The Vatican has designated May 1624, 2020 Laudato Si’ Week to mark the 5th anniversary of the completion of Pope Franciss groundbreaking document Laudato Si’: On care for our common home. (The document was formally signed on May 24, 2015 and released on June 18, 2015.) The global campaign is sponsored by the Vaticans Dicastery for Promoting Human Development, and is designed to spur Catholics to become more involved in environmental action.

Dr. Dennis O’Hara, who authored the reflection below, edited a book on Laudato Si’ with Matt Eaton and Michael Ross. The book, Integral Ecology for a More Sustainable World: Dialogues with Laudato Si’, brought together scholars from around the world with diverse backgrounds, including Chris Hrynkow, Cardinal Turkson, Brother Guy Consolmagno (Director of the Vatican Observatory), Sue Rakoczy, and John Haught. Drs. OHara, Eaton and Hrynkow are graduates of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the Faculty of Theology, and Michael Ross is an EAITE doctoral student.  

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Laudato Si’ Five Years Later

Even before its promulgation on June 18, 2015, the papal encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” had created tremendous advance interest. At the time, I was serving as Director of St. Michael’s Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology (EAITE) and thus was frequently invited to speculate on the possible content of the encyclical, including on a student radio show, at a conference on religion and cosmology at Yale University, and in parishes of both Christian and non-Christian faiths.

Prior to its official release, I was given an advance copy of the encyclical so that I could prepare for the anticipated media attention. Interviews for radio, television, and newspapers punctuated the next several days, to be followed by talks at conferences, for school boards and NGOs, and in many parishes, both in Canada and Korea. This unprecedented interest was echoed in the encyclical’s enthusiastic reception at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at Paris in 2015, resulting in the Paris Climate Agreement. The encyclical inspired the formation of hundreds of new Catholic organizations to advance its goals, including the Global Catholic Climate Movement (a global network of 900 Catholic organizations) and the Catholic Climate Covenant as well as numerous initiatives of religious orders and the expansion of the work of Catholic NGOs to address an increased concern for our common home. It also spurred the interfaith project Living the Change, and the formation of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The encyclical continues to be favourably referenced in academic circles among diverse disciplines, including theology, ecology, economics, justice, social studies, healthcare, and more.

With the advantage of five years since its release, a retrospective assessment of Laudato si’ gives a fuller appreciation of its accomplishments. For decades, ecotheologians had acknowledged the Christian teaching that there are two books of sacred revelation—viz., scripture and creation—bringing a renewed focus to exploring the theological and ethical implications of a more sympathetic and scholarly reading of the latter. They had been pioneering a deeper understanding of humanity’s role within the epic of evolution and advocating for a more integrated understanding of the myriad of justice issues related to the ecological crisis. Pope Francis’ first encyclical validated their decades of innovative work.

The call of Laudato si’ to recognize the integral ecology of creation and to engage in conversations of respectful dialogue with diverse voices from all sectors of society, emphasized the intersectionality of ecological, ethical, economic, political, social, gender, and justice issues. Through such efforts, the encyclical articulated a more robust and integrated version of Catholic Social Teaching. Concurrently, it required the conversion of ourselves and our cultures, eschewing a consumerist individuality in preference for the health of the common good and our common home. As the magnitude and urgency of the ecological crisis in its multiple forms became better understood within more disciplines and by more people, the comparable magnitude, complexity, and intersectionality of this conversion also became more apparent.

Nevertheless, such awareness has not spurred an adequate response within either secular or religious institutions. For example, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to increase while the vitality of life on Earth declines despite generally universal calls for a vigorous reversal of both. This past November, the retiring president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described climate change as “important but not urgent.” Yet as Msgr. Bruno Marie Duffe, secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development warns, ” the alarming speed of climate change caused by human behavior and the choices we make threaten the very survival of species, water and air quality as well as food security. These are huge challenges…and the Paris Agreement is an absolute minimum and in fact does not go far enough.” Despite fine rhetoric, few nations are likely to reach the pledges they made with that agreement.

