One hundred and twenty years ago Pope Leo XIII released an open letter addressing worker conditions that would forever shift the mission of the Catholic Church. This last Tuesday, Pope Francis shifted the Church once again, this time towards environmental justice.
The Pope has spoke on not only the human impacts on climate change, but also the effects it has on the most marginalized. Climate skeptics have created a massive pushback on what they see as unnecessary environmental concern.
According to Associate Professor of Theology and Director of Catholic Studies Dr. Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos, this pope’s commitment to protecting the earth is part of a long catholic tradition. She pointed out how many local churches and theologians have been speaking out on climate change for many years. From northwest writers describing the state of water systems, to a pastoral letter from the Philippines titled “What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land,” grassroots movements have been at the forefront of the discussion.
This push for protecting our earth also has a significant history within the Vatican, as Pope Benedict XVI was often called the green pope for his work on the subject. Yet, for Punsalan-Manlimos, what makes this new movement so impactful is how it will combine two important aspects of the Catholic social justice mission.
“Knowing where this pope is heading, bringing together our concern for the environment and the poor explicitly in church teachings, is very exciting,” Punsalan-Manlimos said.
Here at Seattle University, this mission is carried out in part by the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability. They see environmental justice as one of the key aspects of Seattle U’s mission.
“The voiceless and the powerless are often the people who are most affected by environmental degradation. More than ever, we need leaders who will work to bring changes to these environmental injustices. Seattle University’s mission aligns well with the formation of such leaders,” said the center in an email statement to the Spectator.
Those at CEJS work with these aspects of climate awareness every day. Promoting student and faculty research, the CEJS encourages Seattle U’s own focus on environmental justice.
They have worked with facilities on campus to implement basic programs to make the university more eco-friendly. Organic landscaping and rain gardens help to not only beautify the campus, but also manage the Seattle rains in a renewable way. They’ve worked to make composting a major part of the university’s waste system, collecting 178,000 pounds of food waste annually. University vehicles are also implemented in this plan, as the newly purchased cars are more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
Yet, those who work in CEJS see their mission as having more than just a local reach. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Director for CEJS Phillip Thompson sees environmental justice as something that is both local and global.
“In engineering, we often address [environmental justice] issues through our student projects. For example, in civil and environmental engineering, we currently have a senior design project that is focused on the improvement of migrant housing in the Skagit Valley. In addition, our faculty have done water projects in Thailand, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Zambia and Haiti and energy poverty projects in Kenya and Zambia,” Thompson said.
Focusing on connecting students and faculty with those most affected by climate change, CEJS follows through with Pope Francis’ mission to create a more sustainable world. Student work is key to this, and Seattle U students travel abroad to continents such as Africa and South America to learn more about how to achieve this goal.
This connection to the Seattle U mission resonates with Punsalan-Manlimos, as she sees it as integral to continuing the work of the university.
“This document is being used as an impetus to help us facilitate even more conversations than we’re already having around environmental justice,” Punsalan-Manlimos said.
She’s excited about what this movement will mean for the coming years for the formation of new conversations as well as the continuation of old ones. Inviting faculty as well as members of the community the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture will hold a study group this summer to discuss these very issues. On top of this, the institute’s theme next year will be Ecology, Spirituality and Justice. There are expected changes to the core curriculum to reflect this renewed focus on environmental justice.
As the effects of the summit just begin to take hold, both members of the Catholic Church as well as faculty here at Seattle U are excited for the renewed efforts for environmental justice.