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For more than ten years, Richard Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and director of Creighton University’s M.A. in Theology program, has reviewed climate reports every day. As editor of God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis (winner of a 2011 Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada book award in the faith and science category), he has been sounding the bell that climate change is happening — and a profound social change is needed.
Now he’s got company — the sort Catholic theologians like to keep. Last year, Pope Francis released Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment. Named after the hymn on creation by the pope’s guiding namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the 38,000-plus-word encyclical covers climate change, biodiversity, water, societal breakdown, population growth and much more. Following a turn begun with Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, it is addressed to the whole world.
“What the pope brings to the public debate, which I think is a game-changer, is ethics,” Miller says. “Ethics does not require scientific certitude. It requires credible evidence. Here’s a pope who’s the head of 1.2 billion Catholics. That’s a big deal.”
It’s already become a big deal at Creighton, which has offered a degree program in environmental science for more than 20 years, one of the first Catholic universities to do so. The program boasts several hundred graduates. More recently, it has launched a degree program in sustainability. And on-campus sustainability efforts are a University priority, led by prominent faculty and administrators.
John O’Keefe, professor of theology and the A.F. Jacobson Chair in Communication, has written extensively on the environment and the Catholic Church. In 2013, he edited a special issue of the Journal of Religion & Society that featured papers given at a Creighton conference titled “The Greening of the Papacy” – referring to a trend that began in the 1960s with Pope Paul VI. While Pope Francis goes to great lengths to show that Laudato Si’ builds upon the work of his predecessors — Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI – this document offers a more direct appeal for action.
“[With] this one, it feels like everyone has to read [to the encyclical] and respond to it,” O’Keefe says. “That to me says he (the pope) was intentionally taking great risks.”
John Schalles, biology professor and co-founder and former director of Creighton’s Environmental Science Program, uses data from satellites and the International Space Station to investigate changes in coastal ecosystems.
“In many ways,” he says, Laudato Si’ offers “a macroscopic view of our planet that is so important right now. We can see, literally before our eyes, these changes.” He points to 28 years of satellite data examining the Georgia salt marshes that he and a graduate student have been studying at Sapelo Island.
Barbara Dilly, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies, is helping make change possible through community gardens, including one coordinated with the Refugee Empowerment Center in Omaha, Neb. There, refugees from several areas in Asia grow vegetables during the summer.
But it’s not just sustainability being planted. Community gardens help give people “meaning to their labors” and help them “be who they are,” says Dilly. It also connects them to each other, to the surrounding community and beyond.
For Jay Leighter, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and director of Creighton’s Sustainability Studies Program, the encyclical is not only a warning siren – but a message of hope.
While the pope emphatically states in Laudato Si’ that “our common home is falling into serious disrepair,” he also encourages positive change. “Hope,” he writes, “would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems.”