Catholic universities are in a position to impact one of the areas of great need and challenge in the world: ecology. Our universities are centers of research in disciplines as disparate as biology, geology/geoscience, philosophy, theology, literature, political science, and so on. The combined efforts of scholars across disciplines are sorely needed to face a challenge that transcends any one discipline.
Some time in the next several months, Pope Francis will release an encyclical on the environment. Two weeks ago, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace hinted at what it will say.
For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change…. To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty.
Theologians have been wrestling with the implications of this duty for a number of years, and in fact the U.S. College Theology Society (CTS), of which I am a longtime member, will be addressing this question at its convention in May. From the CTS website:
Since 1967, when historian Lynn White, Jr. laid the blame for the burgeoning environmental crisis at the feet of Christians and their understanding of human dominion over nature, interest in the relationship between religion and the fate of the planet has taken off. As environmental problems have multiplied and deepened—we didn’t know, for example, about anthropogenic climate change in 1967—theologians have begun to explore questions related to how we ought to treat the world around us; how we are spiritually connected to the world around us; and how the (religious) stories we tell about the land, the water, and the air we breathe affect not only our behavior towards the Earth but our understanding of the holy.
In view of the seriousness of ecological questions, a number of Catholic universities have begun efforts on an institutional level to address them. For example, there is the Saint Francis Pledge, which a number of colleges and universities have signed. There are also efforts at divesting from fossil fuels, often driven by student action. James Hug describes such efforts in a recent story about the Climate Change Conference at Loyola University Chicago.
Two questions of significant interest for this conference is whether the loose network of Jesuit higher education institutions can work more closely and effectively on climate change, and what a concerted set of actions and programs from them might achieve as an educational statement to the nation and a model for concerned and committed institutions, organizations and corporations of all kinds.
From where I sit, it appears that what began as disparate efforts among theologians, bishops, and scholars is developing into a concerted effort to leverage the resources of the Catholic social tradition, Catholic institutions, and Catholic publications for the sake of systemic moral change.