Laudato si’ continues to challenge this delinquency among nations and within its own Church. Its observations, assessments, and calls for action often serve as a standard against which efforts are measured or as an interlocutor that nurtures or guides responses to global crises. The contrast between the analyses and aspirations of the encyclical, and the anemic responses and sclerotic leadership still too often seen, shows that while the encyclical has had significant impact, the conversion it prescribes is far from realized. Like every good encyclical, Laudato si’ needs to be read and re-read to better understand and apply its message.

Professor Emeritus Dennis Patrick O’Hara is the former Director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, where he taught from 2002-2019, and directed many theses in ecotheology and ethics. He was also an associate member of the graduate faculty at the School for Environment at the University of Toronto. In addition to teaching courses in ecological theology, spirituality, ethics, and sustainability, he has worked for the World Health Organization and Health Canada researching and preparing policy positions. He regularly delivers both popular and academic lectures in Canada and the USA but has also lectured in Europe and South Korea. Prior to becoming a theologian, he practised as a chiropractor and naturopathic doctor, and taught at colleges of both of those professions.

Moments of Grace and COVID-19

Image depicts a glass marble on a mound of dirt. The marble gives an upside-down reflection of the sky and ground in the background.

Basil of Caesarea, in Rule LV: Whether the Use of Medicinal Remedies is consistent with the Ideal of Piety, instructs that a serious illness can be sufficiently disruptive to our normal patterns of living that it can force us to consider the circumstances that led to our illness and to re-evaluate our choices so that we can once again align our life with the telos of God’s creation. This opportunity can be identified as a moment of grace, on a religious level.

Thomas Berry notes that moments of grace can also occur on cosmic and historical levels, such as the dispersal of primary element via the explosion of stars or the development of photosynthesis. Throughout the 13.8-billion-year history of the universe, change occurs when systems reach the most tension that they can creatively endure. At that point, systems evolve irreversibly by transforming into a new level of order and complexity by resolving the dangerous tension in an unprecedented way. In many respects, we are at such a moment, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in part due to an ecological crisis magnified by climate change.

The people who are suffering the most due to the ecological crisis with its complex interwoven array of hardships will undoubtedly be least able to withstand the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic with its threats to personal health and reduced access to supportive infrastructures. Both the ecological crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are anthropogenic crises on a global scale, and both require a commensurate response. This pandemic has demonstrated the enormous actions we will take when we decide to act for the common good as a single Earth community. Despite decades of exasperating delay to curtail climate change, when faced with this pandemic, nations rapidly instituted measures to restrict travel, pause economies, enforce physical distancing, and impose domestic isolation. Perhaps such a collective and purposeful response could become a rehearsal for addressing Earth’s ecological challenges as we creatively seek ways of being that are mutually enhancing for us and the rest of the Earth community.

Pope Francis, in an interview with Austen Ivereigh from the University of Oxford concerning this pandemic, noted that the great uncertainty of this present moment is “a time for inventing, for creativity” because “every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger” through conversion, including “the decisive step to move from using and misusing nature.” Ecotheology reminds us that we have a common origin and share a common sacred story with all of Earth. We need to reframe our choices to better align with the creative dynamics and the telos of that story for we will go into the future as a single Earth community or not at all.

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The itinerary for Dr. Dennis Patrick O’Hara’s final working trip before his retirement begins this summer couldn’t haven been more appropriate. The Faculty of Theology professor returns this week from South Korea, where he offered a congratulatory address to the founding meeting of the Korean Thomas Berry Association (KTBA).

