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Panel discusses Pope Francis’ radical vision for ecojustice

Pope Francis

In between classes, students, staff and faculty received a dose of faith-based environmental reflection at the panel, “Laudato Si: Pope Francis’s Radical Vision for Ecojustice.” The event, on Wednesday, Dec. 2 in Science Center 150, featured Associate Professor of History Ellen Joyce, Reverend Neddy Astudillo and First Baptist Church Pastor Stephen Hawkins discussing the Pope’s encyclical calling for urgent and radical action on climate change.

Dylan Hackler’16, who leads an environmental spirituality group on campus, organized the event with support from Bill Conover, director of the Spiritual Life Program.

Joyce opened by talking about her own personal investment in the pope’s message, saying that she considers it “astonishing” that in her lifetime a pope would write something so provocative. As a practicing Catholic, she has been “taking a new attention to environmental issues very seriously” since reading the document, and teaching and talking about it with her parish. “I read [it] and took my bike in for a tune-up the next day,” she commented. The document, translated to “Praise Be,” from medieval Italian, was published May 24, 2015 and is available free online. Emphasizing that the pope did not intend this effort to be a “one-off thing,” she notes there has been a push for reading guides and discussion groups around the text. After completing a four-week reading group in her church, for instance, an environmental action team was created.

Encyclicals are letters of instruction, Joyce explained, mostly written to those within the church, and Catholics are expected to engage with the ideas. “Laudato Si” is significant for being addressed to the whole world, and written in a more accessible way.

Pope Francis, elected to the position in March 2013, was formerly an archbishop in Argentina. He was known for living a simpler life than other archbishops, with an “ordinary apartment,” and riding public transportation, according to Joyce. His central message has been that the needs of the poor should govern the Church’s decisions — and to remember those on the peripheries of society. This is a significant shift, Joyce says, from past popes who spend most of their time addressing controversial identity politics, such as abortion and gay marriage. This shift focus has caused some controversy in the church — and many were taken aback with his explicit critiques of capitalism as one of the sources of injustice.

In the text, Pope Francis affirms the scientific consensus of human-caused global climate change. Much of it relies on claims from Catholic Social Teaching, a set of seven principles that guide moral decisions for Catholics.

While Hawkins is Protestant, he stressed the implications the encyclical has for Christianity more broadly. In discussing the theological grounding of the text, he noted the “misunderstanding” that Protestants have that Catholics don’t use enough scripture. Indeed, the encyclical directly draws on the creation stories to ground its arguments.

The pope also urges society to move on from debating science and religion, as this causes “genre confusion,” a term from the recent book, “For the Love of All Creatures” by William Greenway, which Hawkins cites as a complement to the text. Both are “truth claims,” and cannot be considered the same way.

Creation stories define three important relationships for humans: that with God, with neighbors and with Earth itself — and the pope argues these has been broken. Part of that, Hawkins explains, is because of the way Christianity has interpreted the term “dominion” over nature. While it has a neutral connotation in Hebrew, the English translation “does a great disservice,” to creation, as Hawkins said, as it has led to exploitation, control and domination.

Astudillo, a Venezuelan-American, is co-founder of the Angelic Organics Learning Center and is a pastor at an ecumenical (PCUSA-ELCA) Latino congregation in Beloit. A passionate teacher of ecotheology, she writes the blog “Eco-Justicia” and has had her writings published in numerous other places. She is also an active part of the global interfaith campaign Our Voices. She presented six different principles that the Pope discusses, which all religions have some version of. These are the role of humans; concern for all things; principle of common good and justice between generations; love of God; the concept of Integral Ecology and Ecojustice; concern for the throwaway culture and consumerism; and a call for religions to act together.

Within this broad vision, however, Astudillo was disappointed that the voices of women were not lifted up or consulted in the pope’s document. Coming from an ecofeminist perspective, she sees this as a huge oversight to the movement. “Women and children suffer more from the effects of climate change,” she said, adding, “most of the poor are women.”

Joyce agreed, adding that “A lot of religious women engaged in ecojustice come under criticism for being too centered on creation spirituality,” which might be why they weren’t included. However, Hawkins noted that the pope draws on the first Creation story, in which man and woman were created at the same time, supposedly given equal dominion. This representation, however, does not appear in the Catholic church, nor in broader society, of course. “Unless you really liberate women you can’t eradicate poverty,” Joyce added.

Opening up for questions, a number of audience members began a dialogue about the provocative ideas. Conover brought up the point that the Pope presents these ideas, such as zero growth, without providing much of a plan. Professor of English Shawn Gillen was also wondering how the lives of the poor can be improved under that model. Astudillo argued that the current system doesn’t work either. Adjunct Instructor of Sociology and Duffy Program Director Carol Wickersham noted the “tension” between justice, peace and the environment, and how movements often strive for just one. Hawkins added that the pope was clearly prioritizing long term ideas, asking for “real upheaval.”

Possibility of tangible solutions aside, it’s clear the Pope has taken a strong stance on one of the world’s most pressing crises, with profound implications for the Catholic Church, interfaith justice work and broader society as a whole.

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