Engaging the Encyclical: A Climatologist, a Policy Wonk and an Archbishop Walk Into a Seminary ...

A diverse gathering of influential Catholics came together to shape the immediate and long-term reception of Pope Francis’ eco encyclical.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — If Pope Francis’ forthcoming eco encyclical, Laudato Si (The Care of Our Common Home), changes the hearts and minds of those who read it, the Holy Spirit will undoubtedly have played a part.

And if the Pope’s teaching document penetrates society, altering structures and schools of thought, a lot of that may have to do with an intimate gathering that took place in the Twin Cities last week.

From June 3 to 5, a veritable who’s who of Catholic thinkers and doers congregated at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity for a seminar on “Human and Natural Ecology: Economic, Political and Cultural Implications. The gathering provided a forum to discuss Catholic teaching on ecology and the Pope’s encyclical, as well as to anticipate how it might be received.

Those present included climate scientists, business leaders and philosophers. The Church hierarchy was also well represented. Together, the 30 or so leaders represented the faithful’s engagement with every sector of society — from policy to academia, economics to science. Some spend most of their time in university settings, engaging in theory. Others are practitioners, devoted to applying the Church’s social teaching to real situations in the field.

The range of areas — which, to the uninitiated, perhaps seemed too wide to be reconciled — did not go unaddressed.

“I don’t think anyone in the room knows everyone, which is an extraordinary grace, as far as I’m concerned,” Christopher Thompson, the academic dean of St. Paul Seminary and a key organizer of the event, told attendees during his initial remarks.

The diversity of perspectives was intentional.

“We want as much breadth as possible to see how wide the conversation can get,” said Jonathan Reyes, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. According to Reyes, such breadth is necessary when having a conversation about human ecology, which is really “a conversation about everything.”


Free-Flowing Exchange of Ideas

Reyes worked with Thompson and Michael Naughton, the recently appointed director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minn.), to organize the event. The USCCB had been approached by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to help promote a proper reception of Laudato Si throughout the Church in the United States and U.S. society.

“This gathering was really the fruit of a number of us reflecting on the magnitude of the moment before us,” Reyes told the Register, adding that the seminar was intended to “address the immediate realities around the encyclical release … but also the long-term conversation on care for creation that will go on 10, 20 years down the line and longer.”

As Reyes told those gathered at the onset of the seminar, the organizers sought to do this by “getting the smartest people we know who are willing to come and put them in a room together.”

But in addition to their intelligence and positions of influence, most of the attendees had another commonality: a shared understanding of creation and human anthropology, constituting, in Reyes’ words, a “discursive community” of scholars and practitioners.

This “auspicious bunch,” as Thompson called them, gathered for a free-flowing exchange of ideas and perspectives. Barriers to unfettered communication were removed; a few members of the press were in attendance, but the conversations that took place were strictly off the record.

Over the course of the next two and half days, attendees listened to presentations and engaged in discussions on a variety of aspects of human ecology. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and others helped flesh out its theological basis; Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and his fellow scientists described its ecological and scientific dimensions. And practitioners like Jim Ennis, the executive director of Catholic Rural Life, shared what human ecology looks like in the field.

It was only fitting that the seminar took place in a room whose walls were adorned with portraits of the cardinal virtues, for prudence seemed to be the order of the day. Thompson reminded attendees of this by appealing to the Parable of the Wise Virgins. “We are here to prepare our lamps, the light of understanding, sustained by community and reflection,” he said.


Filling Lamps

Judging by the feedback of many of those who participated in the seminar, it seems like a number of lamps were filled.

“I think all of us walked away feeling enriched, better informed and better prepared to consider the Holy Father’s teaching,” Mark Rohlena, the director of the USCCB’s Office of Domestic Social Development, told the Register.

Rohlena said he found it refreshing to consider questions of human ecology in such a diverse setting, free from the “political lenses” that distort conversations inside the Washington beltway. He emphasized that ecological difficulties are “really moral challenges,” with the human person “at the heart of the discussion.”

