The Catholic University of America

Nov. 4, 2015

Laudato Si’: Care for Creation Extends to Relationships, Family Life

  STRS faculty Monsignor Kevin Irwin and Joseph Capizzi speak about Catholic Social Teaching and Laudato Si' during a conference on the encyclical last week.

Though many commentators have classified Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ as a document focused primarily on the natural environment, the letter’s implications also include calls to action for better relationships, stronger families, and closer relationships with God.

“People often think of Laudato Si’ as a very narrow environmental teaching, but, in fact, it’s very broad,” said Lucia A. Silecchia, a professor of law and vice provost for policy who coordinated an interdisciplinary conference dedicated to the papal encyclical last month. “It talks about economic life, political life, business, science, family life, spirituality, and the moral life.”

The conference, “Laudato Si’ and the Protection of ‘Our Common Home’: Faith and Science in Conversation,” took place at Catholic University Oct. 26 and was organized by The Catholic University of America and the Doctrine Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The event included lectures by Catholic University faculty members from the fields of theology, business and economics, architecture, and philosophy, as well as invited experts on environmental science and domestic social policy.

Silecchia, who served as moderator for the morning sessions of the conference, said the day was an opportunity to gather scholars from diverse academic fields to discuss the various approaches to understanding the Pope’s encyclical. Released last June, Laudato Si’ is named after St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, which praises God for creation. The encyclical discusses human responsibility for caring for the environment and each other.

“In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis invited dialogue as we consider our obligations to our Creator, to each other and our ‘common home,’” Silecchia said. “This conference is one response to that invitation, and a great opportunity to get people together to think about these important issues.”

The day began with a discussion of Laudato Si’s place in the context of Catholic social teaching. Joseph Capizzi, associate professor of moral theology at Catholic University, spoke of how Catholic social teaching has evolved over the years, from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum to today.

From the beginning, Capizzi said Catholic social teaching has taught the idea that there is a natural order to life and that social problems such as poverty and injustice result from “disordered” ways of living. With Laudato Si’, Capizzi said, the tradition of Catholic social teaching is expanding to a “global, ecological conversion.”

University President John Garvey speaks during a recent conference on Laudato Si'.  

“It’s not enough merely to presume full respect of the human person,” he said. “We must also be concerned for the world around us and take into effect the natural world … This is reemphasizing our place within creation, a given order that precedes us in every respect.”

In his lecture, Monsignor Kevin Irwin, research professor of liturgical studies, took a close look at Laudato Si’ to determine Pope Francis’s influences. The encyclical draws greatly from writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as writings from U.S. bishops, bishops conferences, and past work of Pope Francis, including a document he contributed to in Apericida, Brazil, as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in 2007. The result of a conference of Latin American bishops, that document touches on topics like solidarity, stewardship, and a consumerist culture, among other things.

“When you look at the Apericida document, the breadth of what you see in Laudato Si’ was already there in 2007,” Monsignor Irwin said.

A second session focused on the science behind Laudato Si’. Calvin DeWitt, a professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, took the podium first to address the impact of recent changes on the Earth’s atmosphere and the importance of Pope Francis’s rallying cry for environmental protection.

The encyclical, which DeWitt called “the only comprehensive treatise on understanding and caring for the Earth system as our common home,” touches on a mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.
“Each community can take from the bounty of the Earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth,” he said. “Creation is not a bag of resources. It is a gift of God’s providence to support life on Earth.”

Paul Scherz, an assistant professor of moral theology and ethics, responded with an explanation as to why it is important that science and theology inform each other, and what dangers can go along with that. Since scientific research advances with theories that come and go, the Church has to be cautious when it comes to updating doctrine to reflect current scientific understanding.

Scherz also spoke about the Church’s concern about a technocratic worldview — one that puts its trust completely in science and technology. Scherz said that such a viewpoint can cause a fragmentation of knowledge into highly specific fields and an all-encompassing need for humans to control their environment, which can lead to “chains of unintended consequences.”

“Theology can remind other disciplines of the limitations of human power, the inherent value of creation, and the ultimate unity of human knowledge,” Scherz said. “At the same time, theology must rely upon the knowledge of the world revealed by the power of the reductive approach to reality.”

Jay Richards, an assistant research professor in Catholic University's School of Business and Economics, also presented on the science of Laudato Si’, by giving a critical look at the culture’s understanding of climate change — questioning specifically whether or not climate change is taking place, whether it is human-induced, and whether it is catastrophic, or even bad.

The afternoon discussions were moderated by Rev. Peter Ryan, S.J., the executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The afternoon discussions began with a panel on human responsibility for the natural world in which Chad Pecknold, an associate professor in STRS, spoke about how the encyclical portrays a world that has turned away from God. After the encyclical was released, many commentators missed the document’s focus on family and the need for “a harmonious relationship with our Creator,” Pecknold said.

“Yet Pope Francis is clear, this original harmony between God and creation was broken by sin, and affects other relationships as well,” he said. “Pope Francis says our misuse and abuse of the earth stems from a primordial violence which begins in the human heart turning away from God. Forgetting God as Creator is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, usurping God’s power for our own, trampling his creation underfoot.”

Patricia Andrasik, assistant professor and head of sustainability outreach in the School of Architecture and Planning, shared information about how Laudato Si’ can be lived practically through the fields of architecture and sustainability. She said the encyclical lays out various elements of “integral ecology” that can be applied for architects, planners, and engineers, including the need to incorporate history and culture into each place, the importance of a sense of community, and the need for homes to reflect the common good by giving residents a sense of dignity and security.

“Everyone is called to be a direct builder of the environment,” Andrasik said. “Laudato Si’s message for architects also compels each person — regardless of his or her profession — to evaluate how we create and maintain our physical surroundings. Each decision impacts those around us. This includes what we seek out in terms of physical surroundings, and how willing we are to sacrifice in the interest of preserving creation for the common good.”

In the final session of the afternoon, “A New and Universal Solidarity within the Human Community,” Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini and Mark Rohlena, director of the Office of Domestic Social Policy for the USCCB, spoke about concrete ways in which people can live out solidarity toward their neighbors in the various contexts in which they find themselves.

Melissa Moschella, an assistant professor in the School of Philosophy, gave examples illustrating the ways in which strengthening families is a pivotal way of caring for the “human ecology” Pope Francis writes about in his encyclical. Because families require spouses to make sacrifices for each other and their children, they are the best environment for children to learn about love, justice, and sharing. That knowledge is crucial for improving society, Moschella said.

“Catholic social teaching recognizes that one of the social contributions central to the common good is marriage and the family that flows from it,” Moschella said. “That new human ecology that he wants to foster focuses importantly on fostering a healthy marriage culture as a crucial aspect of that.”





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