Multidisciplinary Approach Engages Gonzaga University and Community with Laudato Si'

By Makenna Sellers, Class of 2017 Sustainability Coordinator, Gonzaga University

Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh at an event in 2014 when Gonzaga became the first Jesuit university in the United States to commit to the “Real Food Challenge,” a pledge that 25 percent of food served on campus would be sourced from ecologically sound, fair, humane and local- and community-based providers by 2020 (Photo by Gonzaga University)

Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh at an event in 2014 when Gonzaga became the first Jesuit university in the United States to commit to the “Real Food Challenge,” a pledge that 25 percent of food served on campus would be sourced from ecologically sound, fair, humane and local- and community-based providers by 2020 (Photo by Gonzaga University)

Gonzaga University has long been committed to responsible environmental stewardship through a host of sustainability initiatives, including faculty and student research projects, a plan for climate neutrality by 2050, creative partnerships and more. This institutional commitment responds to calls by the Vatican, the Society of Jesus, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and others for mission-based sustainability consistent with Gonzaga’s Catholic and Jesuit identity.  

The 2015 publication of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si', the first encyclical focused on humanity’s relationship to and responsibilities toward the natural world, provided an opportunity to build on this strong foundation. It sparked a yearlong reflective and celebratory response of deep academic engagement around Catholic social teaching, bringing together Gonzaga faculty, staff and students, and the local community in a multidisciplinary exploration of its groundbreaking messages. 

Throughout the 2015-16 academic year, Gonzaga has hosted a variety of events aimed at making the content of the encyclical approachable and engaging to a wide audience. Gonzaga’s programming efforts were led by Rev. Jim Voiss, S.J., Rector of the University’s Jesuit Community and Assistant Vice President for Mission; Brian Henning, Professor of Philosophy and Director of Sustainability Across the Curriculum; and Jim Simon, Director of Sustainability.

An open invitation to engage with the text was met with enthusiasm. Multiple encyclical reading groups comprised of faculty and staff met regularly throughout the fall term. Each group studied the encyclical in its own way, focused on the interests and outlooks of its members. Rev. Tim Clancy, S.J., Director of the University’s Honors Program and Associate Professor of Philosophy, led one of the reading groups. 

“As a Catholic, Jesuit university, it is our mission to critically engage the Pope’s prophetic vision and to discern with our students how to apply its teachings both inside and outside of the classroom as well as in our own institutional efforts at becoming an ever ‘greener’ campus,” says Fr. Clancy. 

The 2015 publication of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si' provided an opportunity for Gonzaga to build on its long commitment to responsible environmental stewardship as part of its Jesuit and Catholic identity (Photo by Gonzaga University)

The 2015 publication of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si' provided an opportunity for Gonzaga to build on its long commitment to responsible environmental stewardship as part of its Jesuit and Catholic identity (Photo by Gonzaga University)

Reading groups were one piece of the multifaceted approach that the Gonzaga community took in its engagement with the encyclical.

Drawing on direct and nuanced encyclical topics such as wealth and poverty, consumption and reduction, religious and media rhetoric, as well as the moral responsibility for environmental care, 18 panelists participated in meaningful discussions with an estimated 200 community members at four separate public presentations.

Laudato Si' panel discussions provided faculty opportunities to publicly respond to the encyclical from their own unique disciplinary expertise. Professors of economics, leadership studies, communication, philosophy, religious studies, Native American studies, political science, environmental studies, law, finance, and business ethics participated in this multidisciplinary presentation of ideas. While such widespread collaboration on a single topic remains uncommon at many higher education institutions, Gonzaga is committed to a learning culture where interdisciplinary discussion is the rule rather than the exception. What better way to develop Catholic social thought across disciplines than to conduct collaborative conversations about our common home?  

This distinctive approach engaged participants and audiences alike. 

Carolyn Cunningham, assistant professor of communication and leadership studies, participated in an encyclical response panel titled “Rhetorical Strategies and the Politics of Religious Discourse.” 

“Hearing from colleagues who work in different fields really brought fresh perspectives to the table,” Cunningham says. “This is a testimony to what Gonzaga stands for.”

To expand their reach and impact, each interdisciplinary discussion panel was simulcast and subsequently posted as a streaming webcast on Gonzaga’s sustainability website. Putter Tiatragul, a senior biology major, found the panel discussions especially valuable, particularly from his non-Catholic faith tradition background. 

“The encyclical discussions helped to build my environmental outlook because the content applies to everyone. I’m glad Gonzaga took the initiative to facilitate this conversation because it will hopefully provoke collective action that answers the Pope’s call,” Tiatragul says. 

In addition, the religious studies department’s annual Flannery Lecture focused on Pope Francis’ encyclical when John F. Haught, distinguished research professor in Georgetown University’s theology department, presented “Science, Theology and Pope Francis’ Ecological Vision.” 

Beyond the context of academic discourse, University Ministry and the Office of Sustainability also worked in tandem to design outreach programming focused on the content of Laudato Si'. “I Am Climate Change,” one of the engagement initiatives spearheaded by student interns, sought to guide students to think intentionally about their personal climate impact and ways to mitigate their carbon footprint. 

Similarly, a documentary film series arranged by the Office of Sustainability involved both the student body and the Spokane community. Powerful documentary films such as “Chasing Ice,” “Seeds of Time” and “Bikes vs. Cars” helped underscore for the Gonzaga community important topics, including care for the planet and wasteful consumption. This avenue of engagement with Laudato Si' created an inclusive niche for new audience members, exposing them to topics of the encyclical in multidimensional ways.

Given the ecological themes of climate change and environmental justice, the many dimensions of encyclical engagement provided the perfect platform for the Gonzaga community to collectively affirm its commitment to sustainability. 

“The encyclical is more than a document, it is an action plan,” says Kevin Henrickson, chair of the environmental studies program and the Graue Chair of Economics. “One of the notable achievements of this university is its ability to translate Catholic social teaching into observable actions. Applying this to sustainability is the next step in our development as an environmentally cognizant campus.” 

Gonzaga’s holistic approach to the encyclical paired the values and strengths of a liberal arts institution with religious and environmental recognition. Gonzaga’s engagement in Laudato Si' has produced a powerfully rich learning experience for all, advancing thinking of faculty, staff, students, and the local community through Jesuit, Catholic and ecological lenses. The impact of this endeavor will inform future academic engagement on mission-centered topics addressing the intersection of faith and action in the best traditions of Ignatian pedagogy.