Laudato Si'

Sharing the pope’s encyclical on the environment at Catholic universities around Chicago

Mark Potosnak (F’11)
DePaul University, Department of Environmental Science and Studies, Chicago, Illinois
Climate Ambassador for the Catholic Climate Covenant 

The release of Laudato Si’, the pope’s encyclical on the environment and climate change, was received with excitement by Catholics and all who are concerned about the impacts that humans are having on the environment. While Catholic Social Teaching has long stressed the importance of environmental issues, the encyclical represents a new level of emphasis. Excited by the opportunity to carry the message of the encyclical forward, the Encyclical Working Group was formed in Chicago with representation from Catholic universities, the Archdiocese of Chicago, non-pro t organizations and the Catholic Theological Union. The EWG members coordinated and participated in a number of activities. In addition, the EWG collaborated with the Catholic Climate Covenant. The Covenant was founded and is directed by Dan Misleh, and has been the predominant voice in the United States on the encyclical.

In this article, I briefly review the encyclical from the point of view of a scientist and an academic, including its place in the tradition of Catholic environmental thought. Next, I describe my experiences working with the Catholic Climate Covenant before the release of the encyclical, and then summarize some of the EWG key achievements in the Chicago area. I wrap up with some thoughts on how the momentum from the encyclical could be carried forward at Catholic universities.

A quick Google search reveals that much has been written on the encyclical. It is an extraordinarily rich document. Reading through the six chapters from an academic viewpoint, the environmental thinking of entire disciplines is often condensed into a series of three or four paragraphs. During the fall at DePaul, I have had the opportunity to teach a seminar class on the encyclical and to listen to students’ reactions to the text. Much of what they read resonates strongly with their past classes in environmental science and studies. The rst chapter lays out the scientific basis of the environmental issues facing the planet, and unfortunately the grim picture is very familiar to my students. Other commentators have pointed out that the encyclical follows the “See, Judge, Act” paradigm of Catholic social action, and chapter one describes what science sees: climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity loss and “an immense pile of filth.”

Chapter two will resonate most strongly with theologians, and focuses on the biblical roots of the Christian conception of the environment. Starting with the observation that the bible calls creation “very good,” this section is dense with meaning but also very readable without theological expertise. The next chapter explores the human roots of the ecological crisis. Of course there is much blame to spread around, but the role of technology and anthropocentrism are prominent. The nal of three chapters that summarize the “Judge” portion of the paradigm focuses on integral ecology. The pope sees our environmental issues and social ills as one problem that will require coordinated action to be solved. The nal two chapters look forward to how these coordinated actions must be cooperatively organized but also rooted in spirituality. The fifth chamber emphasizes dialogue, which was a word that also constantly reoccurred in the pope’s address to Congress in September. The sixth chapter returns back to religious themes and asserts that personal spirituality is necessary: an ecological conversion. But even in that context, the chapter is broad. For example, a discussion of the inclusion of aesthetics within environmental education is advocated.

Throughout this framework, two broad themes are constant: care for creation and the suffering of the poor in our current economic system. Catholics are called to care for creation, and the ecological crisis is also a social justice issue. Some of the language is directly a challenge to our current economic system: “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.”1 Again, these themes are not new in Catholic social thought and for example have been discussed by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Back in 2001, the USCCB stated, “At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures.

It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family.”2 Unfortunately this plea was largely ignored, and the issue of climate change has become highly politicized in the United States during the last 15 years. Pope Benedict was often called the Green Pope, and installed solar panels at the Vatican and worked to make the Vatican State carbon neutral. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, he states, “The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere.”3 But for all this recent history, Laudato Si’ is raising the issue of climate change to new prominence in the Church’s teaching.

Now I reflect on my opportunity to reach out to Catholics on the issue of climate change and to discuss how the release of the encyclical energized those efforts. When I came to DePaul University as an assistant professor of environmental science in the fall of 2008, I had never put together my Catholic faith and my academic interests in climate change. DePaul was my first experience at a Catholic university—previously I had studied, taught and done research at predominantly secular private and public institutions. But looking back, it is surprising that I had never considered the connection between Catholicism and the environment.

At DePaul, I had the opportunity to attend symposia and talks sponsored by our Office of Mission & Values which explored aspects of that relationship. One offshoot of these talks was our university’s sustainability initiative, which brought me to a conference at Notre Dame on “Sustainability and the Catholic University” in 2009. There I heard Dan Misleh talk, and I was excited the following year when there was a call for applications to be trained as a climate change ambassador. The training opened my eyes to a rich Catholic tradition on environmental issues. For example, I vividly recall how impressed I was by the USCCB statement from 2001 that I quoted above. I also remember environmental issues being raised when I attended Collegium in the summer 2011 and the talks that explained the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching.

