The Catholic University of America Brings Human Ecology to Public Sphere

Institute brings social teaching to bear on political issues for the well-being of all.

The entirety of the mission at the Institute for Human Ecology is embedded in a deep commitment to its Catholic identity.
The entirety of the mission at the Institute for Human Ecology is embedded in a deep commitment to its Catholic identity. (photo: Courtesy of the Institute for Human Ecology/The Catholic University of America)

WASHINGTON — New initiatives from The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology (IHE) are seeking to restore healthy dialogue within a polarized cultural climate and bring the principles of Church social teaching more fully into the public square. 

“Like the Church herself, we see ourselves as enriching conversations” by “presenting principles that have been time-tested, that are good for human beings, and allowing those principles to inform these conversations,” said Joseph Capizzi, IHE’s executive director and professor of theology at CUA in Washington, D.C.

“One of the things that we’re really concerned about is the divisiveness in our culture,” Capizzi told the Register. The lack of engagement in healthy argumentation, he observed, is becoming manifest in “many different quarters: in education, in politics,” and even “in the Church.”

The new IHE Voices, and the formal launch of the Program in Catholic Political Thought (PCPT), are included among recent efforts to put forward an authentically Catholic approach to contemporary issues, while addressing the discordance that characterizes much of modern discourse. 

Started in June 2022, IHE Voices aims to engage the media with the Catholic scholarly perspectives being fostered by the institute on matters pertaining to family life, human dignity and religious freedom, explained Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, IHE’s strategy consultant and an IHE Media Fellow as well as a Register contributor. 

IHE Voices offers an opportunity to work “with our scholars and fellows at the institute to really get in the mix on some of the difficult conversations of the day,” Picciotti-Bayer told the Register.

The initiative aims to provide a contrast to the “antagonistic” and “isolationist” tone with which these issues can be discussed, which does not “model kind of that scholastic tradition of understanding” the positions of people with whom we may disagree, Picciotti-Bayer said.

Instead, she explained, IHE Voices seeks to facilitate a “more fast-on-our-feet response,” which points people to the authority of the Church, “giving a bit of a compass or a beacon for many issues that seem to be shrouded in darkness and confusion.”

 Institute for Human Ecology (IHE) at The Catholic University of America
Clockwise from top: IHE Scholars and Fellows unite cutting-edge research and the ancient wisdom of the Church to think through contemporary problems in academic and public settings. Shown are, L to R, Ross Douthat, Elbridge Colby, Rebeccah Heinrichs and Jakub Grygiel. IHE students meet and learn from renowned scholars and thought leaders, like Jennifer Frey from the University of South Carolina, who led an intellectual retreat in 2022. The IHE's Master of Arts in Human Rights program prepares a generation of leaders who are equipped to fight and defend human rights and dignity throughout the world. | Courtesy of the Institute for Human Ecology/The Catholic University of America(Photo: Institute for Human Ecology)

What Is Human Ecology?

Catholic University launched the IHE in 2016, following Pope Francis’ U.S. visit the year prior, and was inspired in part by the encyclical Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home) and its look at human and integral ecology. 

The institute’s mission “is to educate students, sponsor multidisciplinary research, advise Church leadership, and organize symposia, conferences, and lectures for the academy and the public square,” according to the IHE website.

Bringing “together the best scholarship,” both from within and outside of CUA, Capizzi explained, “we call together economists, other kinds of social scientists, theologians, philosophers, and in some cases people from the humanities, and try to understand what particular challenges we are facing.”

Analogous to natural ecology, which is the study of living organisms in relation to their environment, Picciotti-Bayer said, human ecology pertains to the “conditions necessary for human flourishing.” 

“The idea is that the human person in our communities is all affected by these different facets of our existence,” be it our economic, environmental, spiritual or familial well-being, she told the Register.

Picciotti-Bayer added that human ecology is a “capacious understanding” of how “all of these elements contribute either to well-being or to a lack of well-being” for ourselves, our families and our neighbors. 

“We really want to have a more serious conversation” about improving “these conditions, if we think there’s room for improvement,” she said. 

The problems connected with human ecology were identified more than a century ago in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (New Things), and it has recurred as a theme in the pontificates of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Human ecology seeks to answer the problem of a “disconnection from reality,” according to the IHE site, a problem complicated in part by the interplay between determinism and advancements in technology. 

The institute’s “programs challenge the materialistic and reductionist worldviews of institutions, policymakers, and opinion-formers that stand in the way of prosperity and human dignity,” the website says.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship, Institute for Human Ecology
The closing banquet is shown for the Civitas Dei Summer Fellowship, which took place this past June. The banquet was open to this year's fellows as well as alumni of the Civitas Dei program. This summer was the fifth-annual fellowship. | Courtesy of the Institute for Human Ecology/The Catholic University of America(Photo: Rui Barros Photography)The Catholic University of America

Drawing From Catholic Political Tradition

One of IHE’s programs being highlighted this academic year is the Program for Catholic Political Thought (PCPT), which is designed to facilitate Catholic University’s doctoral students in developing a comprehensive understanding of Catholic political thought. 

Although technically established in April 2016, the program is fully up and running for the 2022 fall semester, starting with an Oct. 6 lecture by Russ Hittinger, a member of PCPT’s leadership team, to mark its official launch. 

Through PCPT, Capizzi explained, Institute for Human Ecology aims “to draw out the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition that support engagement with views that are different than the views that one holds.”

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the direction that the country’s headed and the quality of our public discussions,” said Bradley Lewis, co-director of the Catholic Political Thought Program. “People are looking for alternatives.”

Lewis told the Register that some of the “freshest ideas, in fact, turn out to be old ideas,” like “the basic principles of Catholic social teaching and the tradition of Catholic political thought, and so we want to offer that.”

Capizzi said that the program looks at the “history of the Church engaging with other perspectives,” while “trying to re-establish the means for good, constructive argument that is ordered towards truth, that is ordered towards figuring out how human beings can best live together.”

The program offers formation in creating “the sorts of institutions that are necessary for supporting people and giving them a sense of meaning,” he said. 


At the Heart of U.S. Policymaking

Students, faculty and visitors entering the CUA campus will observe the slogan below the name of the university: “In Service to Church and Nation.”

The location of CUA — and by default, the Institute for Human Ecology — in Washington provides additional opportunities for the institute’s faculty and students to engage with U.S. policymakers. 

One of CUA’s missions, explained Lewis, “is to provide the resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition to the country generally, to have faculty that can participate in public discussions and can contribute to riches that the Church has to offer to these things.”

“IHE is within the university” and is “a part of the university that has this as its specific purpose,” Lewis said.

“It’s a huge asset to the institute to be located in Washington, D.C.,” Capizzi said, noting that faculty members often have the opportunity to engage in conversations about policies such as immigration, just war, etc. 

“We’re a trusted partner in these kinds of conversations,” he said, “and the Catholic Church has a depth of resources on this that is unparalleled.”

While IHE doesn’t “advance any particular policy,” he said, “like the Church herself, we see ourselves as enriching conversations,” through the presentation of principles that have been time-tested, that are good for human beings, and allowing those principles to inform these conversations.

Echoing Leo XIII’s letter to the U.S. bishops on the founding of The Catholic University of America, Capizzi observed how the university is motivated by the papal call to “give to the Republic her best citizens.”

“That’s what we’re about,” Capizzi said. “That motivates us and energizes us, and the IHE Voices is going to be another piece of trying to achieve that end.”

Demonstrators who reject a new constitution chant and wave Chilean flags during a demonstration against of the constitution draft proposed by the assembly on September 1, 2022 in Santiago, Chile.

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