Dennis Patrick O’Hara has headed the ecotheology centre at the University of St. Michael’s College since 2002. Photo by Michael Swan

O’Hara retires as head of Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology

By 
  • July 25, 2019

As the director of a world-leading institute for studies in ecology and theology retires, it’s going to be all hands on deck at the University of St. Michael’s College to maintain the edge it has established over the last 28 years with the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.

After 18 years running one of the world’s oldest centres for studies in ecotheology, Dennis Patrick O’Hara, 65, retired at the end of June. However, a St. Michael’s search team looking for his replacement this spring came up short.

“Unfortunately, the search committee could not find anyone to recommend to the president,” said St. Michael’s dean of theology James Ginther.

Ginther is relaunching the search and planning for ways of maintaining Elliott Allen Institute courses and activities over the coming academic year in the absence of a director. It’s a tall order to keep this graduate institute going without a full-time leader as it works with other faculties across the University of Toronto and other universities across Canada, guiding graduate students to PhDs.

“The faculty (of theology) remains completely and wholly committed to ecotheology as an area of research and teaching. We think it’s a fundamentally important part of the future of theological education,” Ginther said. 

If the money can be found, Ginther would like to see the directorship of the institute become an endowed chair in ecotheology.

As he packed up his old office, O’Hara couldn’t hide his disappointment at the gap in leadership at the institute — named after a Basilian priest and former dean of the faculty of theology — where he first studied before becoming its director. 

“It has been painful, but it is what it is. You stay hopeful,” he said.

Whatever questions may surround the Elliot Allen Institute’s future, O’Hara carries two certainties into retirement with him. One is that the convergence of ecology and theology is now more central to the life of the Church than it has ever been. The other is that he’s not leaving it behind.

“In the midst of a mass-extinction event, there are no bystanders,” he told The Catholic Register. “It would be immoral for someone like myself, who has had the opportunity to acquire a darn good education and a lot of experience — and to be gifted with the opportunity to work with so many brilliant students — to not continue in some way.”

When O’Hara began studying at the Elliott Allen Institute at its start-up in 1991, ecotheology was marginal, sometimes mocked and often under suspicion of spreading intellectual fairy dust and indulging in new age pantheism. By the time he took over from founding director Fr. Steve Dunn of the Passionist Fathers, O’Hara was armoured for the battle for respect.

“What I saw as my task was showing that the work we’re doing is actually part of the tradition. I was going back into the tradition and retrieving understandings of creation, the sacredness of creation, these positive ways of understanding creation and our relationship to it,” he said.

As the ecological crisis has deepened over the years, O’Hara has often been asked to speak at conferences across Canada, the United States and South Korea. In those lectures he rigorously applied a three-part formula.

“I was always careful to quote Scripture, patristics and popes,” he said. “Any time I was making a point, I was quoting from one of those three or all of those three. Then it’s basically, if you don’t like what I’m saying then go argue with them.”

But as more and more people saw the diminished place of nature and the real-world damage inflicted by climate change, they became open to the idea their religion needed a way to talk about ecology. Then in 2015 Pope Francis weighed in.

Laudato Si’ — I mean, that’s a game changer,” said O’Hara. “It’s not just a speech but an encyclical that is saying the same things that the institute had been saying from its beginning in 1991. It was a vindication. So even if people want to marginalize you, they can’t anymore.”

O’Hara values the conversations across disciplines that ecotheology invites. A meeting of science and theology, along with ethics, social sciences, art and liturgy comes naturally whenever one studies ecology and theology together. 

That means it can never become a narrow, academic specialty stuck in an ivory tower, O’Hara said.

“If you’re going to do integral ecology — which is what we’ve always done — this is what you have to be able to do. ... If you’re doing theology and ecology you have to be doing this integral ecology where you’re partnering, and often with those who don’t have a voice, which is what theology should be doing anyways.”

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