“Hearing the contributions of experts in all of the different disciplines enriched everyone’s view on their own work,” he said.

Rohlena’s appreciation for the seminar’s emphasis on situating questions of ecology in a broad, human-centric framework was shared by Joan Rosenhauer, the executive vice president of U.S. operations for Catholic Relief Services.

“Exploring the long tradition of Church teaching on the intersection of human ecology and natural ecology reinforced the theological foundation for shaping U.S. policies that influence the human effect on the natural world,” Rosenhauer told the Register.

“The next step will be to mobilize the Catholic community to bring this rich teaching and experience to influence U.S. leadership in the world on these issues,” she added.

Because the attendees hoped to promote the encyclical and the Church’s teaching on ecology as something beyond politics and ideology, it was nonetheless important to understand how the contemporary landscape of U.S. politics would shape the debate. Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at the University of Notre Dame, helped provide a frank and sobering account of what the Church faces.

“Our left/right divide makes it difficult for the fullest dimension of Catholic social teaching to receive a full and fair hearing,” he told the Register. “So I fear reception through partisan lenses will likely result in a blinkered, partial reception that will tend to reinforce, rather than challenge, this unfortunate alignment.”

Even so, Deneen believes faith can help “trump” political differences, and he even saw this play out at the seminar, which intentionally made “no distinction” when it came to the political allegiances of attendees. The gathering also helped underscore the essential role Catholicism has in providing a moral basis to questions of ecological degradation.

“One scientist admitted that he had not really understood the problem in this light until his encounter with Catholic social teaching,” Deneen reported. “As long as we continue to view the problem of ecological degradation solely as a ‘technical’ problem, it’s almost certain that we will not make any meaningful change to current trajectories.”

While scientists received some moral edification from philosophers, attendees also appreciated being able to hear directly from experts on a particularly sensitive subject expected to be addressed in the encyclical: anthropogenic climate change.

“I was pleased to hear some fine summaries of the scientific evidence about the state of the global environment, which helped me to understand more clearly why many prominent scientists are concerned about the climate,” said Robert Kennedy, a philosopher at the University of St. Thomas.

Reyes added that although the scientists present at the seminar “overwhelmingly see the need to act, given climatological changes around the world,” it was also clear that “the number of people is not the problem” — thus population control isn’t a solution.  All parties, scientists and others, were committed to solutions that “place the human person at the center of the conversation, particularly the poor and vulnerable.”


Business and Economics

Another realm of human activity that was addressed in relation to the encyclical was business and economics. Professor Michael Naughton, one of the organizers and a key architect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s recently published document on the vocation of the business leader, said that media narratives are inaccurately placing business in a hostile relationship with ecological stewardship — an “either/or” relationship that isn’t consistent with Catholic teaching.

“Business is a vocation precisely because we can achieve the good in this domain,” Naughton told the Register.

Naughton said that the work of an entrepreneur is difficult, and there is a legitimate concern that focus on ecological concerns will add even more government regulations, “not all [of which] promote the common good.” Instead of pitting ecological stewardship against the interests of the business community, Naughton noted how the seminar underscored a Catholic approach to running a company that is characterized by a “both/and” mentality.

“When the love of creation is married to the love of God, the vocation of the businessperson becomes a powerful force for business to contribute to the common good,” he said. “Again, this is not easy, but it is precisely what the Pope should be telling us.”


Transforming Hearts

To organizers of the event, this type of interdisciplinary thinking — between business and ecology, theology and science and policy and morality — is exactly what they hoped to achieve.

“We’ve started a conversation, made good connections and thought about challenges and opportunities before us in new ways,” said Reyes.

Reyes himself learned something new, sharing with the Register that he “came away feeling confident that very reasonable conversation on the intersection of faith and the environment is possible and will probably take root over the long run.”

Which is important if Pope Francis’ encyclical is not only going to change policy, but also transform hearts, he added: “Talking about ecology is a means of communicating the glory, love and goodness of God. It is a great opportunity for an encounter with Christ. I believe that this encyclical is yet another way in which Pope Francis is leading the way in the New Evangelization.”

Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.