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ESF-Le Moyne Class Focuses on Environmental Ethics

Papal encyclical provides basis for study
3/20/2017

Professor Jack Manno sings about the beauty of the universe during a class that addresses environmental ethics.

By Renee K. Gadoua

A recent homework assignment asked students in EST 496 to recast a 13th-century hymn into modern language. The religious song, "Canticle of the Creatures," was written by St. Francis of Assisi, revered as the patron saint of animals and the environment. "Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light," it begins. Francis goes on to praise Sister Moon and the stars, Brother Wind, Sister Water and Brother Fire.

Demetrios Lilly, a junior majoring in environmental studies, kept some religious language in his version and added scientific facts. "Praise be to you, my creator, with all your living beings, especially our lovely sun, who we revolve around and gives us solar energy," he read to the class.

Ethan Requardt, a senior, was even more ambitious: He wrote a series of haiku, using the Japanese poetic form of three lines of five, seven and five syllables. "Locked in a great dance/The earth and the moon are rocks/Brother and sister," he wrote. "High pressure to low/the wind is born from the sun/another great gift."

The assignment captures the spirit of "Laudato Si: The papal climate encyclical critically explored," an interdisciplinary course presented by ESF and Le Moyne College. The course uses the 2015 Catholic document as a starting point for secular scientists and people of faith to address environmental ethics. It encourages students with and without backgrounds in religious studies to evaluate the encyclical's claim that all humans have a responsibility to care for the Earth.

"Laudato Si: On the Care for Our Common Home," was written by Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. (He chose the name "Francis" after election as pope in March 2013.) In "Laudato Si" ("Praise Be to You"), the pope describes an endangered planet and cites scientific evidence for humans' role in climate change. He urges people to shift from a consumer-driven lifestyle that he says is depleting the Earth's resources and disproportionately affecting the poor.

Dr. Jack Manno, professor of environmental studies at ESF, co-teaches the course with Dr. Donald McCrimmon, McDevitt Research Associate at Le Moyne College. It's thought to be the first joint class for the two institutions.

Manno saw the groundbreaking document as an opportunity to bring together people of different perspectives. "There are church teachings that have caused damage across the planet," he said, citing 15th-century church documents, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, that justify the colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples. "It seems that Pope Francis' perspective opens a chance for healing," he said.

The unusual course comes as both scientists and people of faith increasingly are seeking ways to challenge the view that science and religion are inherently incompatible. "This is very timely," ESF President Quentin Wheeler said. "It's very important we reconcile our understandings of the environment."

The class meets at the ESF college residence, which serves as the home of the college president.

On a recent Monday, Wheeler arrived home just in time for the 6 to 8:30 p.m. class, which he attends regularly. Students headed downstairs as Wheeler's Chesapeake Bay retriever, Maddie, greeted them enthusiastically. The class of 40 includes 12 ESF students, for whom the course is an elective.

Lilly, who is from Ithaca, selected the course so he could speak freely about how his faith and worldview intersect. "I'm Greek Orthodox and I love science," he said. "Because I'm religious, people think I don't believe in evolution. That's a stereotype."

As students settled into couches and chairs arranged in front of a fireplace and TV, Manno reviewed the previous week's highlights. Human life is grounded in relationships "with God, the Creator, the Supreme Being, or whatever way you think of it," with neighbors, and with the Earth, he said. "The real essence of that encyclical is a grieving about that loss of connection."

Because people don't feel connected to the Earth, "we act in ways that harm the world," Manno said. All living beings have value and, "Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection," according to the encyclical. "It's hard to buy that when I'm dealing with all the mice getting in my house," Manno joked. "I don't see God's wisdom in that."

Manno and McCrimmon take turns leading discussions. In an earlier class, students listened to a recording of "For the Beauty of the Earth," a 19th-century hymn that praises creation. On this night, McCrimmon talked about Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, physicist and astronomer who was the first to say that the universe is expanding.

Then, in another ESF first, Manno sang in class. "Beautiful galaxy, beautiful night," he sang, unaccompanied. "Four hundred billion stars, God, what a sight!" He sang of black holes, oxygen and nitrogen, and the beauty of experiencing life as a human being.

The course's content lends itself to lessons that draw on science, history, theology and art, Manno said. "Our students are in social science or hard sciences and don't get the chance to have these discussions," he said. "It's good for them to hear these different perspectives."