Laudato Si’: “Environmental education should … leap towards the transcendent”

Day 8 looks at how we educate future generations about caring for and tending to our common home

"Environmental education has broadened its goals. Whereas in the beginning it was mainly centred on scientific information, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks, it tends now to include a critique of the “myths” of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market). It seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God. Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care." Laudato Si’, 210

Pope Francis stresses the need for new, more profound, and integrated education around environmental issues because in large part our educational systems haven’t encouraged much care for the planet.

A mindset saturated with an Enlightened, utilitarian view of nature-as-resource has in large part resulted in the global devastation that the Holy Father speaks of. The question is, where do we go from here? How can the academy—especially the theological academy—help orient and elevate the discussion, especially within the applied (and profitable) disciplines at colleges and universities, like business and engineering?

Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, shared some thoughts on this related to what Laudato Si’ was saying to the world of academics. Dr. Deane-Drummond also has a background in the natural sciences and has written often on bioethics and environmental ethics.

“I would like to see the academy waking up to the importance of ecology and ecological reflection, scientific insights about climate change,” Dr. Deane-Drummond told Catholic Ecology, “and being far more astute with respect to the specific issues facing humanity.”

She added that theologians have for too long assumed that limiting their efforts to reading ancient texts was sufficient.

“But we have a particular responsibility to the Church not just to illuminate ancient wisdoms, but to show how those wisdoms can become relevant and active in the world,” she said. “We are called to be salt and light, not do nothing in the face of huge social problems. Of course, there are a handful of such theologians spread across different denominations who have done just that. But now the paradigm needs to shift so that it becomes more central and less marginal.”

Pope Francis "asks for considered and reflective practice rather than instrumental use and wasteful appropriation of resources." Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond

Dr. Deane-Drummond said that this applies “to a new kind of liberation theology as well, one that takes up the idea of integral ecology and makes it politically active in the Western and industrial world.”

Christians and people generally are still “in need of liberation,” she said. By this she meant “a different kind of liberation to be sure, but one [from] where they are trapped in a mechanistic technological universe of their own making. Now, Pope Francis does not defray from use of technology or even sacrificing animals completely: he just asks for considered and reflective practice rather than instrumental use and wasteful appropriation of resources. So much more could be done even within the resources that currently exist on the planet.”

But how would we begin to move away from the current mindset of “instrumental and wasteful appropriation of resources?”

“The average Catholic can take the message to heart,” Deane-Drummond said, “including the virtues of joy, hope, humility, love and the experiences of beauty, wonder and grace, and use these in ways that encourage the average person to live in accordance with the common good, as well as their individual good.”

The work before us, then, is to incorporate such thinking into how students at all levels and within all fields are educated.

This sounds like a topic for one or two academic conferences—at least to start. These could also include the offering of professional development opportunities for Catholic (and other) educators on Laudato Si’ and how to infuse its thought into the environmental education of students, as well as into schools of business, engineering, and education itself.

To Dr. Deane-Drummond’s point, the theological academy will need to supply more resources on these issues. And gladly, some are already available.

"Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature." Pope Francis, Laudato Si', 215

A helpful text, especially at the higher levels, is the new book Just Sustainability: Technology, Ecology, and Resource Extraction (Orbis 2015). This is a helpful compilation of essays from some of the most important leaders on these topics in the academy. Edited by Dr. Christiana Peppard and Andrea Vicini), the work includes helpful essays from Dr. Deane-Drummond, Dr. Erin Lothes, and my friend Dan DiLeo—and many more.

Dr. Peppard's book Just Water examines the issues of water we find in Pope Francis’s encyclical. There’s also God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to Environmental Ethics (Orbis, ed. Richard W. Miller), and Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment (Anselm Academic, September, 2011, ed. Dr. Tobias L. Winright), and others.

These are helpful beginnings. They go far to help educators and their students break away from a “mechanistic technological universe” that leads to an “instrumental use and wasteful appropriation of resources,” as Dr. Deane-Drummond put it.

Other means to attain such eco-educational ends include the architectural and pedagogical: having students learn about and visit the environmental systems and infrastructure around them; offer human-scale learning environments that surround students with wood, stone, and greenery rather than the impersonal grasp of plastic and metal; and encourage a campus culture that does not assume that all students are looking for one-night-stands, which just encourages a lifestyle of pleasure-seeking consumption for the moment.

In summary, Pope Francis put it this way:

If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behaviour. Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market. Laudato Si', 215

[Ed. Note: Catholic Ecology will be blogging daily on particular elements within Laudato Si' until the Feast of SS Peter and Paul.]

If you like Catholic Ecology,
you’ll love…

A Printer's Choice

The sci-fi novel with a Catholic twist.

A Printer's Choice

Learn more

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.