Holy Ground in Kentucky: Monks and Nuns Fight Fracking

Two monastic orders in rural Kentucky, the Sisters of Loretto and Our Lady of Gethsemani, have made news recently for refusing to permit a gas company to install a pipeline across their property.

Collectively, the orders own 3,000 acres in central Kentucky. Both have rejected company requests to discuss the prospective “”Bluegrass” Pipeline,” which would transverse much of the state carrying pressurized natural gas.

Williams Companies, a Tulsa, OK, company, and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners of Owensboro, KY—the companies that are developing the project—may be able to access the land via eminent domain, but the sisters have gathered petitions against such a prospect. They’ve also sung in protest against the pipeline, which they say will involve hydraulic fracking, a controversial process of extracting oil reserves by fracturing underground rock with injections of water. 

In a reflection posted on the Loretto website, Susan Classen explains, “

We learned that the pipeline is to hold highly toxic, explosive chemical bi-products [sic] of fracking called Natural Gas Liquids (NGL’s) which are to be exported for making plastic. We’ve read timelines of explosions and contamination caused by flagrant safety violations and the speed with which contamination runs through the porous, unstable limestone of Kentucky geology.”

In the highly emotional statement, Classen relates her motivation for activism to the Biblical commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Williams Cos. was recently connected with an accidental explosion at a plant in Geismar, Louisiana, which killed two workers and injured 77. The corporation has also been involved with several other accidents in the last decade.

Fracking has become a flashpoint in many communities in recent years. When President Obama was in upstate New York this week, the story took center stage, with protesters gathering at every stop to voice concerns about safety and environmental damage, but also climate change. Use of gas and oil reserves is tied to excessive levels of atmospheric carbon and global temperature rise. While the monastics have not publicly framed their fight this way to date, climate debates often involve prospects of catastrophic change.

The sisters have emphasized that they want to preserve their religious heritage in addition to the natural environment—and this history is substantial. The Sisters of Loretto have occupied the area since 1824. Gethsemani, established 1848, is the oldest American monastery still in use. Both represent the dwindling number of Catholic monastics in the US. But while Lorettans have been leading organizing efforts, Gethsemani is the more historically noteworthy order. From 1941 until 1968, the monastery housed contemplative monk Thomas Merton.

Merton is remembered for his urgent activism against another potentially catastrophic force: nuclear war. In the early 1960s – a time of Khrushchev, Kennedy, backyard bomb shelters and Doctor Strangelove – the American public was focused on the grimly apocalyptic threat of atomic bombing. In a 1961 letter (published in the 2006 volume Cold War Letters) Merton declared his response: ““There is one task for me that takes precedence over everything else: working with such means as I have at my disposal for the abolition of war.”” His means, he wrote, were prayer and writing.

Merton’s stridency was controversial. Despite what he called “”the Christian obligation,” pointed out by the recent Popes, to avoid the criminal tragedy of nuclear annihilation,” church censorship often delayed his publications. By 1962, the abbot general forbade his mentioning nuclear war in print. (Merton was defiant. In 1961, he wrote to London Archbishop Thomas Roberts, “”If it cannot be printed, then let it be mimeographed. If it cannot be mimeographed, then let it be written on the backs of envelopes….””)

It is unclear whether a similar controversy will arise in today’s Catholic Church over monastics’ public opposition to environmental degradation. The issue, which is larger than any one pipeline, will clearly develop over time.

It is also unclear whether the response of the Catholic Church in America with involve a profit motive. This would echo an emerging controversy in the United Kingdom, where Anglican Church leadership has recently come under fire for taking steps to permit fracking on church-owned land. A diocese of the Church of England has publicly opposed the move, arguing from the perspective of Christian stewardship of “God’s glorious creation

The stance of corporations towards monastics also remains to be seen. Williams Cos.’ website includes a statement on “Aboriginal and Indigenous” peoples that reads, “Williams is committed to understanding, respecting, and learning from the unique culture and traditions of local communities…. and strives to create an inclusive operation that improves with input from all stakeholders.” The company has not posted a statement on any other group.

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M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer living in Dhaka, Bangladesh. See more of her writing at msophianewman.com.