Eco-theologian Fr. Sean McDonagh: Don't let this 'Laudato Si'' moment pass

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.
Fr. Sean McDonagh recently spent 10 days in the U.S. discussing his new book reflecting on Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si', On Care for Our Common Home." (Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach)

Fr. Sean McDonagh recently spent 10 days in the U.S. discussing his new book reflecting on Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si', On Care for Our Common Home." (Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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On Sunday eco-theologian Columban Fr. Sean McDonagh wrapped up a three-city, 10-day speaking tour of the East Coast focused on his new book on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

The book, similarly titled On Care for Our Common Home and published by Orbis Books, takes the encyclical’s full text and adds McDonagh’s reflections on its various themes: among them, climate change, biodiversity, water scarcity and threats to the oceans, and the food crisis. In addition, McDonagh recaps the development of Catholic theology on creation of the past half-century, and offers ideas on how to transform Francis’ vision in Laudato Si’ into meaningful action and a central piece of Catholic theology.

The tour, which ran Feb. 26-March 6, took him to parishes, monasteries and college campuses in New York, Washington D.C., and Boston. McDonagh spoke with NCR on Monday, weighing in on his tour, the encyclical and what comes next for the document that he said marks “an exciting moment for the church.”

“There’s just extraordinary possibilities in this document,” he said.

Central to that, the Irish priest said, is a three-year synodal process aimed at taking the new teaching, “a new spirituality” that Francis offers in Laudato Si’ and finding ways to put it into practice of the faith.

“It's new for a lot of us. Most of the people who go to seminaries and into theology didn't actually deal with any of these issues, so there's a difficulty,” McDonagh said, pointing in particular to Francis’ quoting of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in his frequent discussion of sins against creation, be it human-caused climate change or the loss of biodiversity due to pollution and deforestation.

“None of us here believe those are sins,” he added.

The first year of the synod would start at local parishes and dioceses, and ask people how they come to know the natural world, experience it and see their proper place within. Year two would shift to the national level, examining practices in each country, from energy usage to consumption to treatment of the oceans. In that process, he said, the church “would start to begin creating prayers and liturgies that support this new engagement and new spirituality and new ethics with creation.” The third year would take those efforts internationally.

“I think this would be a great service. It would be a catalyst, the church would be providing a catalyst. Because whether you like it or not, we’ve got to take these issues seriously. We haven’t taken them seriously for the last 50 years. If we don’t take them seriously, they don’t stop; they just continue, and we become less ready to deal with them into the future,” McDonagh said.

Francis’ encyclical offers the church an opportunity to become facilitators in the larger discussion of protecting the environment, the climate, the common earthly home. While the church has written and spoken of the need to care for creation before Laudato Si’, it was largely insufficient in depth --  he notes that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2004, included half paragraphs each on climate change and biodiversity, and nine graphs on biotechnology -- or ultimately overlooked.

“This is potentially an extraordinary moment for the church," he said. "… Now do we take it or do we go back into our burrows? I hope we take it.”

Below are excerpts from the McDonagh interview, which has been edited for clarity and length.

NCR: During this speaking tour, what were you hearing from people you encountered?

McDonagh: I was hearing from people that they would like to see the Catholic church giving leadership [on ecological issues], and particularly the theological side of things. There isn’t a Catholic institute here that actually has taken on board the theological side, with interdisciplinary approaches to this that would include physics, biology and chemistry and cosmology.

And the resources are there, and we need this. This is a huge effort, it’s not a simple thing into the future. We have an opportunity. If you would’ve asked me 10 years ago -- I’ve been at this since 1978, so I’ve been at it a long time -- if you had asked me six years ago, in my lifetime would something like this emerge, I would have no, there’s no possibility for this emerging. And it has emerged, but it’s 99 percent ahead of where most Catholics are. And it needs to be not 99 percent, it needs to be our lived doctrine and our lived practices from here on in. Now you need good theology to do that.

