Responding to Laudato Si’ at Loyola University Chicago

By Evangeline Politis, Communication Specialist, Loyola University Chicago

Students at a poster session during Loyola University Chicago's 2016 Climate Change Conference (Photo by Mark Beane)


Students at a poster session during Loyola University Chicago's 2016 Climate Change Conference (Photo by Mark Beane)

Last spring, Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’, called for immediate action to confront environmental degradation and climate change. Loyola University Chicago responded quickly by hosting “Caring for Our Common Home: Conversations on Ecology and Justice.” The daylong event in September 2015 gathered faculty scholars from across departments and disciplines to speak on topics including ecology, globalization, global health, and the current role and future of sustainability at Loyola.

“The intersection of our Jesuit heritage and sustainability is lived out through continued faculty research and practices across our campuses, but we don’t often gather to discuss it,” says Michael Murphy, Ph.D., director of Loyola’s Catholic Studies Program. “This event [was an] opportunity to converse about what we are doing as a community locally and globally, what action can still be taken, and how we can encourage one another to be better stewards of our common home.”

This continues to be Loyola’s objective. The University—named the fourth greenest college in America by the Sierra Club—aims not only to educate its own community members, but also the many constituencies outside of its Chicago campuses.

Last month, Loyola hosted its third annual conference on climate change. This year’s event, “Global Climate Change: Economic Challenges and Solutions,” explored the principles, policies, and actions needed to combat global climate change, particularly in the context of the current economic system.

“Pope Francis’s encyclical talks about global economic disparities and that first-world nations are driving climate change, which is, in turn, disproportionately affecting people in developing countries,” says Nancy Tuchman, Ph.D., founding director of Loyola's Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES), which co-hosted the conference. “This year’s conference addressed that by examining economic systems, one of the main climate change drivers, and possible solutions.”

Author and activist Naomi Klein highlighted this in her keynote address on how free trade, capitalism, and the North American Free Trade Agreement have accelerated greenhouse gas emissions. Pope Francis recruited Klein to speak at a high-level conference on the environment at the Vatican in 2015, and her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, pins much of the climate crisis on capitalism.

Loyola’s three-day conference drew more than 600 attendees including representatives from 15 Jesuit colleges and universities.

Tuchman says, “We see this as a great opportunity for the Jesuit colleges and universities to come together every year and talk about how we continue to advance sustainability on our campuses, to share resources and best practices, and to leverage our curricula."

Taking eco-education online
Loyola has partnered with the International Jesuit Ecology Project to push eco-education past the grassy quads of the Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. Together, they launched Healing Earth, a free digital environmental science textbook. Available online, the book is intended for fourth-year secondary-school students, first-year university students, adult learners, and independent learners around the globe. 

The text was originally a response to Healing a Broken World, a document assembled by a group of Jesuits and lay people describing the rationale behind establishing the Task Force on Jesuit Mission and Ecology and proposing a set of practical recommendations. 

“One of the recommendations [in Healing a Broken World] was to leverage the worldwide network of Jesuit institutions to deliver an education to people at the margins—making it accessible, examining the environmental issues, and giving solutions,” says Tuchman. And so, Healing Earth was conceived—an idea of Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., secretary for higher education for the Society of Jesus and Loyola chancellor.

Laudato Si’, released while the text was being written, greatly influenced the final product. Quotes from the encyclical are infused throughout the book and are highlighted particularly in the ethics chapters.

More than 90 scholars from Jesuit institutions across the world contributed to the project, which is mirrored in its global approach to environmental issues. More than 60 professors, teachers, and adult educators from nine countries have used or are planning to use Healing Earth in their curricula. The text will continue to morph with the dynamic nature of environmental science, including updated resource links and video content. 

Addressing food deserts
The spotlight turns closer to home for initiatives in Loyola’s future that respond to the Pope’s call for action. Released last summer, Loyola’s Plan 2020: Building a More Just, Humane, and Sustainable World outlines several tactics through which the University will continue to promote environmental sustainability. 

“Plan 2020 is rooted in our commitment to leverage the resources of our university to address complex societal problems,” says John P. Pelissero, Ph.D., Loyola’s interim president. “A central component of our strategic efforts over the next five years is to enhance interdisciplinary education and research on climate change and its ecological impact. New programs in our Institute of Environmental Sustainability, and the enthusiasm of our students for making meaningful progress on these important initiatives, will advance Loyola as a national leader on environmental sustainability."

Tasked with that goal, the Institute is currently building an analytical laboratory for environmental testing. The lab will let scientists analyze water and soil samples from neighborhoods with legacies of old industry and potential toxic waste. 

This initiative will focus its research on areas in Chicago’s Large Lots program, where city residents can apply to buy vacant lots for just $1. These plots are located in so-called “food deserts,” which lack grocery stores and other healthy food options. In an effort to resolve that issue, the city is encouraging residents to grow their own food in these empty lots.

Once the lot soil testing is completed, the Institute will work to remediate the soil with fast-growing grasses. Students in the conservation and restoration ecology program will work to detoxify the soil and water, and others in the food systems and sustainable agriculture program will ultimately research the appropriate crops to be cultivated. 

Another facet of the program will be community outreach. The Institute will work with Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning to educate community members about which foods they can grow safely and how to maintain their crops. 

A social justice approach
Slated to launch in summer 2017, the Theology of Healing Earth in Action (THEA) Institute will also work to enrich the community surrounding Loyola with environmental education. The week-long program will encourage Chicago high school students to engage with Ignatian spirituality and Catholic theology in an effort to create socially just, environmentally conscious community leaders.

Funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., the program will bring a diverse group of approximately 75 students to Loyola's Lake Shore Campus and focus on eco-theology and caring for creation. The multidisciplinary curriculum will be led by Loyola theology and environmental science faculty members.

“This institute presents a unique opportunity for our local high school students to examine their faith and how they can use it to impact our community,” says Lisa Reiter, Ph.D., director of Campus Ministry and the THEA Institute. “It is our hope that these students walk away from campus with an understanding of how issues of sustainability and the environment are interconnected with social justice and Catholic social teachings—and ultimately put those teachings into action.”