Syllabus Crowdsourcing: Roman Catholic Theology of Nature and Environmental Ethics

This Fall I’ll be teaching a course at DePaul University. The title of the course is “Roman Catholic Theological Thought: Nature and Envrionrmental Ethics from Aquinas to Liberation Theology” and I plan to give the students a solid survey of the various positions within Roman Catholicism, from the view of the Magisterium to those who are often in conflict with them like Boff and Ruether. The underlying idea that holds the course together is that there your ethical stance towards the environment is greatly determined by how you understand the being of nature, God, and society. I think I have a good reading list for the course, but wanted to throw out my current plan to see if readers had any thoughts.

I thought I would begin the class reading two Papal statements, John Paul II’s 1990 statement on World Day of Peace and Benedict’s Caritas in veritate, and the “Renewing the Earth” statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The idea being we quickly identify the official teachings of the Roman church in relation to the environment. The question is then to examine what ideas about nature lie behind these teachings and then we’d more into more heavy lifting:

  • Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. This would also include some supplementary reading from Pope Leo’s exhortation to teach Aquinas and a chapter from Willis Jenkins’ Ecologies of Grace.
  • On Learned Ignorance by Nicholas of Cusa. Still not quite sure about this one, but I think he might teach a bit better than Aquinas and his reading of the structure of God into the universe fits with the theme.
  • Then St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun” and “Sermon to the Birds” along with two chapters from Roger D. Sorrell’s St. Francis of Assisi and Nature.
  • Leonardo Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor
  • Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Gaia & God

I’ve not taught in the US before and the difference between the US and the UK in reading expectations is radical, so I’m hoping my average of 40 pages per class is reasonable. Obviously, if this weren’t a strictly Roman Catholic theology course I’d take a very different approach, but I think this set of readings works well. Are there any major CST documents I’m missing or books you’d recommend? Thoughts on the Cusa?

21 thoughts on “Syllabus Crowdsourcing: Roman Catholic Theology of Nature and Environmental Ethics

  1. I love the Cusa text and think it works great with your theme — my only reservation is that its impact within theology has been pretty limited as far as I can see. (Renaissance-era theology is kind of the “lost generation.”) You could make it work, though. If I had a couple more weeks in my medieval class, I’d definitely be teaching that text.

  2. My idea, I guess, was that he is a kind of synthesis of the mystical tradition people see in Francis and the Neoplatonic scholastic tradition of Aquinas, though I know of no real influence from the Franciscans on his thought. There is certainly an element of randomness to this choice though and that is what has me worried. (A bit of reading around has told me Cusa was influential at Vatican II, though in relation to religious toleration rather than anything to do with nature or science.)

  3. There must be a section from pertaining to this. It could also be mined for relevant encyclicals.

    Might it be worthwhile considering some batshit crazy libertarian Catholics on this as well? I say this because I think they are actually a creative use of the tradition as well, albeit for evil. Hence environmentalism in general is a false God, idolatry etc, they always hype up the stuff the Pope says against oppressive nature. Acton Institute is your go to place, of course. Not in the name of balance, but in the name of refutation.

  4. Do you have a specific encyclical to point out that Anthony’s missed, Alex? Or do you have any thoughts about the appropriateness of the Cusa text? That’s what Anthony’s asking about. He’s not asking for your free associations about what might be cool to include.

  5. I’m not really at the stage where I can expand the course conceptually. The critique of technology as environmentally destructive, in very different forms, comes up in Boff and Ruether though so I’m sure we will discuss that.

  6. I understood this was crowd sourcing, where any suggestions could be thrown up – Anthony was asking for ‘any thoughts’ in the reading he suggested. Had I remembered what I was going to mention technology in the first post I made, then I would not have made a subsequent one and thus not appeared to be free-associating.

    Apologies if what I had said was off topic.

  7. Just thinking out loud here, but perhaps de Chardin could help fill that ‘batshit crazy libertarian Catholic’ gig (well, 3 out of 4). Something like a selection or two from Man’s Place in Nature.