Over the past five years, I have given over 35 talks to Catholic parishes, grade schools, high schools, hospitals, colleges and conferences. Some highlights include a joint presentation with the then Midwest Regional Director of Catholic Relief Services, Madeleine Philbin, for the African Faith & Justice Network conference hosted by Notre Dame, speaking to hundreds of high school students at Loyola Academy and talking with attendees of Catholics at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. While these efforts were rewarding, my participation in the Encyclical Working Group has brought me together with a network of local people of faith committed to promoting Laudato Si’.

In the end of 2014, I was lead into this effort through my involvement with the Catholic Climate Covenant. Dan Misleh was contacted by Patrick Keneally, then a lawyer with the Chicago office of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Patrick then began collaborating with Jude Huntz, then director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Peace and Justice (OPJ). Other initial members included Dawn Nothwehr, OSF from Catholic Theological Union, the Rev. Brian Sauder, director of Faith in Place, Jennifer Shankie from the Archdiocese’s Real Estate Office, Gina Orlando, a colleague from DePaul University, and Marian Diaz, D. Min. from Loyola University. The EWG members helped to coordinate a number of activities and also participated in several other events. Dawn Nothwehr hosted An Ecumenical and Interfaith Convocation at the Catholic Theological Union that was sponsored by Association of Chicago Theological Schools and several organizations within the Archdiocese of Chicago. Dan Misleh was the afternoon’s keynote speaker, and many of the EWG members gave workshops, including myself. A key EWG partner was Rev. Brian Sauder from the ecumenical organization, Faith in Place. Working with Jennifer Shankie’s program, the Chicago Sustainability Interfaith Partnership and Gina Orlando, they organized a Green Team training in Oak Park. While not organized by the EWG, many of us attended and spoke at the Institute for Cultural Affair’s Faith & Sustainability forum. Again this was an ecumenical event, and it was great to see the outpouring of enthusiasm for the encyclical across a wide diversity of religious traditions.

There were also a number of events at Catholic universities throughout the Chicagoland area. At DePaul, we hosted Dan Misleh, and he had over 40 students attend a series of two lunchtime discussion talks. He also spoke about his work in the evening, in conjunction with a panel on careers in sustainability. Loyola University of Chicago held a day-long event, “Caring for our Common Home: Conversations on Ecology and Justice.” Lewis University in nearby Romeoville had an extensive program over four days entitled, “Sing a New Song.” I spoke at one event in Lewis, and I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the students for messages from the encyclical. Both the Loyola and the Lewis events covered a range of topics, spanning science, policy, theology and institutional sustainability. From my experience hosting an event at DePaul, attending an event at Loyola and giving a talk at Lewis, I could see that the message of the encyclical clearly resonated with students. Also, I know other Catholic universities in the area held events, but these are the ones I experienced personally.

The challenge for Catholic universities in the Chicago area and across the United States will be to keep the momentum of the encyclical going. Recently released polling data say that 17 percent of Americans overall and 35 percent of Catholics were in uenced by the Pope’s position on global warming.4 I believe that Catholic universities can build off this momentum by explicitly including climate change science and policy studies into their curricula and incorporating sustainable practices into their operations. At DePaul, we recently gathered faculty together interested in aspects of climate change, and we had representation from ve different colleges: liberal arts and social sciences, business, science and health, school for new learning and communications. Going forward, we’ll explore creating an interdisciplinary minor in climate change science and policy. Since students’ lives become enmeshed in the physical aspects of the campus during their undergraduate years, they are very concerned about energy usage, recycling and waste. Here in Chicago, Loyola received attention for transforming a city street into a pedestrian area. In both curriculum and operations, moving forward with creative solutions will demonstrate that while the environmental challenges before us are extremely challenging, we can follow the guidance of the encyclical and have hope.

  • 1. Laudato Si’, paragraph 109.
  • 2. Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, 2001
  • 3. Papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate, 2009, Paragraph 51
  • 4. Maibach, E., Leiserowitz, A., Roser-Renouf, C., Myers, T., Rosenthal, S. & Feinberg, G. (2015) The Francis Effect: How Pope Francis Changed the Conversation about Global Warming. George Mason University and Yale University. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.