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Sisters, scholars reflect on ‘Laudito Si’’

July 10, 2015
Melanie Lidman and Dan Stockman
Global Sisters Report

KANSAS CITY, Missouri – “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis’s 184-page treatise on the environment, ranges from technology to spirituality, carbon emissions to copper mining and environmental justice to materialism.

Global Sisters Report interviewed a number of sisters and academics around the world who have long worked on environmental issues, some for decades. Overwhelmingly, the sisters talked about feeling excited, optimistic and also grateful about the encyclical.

The sisters and scholars also know setbacks and frustrations are ahead. But they said the clear language of the encyclical leaves no room for doubt: The world is in peril, human beings are the cause, and we can also be the solution.

Their responses are organized by the encyclical’s six chapters.


Chapter One: What is happening to our common home

“It’s very clever to use the word ‘our home,’” said Maryknoll Sister Marvie L. Misolas, who runs environmental seminars and retreats in the Philippines and advocates for the government to adopt green policies. She appreciates the direct and simple language of the encyclical, which she plans to use in her seminars with indigenous farmers to encourage them to stop burning trees for agriculture, a major cause of deforestation in the Philippines and around the world.

“The encyclical has that tone of ‘this is ours; this is not only for Catholics, but it’s for everyone,’” she said. “It gives people that sense of ownership. The term ‘our home’ is very important for me – it has a lot of connotations for all of us. Home is where we live, where we are acknowledged. In connection to the planet it is a very beautiful metaphor.”

Sister Simone Campbell, who is executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, said she appreciates the way the encyclical addresses our care of the environment as a culture, not just an abstract idea.

“Our culture becomes how we care for the environment around us,” said the Sister of Social Service. “Some corporate interests want to level everything, to say everything should be the same for everyone. Pope Francis is saying, ‘No, the global reality is complex and needs to embrace diversity.’”

“The income and wealth gap in our world is part of the problem,” Sister Campbell explained. “To see the intersection of climate, economic disparity, migration, hunger and poverty, housing and transportation – they’re all connected and recognizing this is hugely important for moving forward.”


Chapter Two: The gospel of creation

Franciscan Sister Dawn Nothwehr said Pope Francis has given the discussion a prominence it never would have otherwise. She is a professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where she researches environmental ethics through the lens of Franciscan theology, particularly the effects of global climate change on the poor. She is the author of “Ecological Footprints: An Essential Franciscan Guide for Faith and Sustainable Living.”

Sister Nothwehr said that the biggest effect of the encyclical will be the global awareness it raises, because people will be forced to confront environmental issues.

“People really don’t know. But once people know and understand what’s going on, they begin to say, ‘We really do have parts of the city where we have higher asthma rates and children have higher levels of lead in their blood. Something’s not right,’” she said.

That, she said, can lead to the changes in individuals that create large-scale changes.

“It is a time for all of us to wake up,” said Presentation Sister Teresita Abraham, originally from India and now living in Zambia, where she is creating the Garden of Oneness, an eco-spiritual organic garden and retreat center. “Looking at Zambia, when I came 27 years ago, the air was clean and the soil was clean and the rivers were clean. Today, so much pollution. There was no plastic anywhere, but now everything is strewn with plastic.”

She added: “We must wake up, not only to care for the earth. It is about that communion with God, with one another, and all of creation.”

Chapter Three: The human roots of the ecological crisis

Thomas A. Tweed likes the links the encyclical makes between environment and justice. Tweed holds the Harold and Martha Welch Endowed Chair in American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Tweed has served as the president of the American Society for the Study of Religion, and is currently president of the American Academy of Religion.

“What strikes me as most helpful moving forward is that sustainability is imagined both ecologically and socially,” Tweed said. “We can’t just ask if there’s clean air and water, we also have to ask if there’s peace and justice. ... The document makes clear that we don’t have to decide between worrying about the poor or ecological destruction – we have to worry about both because it’s the poor who suffer the ecological destruction.”

Mary Evelyn Tucker said the fact that the pope classified the environment as a moral issue changes everything. Tucker is a senior lecturer and senior research scholar at Yale University where she teaches in a joint master’s degree program between the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. She directs the forum on religion and ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim.

