By Amy Korpi
While growing up in Kentucky, Fr. Al Fritsch, SJ, knew he wanted to be a scientist. He also thought, however, that “it would be awfully nice to be a priest and a scientist at the same time.”
Fortunately, when he studied at Xavier University, he learned through the Jesuits there—particularly the head of the chemistry department—that he could in fact do both.
“It’s very unusual for most religious communities to think of getting advanced degrees in subjects other than theology and philosophy,” he explains. “The fact that I could do doctoral and postdoctoral work in a scientific field was a wonderful thing. And the fact that I’ve been able to be active in public interest science, conservation, and the social inequality associated with environmental issues—versus working in a more typical teaching post—has been a blessing.”
Merging science and faith also makes great sense to Fr. Fritsch. He asserts, “Unfortunately, today’s secular world is biased against religion, but science and faith are not mutually exclusive. We need the gifts that science provides to be agent of change. And that is what we are called to be as the body of Christ. Jesus saved the world, but sufferings are still going on, and our living earth is suffering. If we don’t have a living earth, we cannot live on it ourselves, and that has tremendous theological implications. But if we commit to saving the earth, we enter into the very act of redemption.”
A Theology of the Earth (1972)
The Contrasumers: A Citizens Guide to Resource Conservation (Praeger, 1974)
99 Ways to a Simple Lifestyle (Anchor/Doubleday, 19776)
Special Topics in Heterocyclic Chemistry, Vol. 30 (Interscience, 1977)
Household Pollutants Guide (Anchor/Doubleday, 1978)
Environmental Ethics (Anchor/Doubleday, 1980)
Green Space (ASPI, 1982)
Appalachia: A Meditation (Loyola Univ. Press, 1986)
Renew the Face of the Earth (Loyola Univ. Press, 1987)
Communities at Risk (Renew America, 1989)
Eco-Church (Resource Publications, 1991)
Down to Earth Spirituality (Sheed & Ward, 1992)
Earth Healing (ASPI, 1994)
Spiritual Growth through Domestic Gardening (ASPI, 2000)
Ecotourism in Appalachia: Marketing the Mountains (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2004)
Critical Hour: Three Mile Island, The Nuclear Legacy, and National Security (Earth Island, 2004)
Ethnic Atlas of the United States (2005) (Brassica Books, 2013)
Healing Appalachia: Sustainable Living through Appropriate Technology (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2007)
Tobacco Days (Brassica Books, 2010)
Mountain Moments (Acclaim Press, 2010)
Water Sounds (Marquette Univ. Press, 2010)
The Little Blue Book (Brassica Books, 2011)
Earth Healing (Brassica Books, 2012)
Reclaiming the Commons (Brassica Books, 2013)
Appalachian Sensations: Journey through the Seasons (Peach Bloom Press, 2013)
Appalachian Water Reflections (PB Press, 2016)
Chapters in the following:
Waste Minimization: Widening the Perspectives (Academic Press, 1993)
Embracing the Earth (Orbis, 1994)
Ecological Prospects (SUNY Press, 1994)
Christianity & the Environmental Ethos (ITEST, 1996)
The Greening of Faith (Univ. Press of New England, 1996)
Religion in Ecology: Scientists Speak (Franciscan Press, 1998)
Cordwood Building: The State of the Art (New Society Publishers, 2003)
Father Fritsch also has several works in progress and shares regular reflections online at EarthHealing.info as well as on Facebook and YouTube.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Xavier, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1956 and was ordained in1967. Then, at a civil rights march, he connected with someone who worked at Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law. The result: Fr. Fritsch became a staff assistant to Nader’s group in Washington, D.C.
Father Fritsch’s next move was to co-found the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “At that time, we thought the environmental problems would be solved quickly,” he recalls. “The first issues we worked on—lead in gasoline, tobacco, asbestos—actually were addressed pretty quickly. There was ample bipartisan interest in doing something, and several issues were cleared up with some government regulation. I actually thought I’d be moving on to something else.”
“As we progressed, however,” Fr. Fritsch says, “We recognized bigger underlying issues. We came to the conclusion that consumer addiction was a problem that was not going to be solved quickly. We couldn’t even contemplate the future ravages of climate change at that time!”
Then, in 1976, Fr. Fritsch wrote a guidebook for those seeking a more conscientious, less wasteful life: 99 Ways to a Simple Lifestyle. But there was a problem.
“As we sought to implement the book’s principles,” he recalls, “It struck me that it was impossible to live that way in D.C., where you’re surrounded by five of the richest counties in America. And it became clear that social justice is a vital component of ‘green living.’”
Feeling a call to “go home” to Appalachia, he returned in 1977 and founded Appalachia Science in the Public Interest (ASPI) to promote sustainability and simple living. As a pastor of the Lexington diocese, he feels blessed by the parishioners who are supportive of the environmental work of ASPI, which “was and is supported ‘by the hands of the poor.’ God gave us the grace to have people in our diocese willing to work for social justice.
While Fr. Fritsch handed day-to-day operations of ASPI to a new director in 2002, he had other ideas in mind, and began the website EarthHealing.info in 2004. He runs the project as he lives personally—on a shoestring, with the help of just a few laypeople’s support. "We try to do our work with the lowest possible budget,” he says, “Because we know people of all income levels can make change; it is not just what the wealthy would give to them.”
After 64 years as a Jesuit, nearing the age of 87, Fr. Fritsch shows no signs of slowing down. “I regard work as a privilege, something God has given me the grace and the blessing to continue to do,” he remarks. “And thanks to technology, we are making more connections with people than ever before.” He reports that EarthHealing.info receives an average of more than 40,000 hits per day (168 million from all over the world since its inception). One YouTube video alone has over 100,000 hits.
Father Fritsch is also heartened to see the emphasis Pope Francis has placed on hearing “the cry of the earth,” devising “larger strategies to halt environmental degradation,” and reminding us that environmental issues are tied to solidarity with the poor and marginalized (as the pope wrote in his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home five years ago).
He also notes with enthusiasm that Pope Francis—when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires—subscribed to EarthHealing’s Facebook page.
Finally, Fr. Fritsch appreciates the fact that one of the four Universal Apostolic Preferences to guide the Society of Jesus for the next ten years (approved in 2019) is “caring for our common home,” which observes that “whole nations and peoples need an ecological conversion if we are to be honest custodians of this wonderful planet.”
“We must view all creation as being the manifest word of God, and nothing less,” he says.