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Catholic Higher Ed Steps Up Its Game in Creation Care


From the global devastation wrought by the coronavirus, to rising sea levels, to ever-more extreme weather events, evidence is mounting that the Earth is crying out for help.

By Paula Moore


Drawing on both their faith-based nature and their position as institutions of higher learning, Catholic colleges and universities are heeding the call to address climate change. Spurred by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, people throughout Catholic higher education are thinking and acting in new ways to help heal the Earth. 


Photo courtesy of Santa Clara UniversityCommon Concern for Our Common Home 

Woven through the array of founding orders that animate today’s Catholic higher education is a connection to the natural world. As the patron saint of ecology, animals, and nature, St. Francis of Assisi’s appreciation for the natural world permeates Franciscan spirituality and indeed, the Jesuit pontiff named Laudato Si’ from his namesake’s Canticle of the Creatures. Yet other orders embrace care for creation just as robustly. The Mercy emphasis on social justice, the Dominican embrace of learning and simplicity, and the Benedictine commitment to stewardship all manifest in efforts to reduce the degradation of the Earth. Together, these and other orders create a network of commitment to care for the Earth, borne of many different and complementary perspectives and traditions.

Drawing upon their distinct charisms, today’s Catholic colleges and universities are finding creative ways not only to educate students about the importance of caring for creation, but also to carry their commitment into the world. When students graduate from Christian Brothers University, for instance, they are asked to take a Lasallian Graduation Pledge, which says in part: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social justice and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organization for which I work.”


Catholic colleges and universities are finding creative ways not only to educate students about the importance of caring for creation, but also to carry their commitment into the world.


Other Catholic campuses are taking noteworthy strides in achieving the seven goals laid out by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (see graphic). For instance, Aquinas College in Michigan is shaped by the Dominican tradition and, guided by the Dominican charism of preaching, is actively committed to Ecological Education (Goal 5 of Laudato Si’). Following its Sustainability Initiative, Aquinas has infused courses across the curriculum with sustainability content. Nearly 76% of academic departments there have sustainability core offerings; more than 20% of all academic courses have a sustainability component. Aquinas also has been rated “exceptional” in its academic performance by Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

At Santa Clara University (SCU), sights have been firmly set on achieving carbon neutrality of campus energy use since 2007 — a goal achieved in 2020. Embodying Goal 4, Sustainable Lifestyles, the Jesuit campus’s sustainability plan also includes a commitment to zero net greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation (commute and business travel) by the end of 2029. In the meantime, SCU has decreased energy use per square foot by 42% since 2005 and is on an ambitious course to reduce energy usage through efficiency upgrades, metering, and retro-commissioning building systems. An online data hub enables the SCU community to track its progress and adjust decision making in order to refine sustainability practices.

In Ohio, the University of Dayton partners with more than a dozen agencies and other groups in the area to achieve its sustainability goals, embracing Laudato Si’ Goal 7, Community Participation. The university has built relationships with the City of Dayton, the local transportation authority, the Marianist Environmental Education Center, and others. Leaders have also forged a partnership with the other two Marianist universities in the United States: Chaminade University in Honolulu and St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Together, these universities are working — from their common values as institutions in the tradition of the Society of Mary — to build sustainability curricula. For instance, an exchange program enables students from any of the three universities to explore the ecological diversity of any other institution’s location.


Other Actions and Resources

Members of the Church around the world are seizing the opportunity presented by Laudato Si’ to address climate change.

In July, Catholic Climate Covenant unveiled a new website, God’s Plan(et). The site forms the backbone of a national awareness campaign to educate, inspire, and activate U.S. Catholics to embrace and act upon the teachings of Laudato Si’ and to care for creation. In the coming weeks, the site will offer downloadable campaign materials and other resources.

Catholic Climate Covenant also worked with nearly a dozen partners to launch the Climate Action Letter for Catholic Institutions. Prepared in advance of the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference planned for November 1-12, the letter calls on President Biden and members of the U.S. Congress to enact science-based climate policies that prioritize the needs of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. The letter is consistent with USCCB policy positions and is co-sponsored by a number of Catholic organizations, including Carmelite NGO, Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers, Catholic Health Association of the United States, the Franciscan Action Network, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and many others. Interested U.S. Catholic higher education institutions may sign the letter before October 25.

The Journey to Sustainability

In May 2020, on the fifth anniversary of the release of Laudato Si’, the Vatican Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development announced a yearlong celebration, culminating in the launch of a Laudato Si’ Action Platform, a multi-year program to help communities around the world begin a seven-year journey to total sustainability.

Since then, various working groups representing sectors as diverse as healthcare, parish life, and education have come together to plan out resources for implementing a coordinated response to Laudato Si’. The International Association of Jesuit Universities, for example, led the way in beginning to develop a strategy for Jesuit universities to participate in the Vatican initiative. Over a period of months, and with participation from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the effort expanded to encompass Catholic campuses of various founding orders. Currently, a working group representing more than 40 institutions around the world is designing a website that will provide a blueprint for Catholic universities that want to join the journey and need assistance in developing their own Laudato Si’ Action Plans.

As development on that resource continues, universities are able to take an immediate step and express a good faith commitment to join the seven-year journey by signing a letter of commitment (the letter and additional information can be found on the ACCU website). It is expected that on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis, committed universities will be officially enrolled by the Vatican Dicastery into the first cohort of Laudato Si’ Universities. It is the Dicastery’s hope that each year, the number of participants will double, growing the number of cohorts exponentially over the seven-year timeframe.

As Pope Francis wrote in the encyclical, “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.” The ongoing efforts of Catholic colleges and universities to heed the pontiff’s words are raising high hopes that the sector will play a measurable role in bringing about that change.


Paula Moore is former Vice President, External Affairs, of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

Photo courtesy of Santa Clara University