June 18, was a great day to be a journalist, a Catholic, a Jesuit priest, a teacher, an American and an editor for America. A journalist, because, although as literary editor, I had no direct connection with the Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical’s coverage, many people around me did.
Yesterday morning we staged a public conversation among four young lay theologians and our own Jim Martin, S.J., which was filmed for—and is now on—our web site by Jeremy Zipple, S.J. Kevin Ahern of Manhattan College moderated a sparkling exchange with Erin Lothes of the College of St. Elizabeth, Meghan J. Clark of St. John’s University and Dan Cosacchi of Loyola University of Chicago, emphasizing central themes of the long, long document: the interconnectedness of all creation, the roots of "Laudito Si'" (St. Francis’ joyous canticle) in the social justice documents going back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 "Rerum Novarum" and Pope John XXIII’s "Pacem in Terris" and recent writings from John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the long list of distinguished scientists who contributed to the chapters on global warming. This was not the work of a single priest amateur but of a broad band of intellectuals.
Jason Berry’s report for GlobalPost selected some powerful quotes I’ll share:
“The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, are symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she groans in travail.”
“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as you hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Berry adds, “the disinformation industry that thrives on moments like this will send their petty celebrities and the soft cant of inspirational prose.”
In the last minutes of the morning’s seminar the panelists discussed, What comes next? How will this historic document win the hearts and minds of the people and their leadership. Francis concludes: “The majority of people on our planet profess to be believers. This should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity.”
I don’t think that’s enough. The church must approach this cause with the vigor of a presidential campaign, employing its basic institutions: the parishes, the seminaries, its media networks like the diocesan press and radio and TV outlets, and the universities.
There are roughly 58 Catholic seminaries in the United States. Each should offer a required seminar on this encyclical, in which the future priests study not just the 184 pages thoroughly, but read classics by Thoreau, Teilhard de Chardin and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to get the emotional and intellectual respect for creation the encyclical calls for. There are 197 Catholic colleges and universities. All, but especially the top 50, should include social justice, including "Laudito Si'" in various courses, in their core requirements. I’m glad to report that the Jesuit University of San Francisco is first out of the gate, offering the talents of nine science, environmental and theology experts to discuss the issue. Now I’ll look forward to learning how USF and others work it formally into the curriculum. How the bishops encourage all their priests to include this in their sermons and how they embrace and share the power the church has entrusted to them to communicate this treasure to the flock will show what the American church is made of.