“To contribute to global warming and compromise our planetary life systems is seen by the pope and many others as morally problematic,” Tucker said. “This is a watershed moment – a broadening of ethics to include both humans and nature. Just as the move from segregation in the ‘60s was sparked by moral voices, so too the growing turn from unsustainable environmental and economic practices is being encouraged by ethical concerns now led by the pope. It is no wonder there is push back!”


Chapter Four: Integral ecology

Dominican Sister Margaret Mayce said that for too long, issues have been addressed in isolation. Sister Mayce is the nongovernmental organization representative for the Dominican Leadership Conference at the United Nations and works in social development.

The pope is “emphatic about the reality that everything is connected,” she said. “The United Nations has had a silo approach to everything: Economics has its place, the environment has its place and the social has its place, and that’s why the world is such a mess now.”

She also loves that the encyclical calls for common but differentiated responsibility, meaning that while we’re all responsible for, say, carbon emissions, wealthy countries that produce more carbon, like the United States, should bear a larger burden of responsibility than a poor country.

Passionist Sister Gail Worcelo said the encyclical ushers in a new “moment of grace” for the church. She is a co-founder of Green Mountain Monastery in Vermont, dedicated to the healing and protection of Earth and its life systems.

“It’s calling the whole human community, saying that we’re all interconnected and share a common home,” Sister Worcelo said. “It’s not just for the Catholic community, it’s for the world community.”

The monastery’s co-founder was the late Passionist Father Thomas Berry – regarded as the dean of those working to relate ecology to spirituality.

“We have felt like lone voices for many, many years now,” Sister Worcelo said about the many people like her who have long made the connection between the spiritual and the natural worlds. “We’re just thrilled that the pope, who has the capacity to influence the world, has come up with a document like this. I really think for the church, it’s its next moment of grace.”


Chapter Five: Lines of approach and action

Sister Patricia A. Siemen, an Adrian Dominican, appreciates the way the pope calls for legal frameworks to make the needed changes. Religion has a role in solving the environmental problem she said, but governments and international organizations must take action as well.

“He talks about it in a language common people can understand,” she said. “You don’t have to be a policy analyst.” Sister Siemen is an attorney and currently serves as the director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida.

“I’m very pleased with his blend of spirituality, science and common sense,” she said, referencing the title’s language in particular. “Catholic social teaching is about the common good. ... This addresses the common good and the good of the commons, the common air, water and soil. That’s kind of a lone cry today.”

Rabbi Yonatan Neril, the director of the Israel-based Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, said one way to implement the encyclical’s lessons is through educating religious leaders.

According to a study the center was to publish soon, out of 231 religious learning institutions surveyed in North America, including seminaries and universities from all religions, only a quarter – 64 institutions – have courses on ecology.

A 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion found that about 60 percent of U.S. Americans who attend religious services said their clergy rarely or never speak about the environment, Rabbi Neril pointed out. However, the same survey found that among congregations that did hear about environmental issues in a religious setting, people were much more likely to be concerned about climate change. This emphasizes the importance of the religious response to help heal the environmental issues.

“Part of the way we think of moving the needle is educating the next generation of clergy,” he said. “Religion is the largest organization in the world, and if it’s not part of the solution, there’s not going to be a solution. That’s why your priest should be talking about it.”


Chapter Six: Ecological education and spirituality

The encyclical changes the foundation of the church’s thought, explained Sister Campbell, and will affect everything that comes after.

“It’s a totally different approach. (The pope) talks about humans depending on the Earth. So we’re beholden to the Earth, beholden to the environment,” she said. “That’s a huge shift. That’s as big as the shift from figuring out the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. For once, we’re ahead of the curve.”

Sister Abraham said Presentation sisters have made a concentrated effort to honor the part of their charism of celebrating the interconnectedness of everything, including God and nature, by implementing projects like an educational organic farm in Zambia and a series of educational seminars across the country called “For Our Care of the Earth, Our Responsibility.”

“There is a huge awakening in humanity, that we cannot care for the poor without caring for the earth that sustains the poor,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story originally was published in Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter. The website is http://globalsistersreport.org.

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