You were involved in the development of this encyclical. What was that process like? Were you focused on a specific aspect of the text?

Well, I was asked by Cardinal Peter Turkson in November 2013 to write a document for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and I wrote it up, like 30,000 words … now eventually, in 2014, that kind of morphed into the beginning of the encyclical itself. So that whole section, basically, on what’s happening in our world, those were issues I developed.

You’re not the first theologian or church official that has made a point of talking about the encyclical in the U.S. -- for instance, Cardinal Turkson has given numerous speeches on the document. Do you see a particular importance of raising this conversation around Laudato Si’ in the U.S.?

Sure. [Francis] quotes the New Zealand bishops saying 20 percent of the global population use up 80 percent of the resources of the planet. Now that’s not just the United States, that’s also Europe, that’s also Japan, that’s also 350 million people in China. So yes, he’s very strong on that. One of the things he’s very strong on he takes in from Centesimus Annus, in which Pope John Paul II talks about how, especially in the United States and Europe, we have a love affair with science, particularly with technology, because we think it’s great. And we actually do think that some technology is going to solve the issue of climate change for us. And [Francis is] very strong on that: He says, No, that’s not going to happen. He’s not saying that technologies are not important -- and there’s wonderful work being done in the United States, particularly on alternatives sources of energy and on batteries -- but he’s saying we need lifestyle changes.

… So, yes, there’s a huge message here. But I don’t think the church here, the episcopal church here -- and that’s true of Ireland, too -- have actually taken on board the profound message that it is. Because we’re focused on the culture wars, all those things they come easier to us. We think we know more about that side of moral theology. But like with this, you’re talking about making the planet a less livable place then for future generations -- that’s the alternative. We could bring about geologic disorder, changes of magnitude within a hundred years if, for example, greenhouse gas emissions continue the way they do, the average global temperature rises to 4 degrees above what it was [before the Industrial Revolution]. That would be in 200 years, humans would have caused a geological change that is irreversible; most geological periods are 20 or 25 million years or 40 million years. So we don’t take those on board as part of our pastoral. Now I think we got to start doing it.

Beyond lifestyle changes, Are there other messages you see of particular importance for an American audience?

Two areas that will be most difficult is the new understanding of ethical imperatives. The people who opened up the prairies here in the 19th century did not think they were doing wrong. The people who destroyed the tropical forests in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s in the Philippines didn’t think they were doing morally wrong things. So that is a huge change. So how do we now develop the moral imagination that includes those things? That’s number one.

And then number two, from a theological and spiritual perspective, [Francis has] now come with an extraordinary new teaching that species have intrinsic value … and so a new spirituality has to include our understanding and intimacy with the natural world. So here in Boston College, how many trees actually have you named outside, and have you named how supportive they are of other species? That’s the kind of intimate understanding that will become part of an ecological theology.

Now, it’s challenging. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy, but that’s what he has laid out for us, that we should be doing. And it’s going to take different kinds of spiritual and theological work to do that, but the most certain thing it’s going to do is we’re going to have to work with other people. We’re going to have to work with the scientific community, to work with other religious traditions, so we can’t do it alone. But we will also need very good rituals, very good prayers, very good concerns for our moral life: How do we actually assess this new change?  So all of that would need to emerge from the pastoral world.

Your book tour arrived in the midst of a U.S. presidential election. How might reflection on Laudato Si’ relate to how someone may view the issues that arise this election season?

Very easy. I mean, you had one candidate the other night in Detroit telling us that he would take apart the Environmental Protection Agency. Now can you think of anything more irresponsible? So what he wants to do, he wants to give back to the corporate world the permission to pollute everything, with PCBs [man-made toxic chemicals banned from U.S. manufacturing in 1979] that continue in our system and the system of all creatures and actually poison and are toxins to our children and their children.

