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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.
Common 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.