The papal encyclical Laudato Si’, with its passionate call for care of the environment, has some people realizing for the first time that theology is about much more than angels dancing on the head of a pin. But for Dr. Dennis O’Hara, who heads up the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology (EAITE), the document, with its practical implications and applications for modern life, serves as papal affirmation of work that has been taking place at the Faculty for decades.
“St. Mike’s has been teaching about ecological issues since the ‘80s,” Dr. O’Hara explains, adding that the EAITE was launched in 1991, offering graduate students additional scope to specialize in theology and ecology. “Good theologians prepare the road for the Magisterium on these sorts of issues by looking at tradition, scripture, experience, and scholarship and by examining the questions at hand…. The work we are doing in eco-theology is consistent with Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (the Vatican document describing the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities).”
Now more than ever, eco-theology is a needed discipline, with its focus on the connectivity of humans to creation rather than the out-dated notion of humans having ownership and control of nature, Dr. O’Hara emphasizes. “Human issues are ecological issues.
“Environmental migration is becoming an even more pressing concern, for example, in the Pacific Islands due to the oceans rising,” he explains. In other parts of the world, people will need to migrate because of the loss of food sources due to the effects of climate change or the ravages of war.
While we may seem shielded in North America, realities such as the commercialization of agriculture, giant factory ships trawling the oceans and the way we do forestry should remind us that we have a responsibility to look for approaches and answers that are mutually enhancing both for people and the environment, responses that are consistent with Catholic Social Teaching, he says. “The way we treat the land is linked to how we treat people. Caring for creation is caring for God’s creation, and God is revealed to us in creation.”
One of the great gifts Pope Francis brings to the discussion of the intersection of theology and ecology is his scientific background, because science gives us the language to address topics that didn’t need to be addressed in the time of Jesus, whether it is fracking or global warming. “Jesus didn’t talk about the atomic bomb or the ethics of sustainability,” Dr. O’Hara points out.
While we are in the midst of a complex ecological crisis, “we are not in this alone. God is not going to solve this for us, but we can call on what Christ taught us as we seek solutions. Science alone can’t do it, but we also have faith, and faith that means we are not paralysed in our search for solutions. This is the good news.”