So I would say be seriously real about what people are saying to you. If they’re not saying anything to you on climate change, they’re living in cloud cuckoo land. And it’s your children that are going to face it, and your grandchildren.  The reality of climate change is not the end of the next 1,000 years. We now know if we continue as is, even after the Paris Agreement with the things we’ve put in there we’re willing to do, it would still be a 3.8 degrees Celsius rise, which would be close to a geological order magnitude change. We’re only at the beginning, and anyone who tells you different is just not telling it as it is, and they’re fooling you.

You’ve said Laudato Si’ is not a policy document, but that it could help in that realm. What types of policies might develop from this encyclical?

Fundamentally, one is in power and energy. … In the United States and Europe we give billions, billions, billions of dollars to the fossil fuel companies. So we got to start a different way of actually creating energy. And to a fair assessment, a lot of it is beginning to be here, but it needs to be supported. And then we need to be extraordinarily critical of people of toxify our planet. … So we have to be careful that we don’t allow this planet to become more and more toxified. And the pope is very good on that. I mean, he studied chemistry himself, so he knows the persistent realities of toxins in the atmosphere.

How do you transition Francis’ vision in the encyclical to consideration by policymakers?

To a certain extent, that transfer is beginning to happen. I’ve been at a lot of the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change. … The first time that the church ever made, on policy levels, an impact that I felt was actually at the Paris one in December. Many, many people quoted Laudato Si’ as the beginning of creating now policies in terms of the whole era of fossil fuel, reducing it -- mitigation -- and then also the alternatives, and how to support the alternatives and the kinds of economic policies that are necessary to do that. So here was a document that was being used and quoted for that. …

We’re beginning to come of age and this is a great era for us. Don’t let it pass -- that’s my thing to anyone I talk. This is a wonderful time but wonderful times can be let pass. And I keep pointing out what Pope John Paul II said: “Concern for the environment is an essential part of our faith.” He said that in a 1990 document [World Day of Peace Message], which is 35 years ago, so it hasn’t actually percolated with the people because we didn’t actually teach them that. And that’s my great fear will possibly become of Laudato Si’, that if we don’t actually now address them in these couple of years with a good tool like the synodal process, 25 years from now, someone could be back here and say, ‘Sorry God we never got around to implementing these.’ That’s my concern.

In the period between Benedict’s resignation and Francis’ election, you wrote in NCR that the church’s teaching on the environment was “still light green.” How would you assess it now?

I think we’ve at least passed our master's, and probably getting up to doing our Ph.D. It’s huge! It’s extraordinary, every aspect of [Laudato Si’] is extraordinary. And it’s only when you begin to think what was there beforehand, like the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, a half a paragraph on climate change -- and not serious. And you could say, ‘Well that’s not important,’ but it’s totally important. A half a paragraph on biodiversity? That is totally irresponsible.

So this is wonderful. It’s real, it’s of an age and the man has the courage to do it and write it well. So we have gone from just post-kindergarten to our master’s degree.

How do we get to that Ph.D. level?

We have to actually, when we’re reading it and we come to this thing from Bartholomew [sins against creation], we need to put the boots down to the floor and say none of us believes that, how are we going to do that here in this community? How am I going to get close to the oak tree? How am I going to know that? How am I going to know what the insects are doing in my community? How am I going to know the birds -- there are 9,000 species of birds, 3,000 of them are on the red list, are they here in my community? Is there anything we’re doing? Add it to the theology that needs to be done and the prayers and the spirituality.

It’s a totally exciting, totally open world into the future. And I think it’s a great time to be a Christian. I say of Laudato Si’, everyone says, well, it’s about climate change; well that’s not it, it’s 10 other things. It’s a good ecological document. It’s a good social [document], he’s really good on the impact of the destruction of the earth on the poor, he’s very good on that. But it really is an evangelical document. If someone asked me, ‘Look could you give me a book, how to be a Christian in the 21st century?’ I’d say, take this book, and you can have the Bible, as well.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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