Photo by Michael Swan

Education is key in combatting ecological crisis

By  Katherine Bergman, Catholic Register Special
  • June 28, 2015

We often see the world in black and white — good versus evil, people versus nature, science versus religion. But in Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis demonstrates the inseparable bonds that exist between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to the common good and peace.

The Pope argues that we need “to seek comprehensive solutions, which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems.” Doing so will help us understand that “we are not faced with separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” These ideas form the foundation of Francis’ proposed “integral ecology.”

The words “integral ecology” mean that by integrating our understanding from current, independent research on what’s happening in the environment we can begin to build an integrated framework on which to establish a new way of thinking about justice.

Francis’ encyclical challenges the view that religion and science are mutually exclusive, with no shared role to play in addressing the current global crisis. He insists the “Church does not presume to settle scientific questions … (but rather seeks) to encourage an honest and open debate, so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.” He calls for “a broad, responsible scientific and social debate … considering all the available information … from various lines of independent, interdisciplinary research.”

In other words, education has a key role to play in addressing this complex global crisis.

This is not a new position for the Catholic Church. Since Medieval times, one of the principle venues for the Catholic intellectual tradition has been the university, which arose “Ex Corde Ecclessiae,” or “from the heart of the Church.”

Grounded in our belief that Jesus is the source of union between faith and reason, this tradition pushed Catholic universities to engage people from different cultures in authentic, open inquiry, with the goal of fostering shared understanding.

The Church provided scholars with academic freedom and established tenure to protect academics from retribution — particularly when the results of their inquiry challenged powers that be. In this way, the Church embraced and supported new ways of understanding objective truth (science) while continuing to recognize the importance of moral truth and ethical teaching as the foundation of progress in society.

For Catholic universities this is basic pedagogy — a philosophy of educating the “whole person.” We seek to nurture our scholars intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. This concern for the formation of the whole person becomes the crucible for countless dialogues between disciplines, allowing for the interplay of scientific, moral, ethical and social constructs. These exchanges shape the views of the Church and society, and encourage our advancement of knowledge.  

Today in the West, we typically reference science and engineering when discussing research or innovation. However, research in social sciences and humanities, including theology, also create valuable new and transformative insights.

Science draws its authority from its widespread impact on Western culture. Yet, while science has profoundly transformed the West, there are limitations to the truths it can reveal. It is at these boundaries, where science bumps against the humanities, indigenous knowledge and theology, that science meets its frontiers. Contributions from the frontiers, from what Francis calls the peripheries, are more critical today than ever before.

Catholic universities must embrace Pope Francis’ call to action for an integral ecology as a new paradigm of justice. The pedagogical philosophy of educating the whole person positions us to be global leaders “for broad, responsible, scientific and social debate.” We can only do this by nurturing “an approach to ecology which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings.”

Our universities should be builders of communities, engines of economic growth, protectors of cultural identity and human dignity and developers of social paradigms that promote the common good. Our primary mission of teaching, research and service is crucial to the health and progress of humanity. We have a responsibility to educate and form students, to nurture them academically and spiritually, so that they can be leaders for justice and advocates for the poor and the marginalized. Global citizenship requires authentic global experience and understanding.

If as a global community we are to benefit equally from scientific truth and offer hope for a better world, we need greater wisdom to understand how our technological advances have diminished or enhanced our common human condition. Laudato Si’ challenges us to work together and continue to question and re-evaluate what it is that we, as a global society, value.  

(Bergman is president of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.)

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