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Eco-theology scholar says faith gives hope for change

Posted By November 23, 2015 | 11:03 am | Featured Article #4

By Tanya Connor

JEFFERSON – Despite Earth’s serious ecological problems, there is hope, and faith plays a role, according to a scholar who is rejoicing in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical.
Dennis Patrick O’Hara, director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, spoke about that encyclical – “Laudato Si’” (On Care for Our Common Home) – Oct. 26 at St. Mary Parish. He also spoke at Masses there and at Anna Maria College.
Professor O’Hara works at University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, where he is also an associate professor of ethics and eco-theology.

Professor Dennis Patrick O'Hara

Professor Dennis Patrick O’Hara

In the beginning those of us in this field of study  were considered “pagans and Earth-worshippers,” he said. “And occasionally you’d get a tidbit from a pope you could hide behind.”
Although other popes talked about the environment, “Laudato Si’” is the first encyclical addressing it, Professor O’Hara said. Being an encyclical, it has a high level of authority. He said it gives him great hope.
He started giving talks about what he thought would be in the encyclical before it came out, mostly to environmental groups, he said. Upon its release, he gave many interviews, because there was so much interest.
The world’s best experts were called in for consultation for the encyclical, “so the science behind it is solid,” he said.
He built his Oct. 26 talk on some of its themes.
The rupture of relationships among God, humans and the Earth is sin, he said. The dominion over the Earth which God gave humans isn’t about power; it’s about protecting. Communities can take what they need, but must ensure Earth’s fruitfulness for coming generations and respect nature’s laws. (“Laudato Si’” 66, 67, 68).
Humans used to think the Earth was the center of the universe, and still act like they’re at the center, Professor O’Hara said.
He put things into perspective as follows. Consider the universe as 14 billion years old, with its story told in 28 volumes of 500 pages each. Each page records 1 million years of history. Earth appears in Volume 19, primitive cellular life in Volume 21, primitive humans on page 498 of Volume 28 and human civilization in the last two words on the last page.
Professor O’Hara also talked about how the way human beings treat the environment affects other human beings, especially those in developing countries.
He referred to points in the pope’s encyclical: “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. … The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.” (“Laudato Si’” 52)
An estimated 5 million lives are lost each year due to climate change, according to a PowerPoint slide citing the Climate Vulnerable Forum of 2012. The slide also said 98 percent of these deaths occur in the least economically developed countries that are also the least responsible for generating causes of climate change.
Going back to creation as a whole, Professor O’Hara said, all created things have value, not just if humans value them. They praise and reveal God, though a carrot doesn’t have the same value as a child.
But humans couldn’t have existed before phytoplankton began to produce oxygen, he noted. So rather than think of themselves on top of the pyramid, maybe humans should see themselves as coming at the end, and being the most vulnerable.
Professor O’Hara also talked about the “throw-away” culture, but said, “None of these challenges that we’re facing are beyond our capacity to solve.” He showed a video which asked, “Who’s under your carbon footprint?” He said that for the poor people whom your lifestyle affects, living “your faith is the beginning of hope” for them.
A change of culture, a re-examination of everything is needed, he said, but leadership is lacking.
A listener said everyone must be converted in their own lifestyles. Professor O’Hara used the example of replacing burned out lightbulbs with more “Earth-friendly” ones. He said not to underestimate such decisions, through which one becomes part of a cultural shift. When consumers choose “green” products, corporations will make more of them.
“We’re used to having so much,” he said. But Catholics, who number 1.2 billion worldwide, talk about sacrifice as part of their faith, he said, adding, “science alone isn’t going to solve this problem.”
Father Timothy M. Brewer, St. Mary’s pastor, invited listeners to a Lenten program to continue discussing the encyclical. Dates and times are to be announced.

Notre Dame dedicates day
to study environmental issues

By William T. Clew

Students at Notre Dame Academy took time out from regular classes Nov. 4 for a program aimed at raising their awareness about environmental issues.
It included the showing of a motion picture in the auditorium on the environment, during which students from the school’s theater and environmental science classes read excerpts from “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.
Sister Ann Morrison, principal, opened the day’s program, “On Care of Our Common Home,” and welcomed the students and participants. After the opening prayer and a musical selection, Associate Professor Douglas E. Kowalewski of the Earth, Environment and Physics Department at Worcester State University, delivered the keynote address.
He talked about the environmental consequences of rising global temperatures. Prof. Kowalewski recently was part of a team which published a report that stated that greenhouse gases, if they followed certain computer models, could result in the eventual melting of the West Antarctica ice cap. That could raise sea levels and destroy coastal communities.
After the keynote address, students attended workshops on the environment and ways to protect it.
Presenters included Alicia Ciancola, program director, Community Harvest; Ruth Seward, Worcester Tree Initiative; Michael Bass, vice president of design, Cutler Design Inc.; Rebecca Couris,  professor of nutrition, science and pharmacy, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences; and Bill Ellis, Republic Services.
Also, Kristin Bohan, Grass Roots Farm; Matthew Shortsleeves, senior director, Solar Energy Development LLC; Deb Cary, Broad Meadow Brook and Wachusett Wildlife sanctuaries; Rebecca Longvall, environmental science major and a graduate of Notre Dame Academy, and Colleen Gardner, National Grid and also a Notre Dame Academy graduate.
The workshops were given in two 45-minute sessions. Some of the presenters brought colleagues to help with the presentations.
Seventh and eighth-grade students from Al- Hamra Academy, an Islamic school in Shrewsbury, attended.
The program was arranged by Elizabeth Murphy, social studies teacher. She said planning for the program began last summer.
Virginia Byrne of the performing arts department arranged the music program and encyclical readings.