It’s a trip that has brought the ecotheologian full circle, as Dr. O’Hara was first influenced by Berry’s writings while working on his graduate studies, leading him to specialize in theology and ecology. Berry’s influence and inspiration have remained strong throughout Prof. O’Hara’s teaching career, and over the years he has emerged as a world leader in Berry’s work, teaching hundreds of students and supervising multiple theses in ecotheology and ethics. Many of those students come from South Korea, where Berry has a strong following, expressly because of Dr. O’Hara’s reputation and research.

Dr. O’Hara with grads Fr. Baek Jong Yun, director of the Eco-Ministry for the archdiocese of Seoul, and Fr. Lee Jai-Don

Dr. Berry (1914-2009) was a Passionist priest strongly inspired by French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. He called on science, Judeo-Christian tradition and a wealth of wisdom from various spiritual traditions to propose ways in which to better understand and serve ecological consciousness.

Dr. O’Hara points to the new Berry association’s mission statement to explain the resonance Berry has with many Koreans. The statement notes not only that Fr. Berry’s work can offer “a new vision to Korean society which is suffering the side effects of industrialization,” but also that his “thought, because of the significant influence of Asian philosophy, is readily understandable in the Korean context.”

Dr. O’Hara lunches with Theology graduates Fr. Baek John Yun and Choi Kwang–Sun

As Koreans have come to know Dr. Berry’s thought, often that introduction – and then further education — have come via Dr. O’Hara and his work as director of the world-renowned Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology (EAITE). Founded here at the Faculty of Theology by Passionist Fr. Stephen Dunn, the EAITE is an interdisciplinary institute that brings together various branches of theology – e.g., ecospirituality or gender justice – with science and humanities in ways to benefit both people and the rest of the planet. Dr. O’Hara succeeded Fr. Dunn as director of the institute in 2001 and he has remained a key influence as the EAITE has continued to grow as the foremost place to study the thought and implications of Dr. Berry’s work.

“We not only teach (Berry’s) work but give it a solid theological foundation and interpretation,” Dr. O’Hara says simply. “This is unique among the centres that study Tom’s works.”

At a traditional Korean meal following the launch of the KTB, Bishop Timothy Yu Gyeong Chon, social ministry vicar for the Seoul Archdiocese, chatted with Dr. O’Hara to let him know not only that he’d met Dr. Berry once but that he’d also attended one of O’Hara’s classes while visiting Toronto. Then he sang the praises of the EAITE.

Launch of the Korean Thomas Berry Association

While in Seoul to help launch the local Berry association, Dr. O’Hara also delivered a talk to 50 seminarians at the Catholic University of Seoul, and another sponsored in part by Kyung Hee University. He also met with many of his former students and their associates, discussing local environmental concerns.

Dr. O’Hara’s significant profile is all the more impressive given that ecotheology is his second career.  Prior to theology, he was a chiropractor and naturopathic doctor, both as a practitioner in private practice as well as an educator at colleges for each of these professions. He has also served as a consultant and facilitator for the Natural Health Products Directorate of Health Canada, drafted a description of the naturopathic profession for the World Health Organization, and written the summative report for the 2006 World Health Organization International Consultation on Phytotherapy held in Milan, Italy.

Today, Dr. O’Hara is also an associate member of the graduate faculty at the School for the Environment at the University of Toronto where he has co-taught courses on the environment and health. For 10 years, he was a core faculty member of the certificate programme in Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of St. Michael’s College.

He regularly delivers popular and academic lectures in Canada, the United States, and Korea on ecotheology, ecospirituality, ecoethics, and integral ecology and human health.

Two days before his retirement starts, Dr. O’Hara will facilitate a special screening and discussion of An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson, an event that’s part of an international conference on “Media Ethics: Human Ecology in a Connected World” hosted in partnership with the EAITE and the University of Toronto Faculty of Information. The screening and panel discussion, including an interview with Nora Bateson, takes place June 28 at 7:30, at the McLuhan Centre, 39A Queen’s Park Crescent E.

Dr. O’Hara retires from the Faculty of Theology June 30 of this year. He will be missed!