Encyclical a hoped catalyst for conversation, change

| June 17, 2015 | 0 Comments
James Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, at his Roseville home, where he has planted native grasses. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit  Right, a statue of St. Francis, patron of ecology, at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Courtesy St. Catherine.

James Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, at his Roseville home, where he has planted native grasses. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Long overdue but a potential catalyst for change is how Christopher Thompson characterized Pope Francis’ widely anticipated encyclical on the environment, which was to be released June 18.

Mainstream environmentalism is five decades old, he said, but the encyclical could re-frame the conversation by outlining — for the first time — a comprehensive Catholic vision of caring for creation.

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson

The dean of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul and a theologian who works in the area of human and natural ecology — God and man’s relationship to the natural world — Thompson said the encyclical is expected to draw from Church tradition that honors creation, but could also address how people should apply those teachings to their daily lives.

“Typically, an encyclical is written as a summative statement about a long discernment, but this encyclical is going to be at the beginning of the conversation,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s generating so much attention — because Catholics are not clear and the general public is not clear about what the Church thinks on the environment. Therefore, there’s this kind of intellectual free-for-all and intellectual storm brewing, because everybody thinks they have some idea of what the encyclical is going to say.”

Titled “Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home,” the encyclical is Pope Francis’ second. A draft in Italian leaked to media June 15, but the U.S. bishops said they would stick to the June 18 embargo. The Catholic Spirit went to press June 16, two days ahead of its official release.

“The encyclical is both the fruit of the cultural experience and ecclesial discernment, and is catalyst for conversations for generations to come,” said Thompson, who spoke with The Catholic Spirit in April.

He acknowledged it was likely the encyclical would be interpreted as a political document, even by some Catholics. Far ahead of its publication, it was already being touted as endorsing certain environmental causes and, in other circles, criticized for some of its anticipated claims.

“So many of the issues that are circulating around the environment are policy matters, and policy means politics, so it’s inevitable on a certain level,” Thompson said. “At the same time, I hope the encyclical is a catalyst for an examination of conscience on the part of every Catholic concerning his or her posture before lower creation. That’s what I think needs to be elevated, healed, challenged, evangelized. It would be fantastic if the encyclical could accomplish that.”

A statue of St. Francis, patron of ecology, at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Courtesy St. Catherine.

A statue of St. Francis, patron of ecology, at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Courtesy St. Catherine.

James Ennis, executive director of St. Paul-based Catholic Rural Life, is collaborating with Thompson and Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and one of the encyclical’s early drafters, on a document on the idea of the vocation of the agricultural leader. He also worked  with Cardinal Turkson’s chief of staff, Thompson and other scholars and Catholic entities to host the symposium “Faith, Food & the Environment” last November at the University of St. Thomas.

Ennis, president of the International Catholic Rural Association, said the idea of people being stewards of the environment is at the basis of Catholic teaching, and it has implications for issues including food scarcity, water use, biotechnology and consumerism.

He expects Pope Francis to address the issues outlined in the encyclical when speaking to Congress and the United Nations during his September trip to the U.S.

“His focus on this is excellent; it’s been needed,” Ennis said. Prior to his position with Catholic Rural Life, he worked in sustainable agriculture. He remembers reading St. John Paul II’s writings known as the Theology of the Body in the mid-2000s, and thinking he would really like to read a theology of the environment.

“Just like the Theology of the Body really helped me understand human sexuality and joy and dignity of being a human person, I really need to understand the theology of the human person in the midst of greater creation,” he said. “I know the Church has much to say on this, but it needs to be articulated and re-articulated to make it accessible to the masses, and not just a group of theologians.”

That desire has driven his work, including collaborations with Thompson to explore people’s “right relationship” to the land.

“Many Christians have seen their faith as something personal and something that’s a part of who they are, but [have] not seen material matter necessarily as [having] a calling to care for [it]. They saw creation as a resource to be used. It’s more than that. God said it was good.”

Therefore, Ennis said, the question is: “How do I care for it in a way that really does values it? Just as you care for the dignity of the human person, [how do] you care for all creation because of its goodness?”

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Category: Featured, Laudato Si