-Catholic students at Catholic institutions)—and within each of those groups there will be people who resonate more and less with creation care. This is true across age groups, but really seems to be amplified among young people. It’s been an adventure trying to wade into that ambiguity and diversity and to devise strategies for community organizing within it, but it’s a worthwhile adventure, and I wouldn’t trade the beautiful diversity of thought and expression that I get to encounter among the people I work alongside.

At past gatherings of the US Bishops (USCCB), we have seen efforts to mobilize the conference behind Pope Francis’ agenda and priorities of taking on the throwaway culture in all its aspects and expanding what it means to protect the sanctity of life (among other things) continually fail. What would you say to lay Catholics who are disappointed by this—who feel like the bishops are undermining the pope and refusing to treat climate change with the urgency and focus that it demands? 

Something I’ve been working on myself recently is trying to catch when I am thinking of “Church” as primarily the church hierarchy rather than the people of God, the body of Christ. I think that we the laity in the Church have power that we don’t always embrace because of the ways that we’ve perhaps internalized the very culture of clericalism that so many of us push back against. It can be really liberating to look honestly at where we have more—and less—power and to make choices informed by that analysis. We can approach Church leaders using the very same tried and true methods of advocacy and community organizing that we use with lawmakers and other secular decision-makers. Are we listening for shared values we can lean into in our conversations? Are we building a diverse and powerful base of allies? If you’ve, for example, been trying for years to get the same parish priest to, I don’t know, be more vocal on care for creation, are there other approaches you can try that would achieve the same outcome? Feeling like Church leaders are out-of-step with something as urgent as climate change can feel very disempowering; stepping into our power can be an important antidote that frees us and energizes our Church. This isn’t to dismiss those feelings of frustration and disappointment but to seek to locate our agency in the midst of them as members of God’s family.

I think part of your job is to help young Catholics care about protecting God’s creation and be more active in protecting the environment. But do you also think that by connecting the desire and efforts to protect the environment with faith that this can bring young people into the Church or help those who have felt alienated and isolated to stay in the Church?

Absolutely. To be a young person today for so many people is to be awash in constant and cascading crises, to constantly perform life under the exposure of social media, to be oversaturated with connection but parched for relationship. Studies from the Springtide Institute have shown just how important relationships with trusting adults can be for young people’s mental well-being, and yet those same studies show that young people are relatively infrequently turning to ministers or other folks they associate with religion for this relationship. I believe—and whenever I say this I always say that I’m sure someone else said this first but haven’t been able to find the quote—that the Church should offer its people a credible hope, and I don’t think it’s been doing that for a lot of young people, partly because so many young people have experienced leaders in the Church remaining silent on issues they care about, or even directly opposite them on those issues. Climate is certainly one of these issues, and I do believe that when church leaders speak out on climate, it makes a difference for young people who might be on their way out the door. I know, as someone who, due to my role as a leader at a major Catholic organization, represents “Church” in the minds of some people, that it can be so important and life-giving for people to hear me speaking up on issues they care about. I know this because people have expressed it to me. Many young people, however, are also leaving the Church because they have been hurt within it, and so it behooves those of us who remain to work very hard to make sure that the space we want these young people to return to is one in which they will be welcomed and celebrated as they arrive, as God would and does welcome and celebrate any of us. If people’s genuine and authentic needs are not being met within the Church, we must take that seriously and ask from a place of deep humility and pastoral sensibility how we might better meet those needs.

How can young Catholics make a difference in their communities?

Young Catholics certainly already are making a difference in our communities! I was on a call last week with Washingtonians in attendance at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, and there were so many of us on that call who fell into the category of ‘young adult.’ Back in October, hundreds of Catholics across the country followed the leadership of Catholic young adults fasting in solidarity with the five youth hunger strikers calling for just and expansive climate legislation in Washington, D.C. Those are just a couple of countless. Within the Church these days, there’s a real hunger on the part of older generations for intergenerational community—or at least that’s something I hear expressed very frequently. I think there’s an opportunity here for young people to elevate their concerns within their faith communities. If climate change is something that you care about, let people know. Better yet, get some friends together, and then let people know. Maybe plan an event. Invite the broader community. Find out about local environmental justice groups organizing around issues impacting their community—maybe impacting your community, too. Ask how you can support their efforts. And consider along the way how all of this work is part of the journey of faith and relationship-building. The ecological conversion that Pope Francis calls for and that this historical moment demands of us is one made of millions of relationships orienting themselves more toward love. At every step, how are we creating the community we want to be a part of, the kind of community that can sustain life on earth?