On Friday March 20, I had the opportunity to present a talk titled “Jesuit Schools and the Jesuit Pope: How Jesuit Colleges Can Respond to Pope Francis’ Ecological Message” at Loyola University Chicago’s Second Annual Climate Change Conference. The conference considered how Jesuit colleges and universities can better respond to climate change as a moral issue, and the gathering was incredibly timely: it occurred two weeks after Cardinal Peter Turkson gave a remarkable talk on Pope Francis’s ecological vision and a few days before Francis sat down to review the latest draft of his encyclical. Here I provide a condensed version of my talk at Loyola Chicago in the hopes of helping the whole church think about how to support Pope Francis’s ecological message.
Pope Francis’s Ecological Message
In order to respond to Pope Francis’s ecological message, it is first important that we understand the message itself. Although there are a number of ways to present what Francis has said about ecology, I think there are at least five core ideas that define his ecological vision: the goodness of all creation; humanity’s unique place in creation; the connection between creation care and human flourishing; humanity’s stewardship responsibility; and the need to address anthropogenic climate change.
First, Pope Francis recognizes that in God’s eyes, all Creation is good. Francis reminds us that “the first chapter of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, shows us that God delights of God’s creation, by repeatedly emphasizing the beauty and goodness of all things. At the end of each day, it is written: ‘God saw that it was good’ ( 1,126.96.36.199).”
Next, Francis’s environmental vision is also characterized by the traditional Christian recognition that humanity is both part of and at the apex of Creation. For example, Francis recognizes that all persons “are God’s handiwork, his creation” embedded in and part of the natural world (no. 274). At the same time, however, Francis insists that thanks to the distinct “gift of knowledge,” humans “in the eyes of God are the most beautiful thing, the greatest, the best of creation.”
Based on his understanding of humanity’s embeddedness within Creation, Pope Francis’s ecological vision is thirdly characterized by a manifest understanding of how environmental degradation harms human persons, especially the poor. For example, Pope Francis laments the “many wounds [that] are inflicted upon humanity” due to “our failures in love and respect towards…the whole of creation.”
In view of Francis’s understanding of the harm caused to humanity by environmental degradation, as well as his awareness that Creation is a gift from God to humanity, the pope’s ecological vision is also characterized by a commitment to responsible ecological stewardship. On the one hand, Francis insists that “the Christian view of creation includes a positive judgment about the legitimacy of interventions on nature” (no. 9). At the same time, however, the pope insists that ecological interventions are only legitimate “if these are meant to be beneficial and are performed responsibly, that is to say, by acknowledging the ‘grammar’ inscribed in nature and by wisely using resources for the benefit of all, with respect for the beauty, finality and usefulness of every living being and its place in the ecosystem” (ibid.).
In addition to his emphasis on the general Christian vocation to care for creation, Francis’s ecological message is finally characterized by emphasis on Christian’ moral obligation to address anthropogenic climate change. He accepts that “the majority” of recent climate change is caused by human activity,” recognizes that the poor are disproportionately and “seriously affected by climate change,” and declares that, as such, “there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical impetrative to act” on climate change.
In order to realize his ecological vision, Francis draws on Catholic understandings of charity and justice. According to church teaching, charity can be understood as “response to immediate needs and specific situations” (no. 31). In contrast, justice is described as “attention to “the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions” (no. 201). Although both are important, the church teaches that both are needed in order to walk with the “Two Feet of Love in Action.”
Guided by this framework, Francis calls people of faith to employ charity and justice to care for creation. In charity, he invites us to repent from “our personal sins: our failures in love and respect towards God, towards our neighbour and towards the whole of creation.” At the same time, however, Francis also recognizes that Christian ecological ethics requires justice—especially in the face of climate change. As Pope Francis’s Secretary of State asserts, “Confronting seriously the problem of global warming requires … strengthening, deepening and consolidating the political process on a global level.”
Catholic Institutions’ Response to Francis’s Ecological Message
Pope Francis’s ecological message thus provides five key principles and a methodological framework to help guide Catholic creation care. Yet while his message provides an important outline that can inform ecological sustainability efforts, Catholic individuals and organizations must each faithfully apply the message to their own particular circumstances. This is especially true of Catholic, Jesuit colleges and universities, although no less so for other Catholic organizations.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II outlined the mission of Catholic higher education and said that “as a natural expression of the Catholic identity of the University, the university community should give a practical demonstration of its faith in its daily activity” (no. 39). In other words, Catholic colleges should embody the charity and justice that are at the core of the church’s social teaching—a vocation to which, in the face of climate change, the Society of Jesus called all of its institutions in its 2011 Special Report on Ecology. As such, it seems that the question facing Catholic, Jesuit schools is, “What does Catholic mission-based sustainability look like?”
Many Catholic schools are engaged in the sort of local sustainability efforts that I’ve here referred to as charity: recycling, energy efficiency, etc. While important, it is crucial that schools complement these initiatives with justice-based attention to the systemic roots of climate change. Especially in recent months, I believe there are several opportunities for climate change advocacy that have emerged by which members of Jesuit colleges can advocate for climate justice. These include the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards, the U.S. FY2016 White House Budget Proposal to support the Green Climate Fund, and the negotiations leading up to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) this December.
In order to build on the advocacy framework outlined in the Toolkit, the Covenant and its partners have developed several resources by which members of Catholic colleges and universities can advocate for climate justice. First, individuals can urge lawmakers to support the sort of national carbon pollution standard for which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called. In addition, faculty and students can engage in public theology by writing effective op/eds and letters to the editor of local papers to show faith-based support for a national carbon pollution standard, the Green Climate Fund and COP21. Moreover, members of an institution and/or several institutions together can lend Catholic support to these policy-level interventions by issuing an open letter to elected officials as nearly one hundred Catholic schools did in support of immigration reform.
In his address to the 2014 UN climate change conference, Pope Francis stated: “The time to find global solutions is running out. We will only be able to find adequate solutions if we act together and in agreement. Hence, there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical impetrative to act.” Although this ethical imperative to act certainly pertains to everyone, I think it is especially true of Catholic, Jesuit universities given both the mission and resources of these institutions. As described, these acts must take the forms of both charity and justice, and in that sense the task facing Jesuit schools can at times seem overwhelming. Yet as Francis reminds us, Catholic environmental ethics is inherently hopeful:
To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope! For believers, for us Christians, like Abraham, like Saint Joseph, the hope that we bring is set against the horizon of God, which has opened up before us in Christ. It is a hope built on the rock which is God.
In that spirit, I hope that members of Catholic colleges and universities—indeed all Catholic institutions—consider how to pursue charity and justice as the church waits for Pope Francis’s encyclical on ecology.