Australia in July could be scene of Jesuit-led climate action

The end of the second annual climate change conference at Loyola University Chicago began a transition to a new action phase extending beyond U.S. borders.

The conference, which ran March 19-21, saw the six participant upper Midwest Jesuit universities sharing curricular ideas and resources, with an eye toward developing the best educational practices and forming a strong collaborative force for sustainability and addressing environmental issues in the years ahead.  

On the conference’s final day, its host Nancy Tuchman, director of Loyola-Chicago’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability, announced the schools would collectively, as Jesuit institutions that are part of a larger network, “develop a statement that gives a common voice to Jesuit concern for the planet with a call to action.”

Such a statement would be submitted to the presidents of the schools for ratification and publication. Action possibilities could include such things as a pledge to require an environmental issues course for all students, a commitment to work toward carbon neutral campuses, and either divestment from fossil fuels or sustained, ethical dialogue with fossil fuel corporations. 

Previous Loyola-Chicago climate conference coverage:
March 20 “
Jesuits schools explore their role in addressing climate change at Loyola Chicago conference"
March 25 "Loyola-Chicago climate conference discusses 'nuts and bolts' of fossil fuel divestment​"
March 31 "Loyola-Chicago conference finds a 'perfect storm' of mental barriers to climate action​"

That “larger network” that these universities form could indeed become a powerful force for sustainability and for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

There are 28 Jesuit universities and approximately 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. Globally, there are around 200 Jesuit-sponsored institutions of higher education. If a significant number of them were to stand together -- motivated by their educators’ understanding of and respect for climate science and their common faith-grounded mission to care for creation -- they could capture the world’s attention in this time of planetary climate crisis and provide leadership to the emerging global movement.

A wonderful opportunity for such a global action commitment is shaping up in Melbourne, Australia this July, almost certainly within days or weeks of the publication of Pope Francis’ eagerly anticipated encyclical on ecology. There, several international meetings of Catholic higher education institutions will take place, focusing on issues of social justice, ecology and Catholic social tradition.

From July 7-10, the presidents of Jesuit higher education institutions and the directors of other Jesuit institutions from around the world will meet on the campus of the Catholic University of Australia under the banner, “Expanding the Jesuit Higher Education Network: Collaborations for Social Justice.”

The major organizer of the meeting is Jesuit Fr. Michael Garanzini, the outgoing Loyola-Chicago president, a longtime supporter of its ecological leadership, and current secretary for higher education for the Society of Jesus worldwide. One of the organizing partners for the meeting is Jesuit Fr. Patxi Alvarez, secretary of the social justice and ecology secretariat for Jesuits globally.

Approximately 300 of the leaders of Jesuit institutions globally will participate, with Jesuit Superior General Fr. Adolfo Nicolás opening the conference with a video address titled “Social Justice and the Jesuit University.” The agenda plans to address ecology and climate change prominently among its justice issues.  

Preceding the global Jesuit Higher Education meeting and likely feeding into it, the General Assembly of the Association of Universities Entrusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin America [AUSJAL] will meet July 6-7 at the same venue.

These two meetings seem to provide a perfect opportunity for “a statement that gives a common voice to Jesuit concern for the planet with a call to action,” accompanied by a commitment to coordinated education, communication and action globally.

With these meetings on the horizon, opportunities open up for universities and their surrounding communities to meet with their presidents to discuss and encourage proposals of action and to generate media buzz, both on campus and beyond.

Student and faculty groups at several U.S. Jesuit universities have already been active in calling their schools to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in alternative clean energy sources. That includes, Loyola-Chicago, where in February the faculty senate passed a resolution calling for a freezing of new investments in fossil fuel companies, divestment from direct ownership within 18 months and from commingled funds within five years, and an emphasis on renewable energy in future investments.

The proposal has been passed to Garanzini and the board of directors.

The resolution was spurred by a letter supported by 202 faculty members, which stated in its conclusion, “we believe that divestment from fossil fuels is in accord with the mission and values of Loyola University Chicago, that it is urgent, that it can have an impact on current efforts to encourage lower-carbon forms of energy, and that it is in keeping with the best financial interests of our institution.”

Related: "Church of England divests from fossil fuels"

Activities such as these could serve as models for students and faculty on Jesuit mission-driven campuses everywhere. 

Still, the world of Jesuit higher education does not exhaust the potential of the July 2015 Melbourne meetings to have a global impact.

From July 13-17 the 25th General Assembly of the International Federation of Catholic Universities [IFCU] will follow the Jesuit meetings at Catholic University of Australia.

The two days between the two meetings will see an “invitation only” presidents’ roundtable, featuring themed discussions of international models of collaboration in curricula and research, networking opportunities with Australian and international universities, and opportunities for presentation of international mission related initiatives.

The IFCU assembly will focus on the theme ‘Times Change. Values Endure.’ 

With climate change among the most prominent components of these changing times and the expected papal encyclical likely to address it from the Catholic social teaching tradition, the stage seems clearly and carefully set for serious discussion and planning for Catholic educational leadership for the critical years ahead for planet Earth.

A possible linchpin linking these four gatherings appears to be Loyola-Chicago’s Garanzini, who will keynote the IFCU gathering with an address entitled “Contribution of Catholic Higher Education in a Changing World.” His role suggests the immense potential of these two weeks in Melbourne: potential for a careful integration of the pervasive major themes of the four meetings, a renewed sense of global mission for Catholic Higher Education and a major commitment to significant global leadership and collaboration for a more just and sustainable planetary future.

Can it happen? Will it happen? Could their message to the world “go viral” providing effective leadership from Catholic higher education at a critical time in planetary history? 

We pray in support.  We wait in hope.

[Jesuit Fr. James Hug, former president of the D.C.-based, social justice-focused Center for Concern, attended the Loyola Chicago Climate Change Conference (March 19-21) and has filed reports for and the Ignatian Solidarity Network.]

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