  8. Fuck! When I had conceived of the course I had thought to put in Chardin, since the Liberationists quite like him too. Too late at this point though since I sent my books off to the book store already. Plus I don’t really know his work that well and it’s a little late in the game to add him for this class. Next time though…

  9. Anthony,

    The course sounds interesting. As a prof at Neumann University (Franciscan school), I receive dozens of emails from the local franciscans regarding social issues, particularly envrionmental ones. Here’s a link with things that may be of interest, or at least serve as an example of how one might actually participate in caring in/for/with the earth:

    I think the Cusa is a good choice and it could be easily compared/contrasted with the Franciscans, particularly Scotus, in regards to the social context of persons, divine immanence, etc.

    I like how you intend to start off the course. Might I recommend the first sixty pages of Ratzinger’s “In the Beginning…” as well.

  10. Thanks Mark. Can you say more about Ratzinger’s text? I had thought to do Scotus instead of Cusa, but thought that Cusa might be better as a kind of synthesis. I tend to read him as a pseudo-Thomist who takes Thomas’ thought to its conclusions (this probably sounds a bit hackish, but I think it can be defended). Still, glad to get some outside opinion that I’m not insane in thinking there is something there!

  11. Mark,

    Thanks for that, and the reminder of the Franciscan theological tradition. If one is going for an example of Franciscan poetry expressing divine immanence that Francis and Scotus express, your paper on the site is completely right, I don’t think you could not go better than a little Hopkins – both in the optimistic sense of the world charged with God’s grandeur and the pessimism of the Heraclitian file where Hopkins seems to actually want natures becoming to cease. If one is going to start talking about Franciscan stuff related to ecology (as opposed to environmental ethics), inscape is obviously central.

  12. lol, or we might both me “insane.”

    [note: secondary texts] The Franciscans recently put out a secondary text on creation called “A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World” by Ilia Delio. It gives a nod to the sacramentality of creation. There’s a chapter on creation in Mary Beth Ingham’s _Scotus for Dunces: An Introduction to the Subtle Doctor_. In _The Philosophical Vision of John Duns Scotus_ (Ingham and Dreyer), there’s a couple chapters on nature, will, science, modality, individuation.

    The full title to Ratzinger’s text is _’In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall_ It was initially presented as a series of homilies. The first three chapters are on creation and the fourth is on sin. There’s also an appendix, which suggests some consequences of “faith in creation” as well as providing a cursory survey of the history of creation in western thought.

    I’m not recommending that this text replace anything you’ve suggested. Simply put, it’s very accessible to students and lays out the basic understanding of creation in “catholic” thought. It would help orient the students toward the other texts in the class and avoid leading the students into thinking about creation in terms of chronos temporality, material creation, or any form of fundamentalist thinking/”Bishop Usher” ideology.

    All of these recommendations are for supplemental purposes. The texts above would give working definitions/explanations of creation. Then, one could investigate more rigorous understandings of nature and, from them, pursue some sort of ethics. Anything else I can think of tends more towards philosophy of nature, e.g., Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, etc–all of whom, I assume are outside the scope of a theology course.

  13. Hmm… I wonder if this could replace “Caritas”. Does he mention the whole “human ecology” as precursor for “environmental ecology” there? I was going to make a rather big deal of that, showing how it comes out of the hierarchical view of nature/creation in Aquinas.

  14. Sorry, I don’t think so. However, you could still raise that yourself. Also, Ratzinger is going to representative of a more conservative strand of catholic thought on nature. I was recommending the text as a stepping stone: (1) Ratzinger shows the inadequacies of fundamentalist approaches, (2) Ratzinger’s (catholic) view, (3) you choose to critique Ratzinger or compare/contrast him with others.

    If the human/environmental ecology idea is what you want to focus on, then I’d say stick with “Caritas,” given that that idea is made explicit. Or you could use _In the Beginning_ and then ch. 4 of “Caritas”

    Google books has the text:

  15. I think this this would bring together the two ideas really nicely. The whole of Caritas isn’t helpful, so just giving Chapter 4 along with this text (which, from the sections I read online, appears quite readable and appears to have generous margins) would illustrate the underlying concept for the class (“ideas of nature affect environmental ethics”). Thanks for this.

  16. Cheers! Perhaps you’ll post an update at the end of the semester. I’d be curious to see how it goes.

  17. It looks like a fantastic course, Anthony — lucky DePaul students. I think the Cusa choice is spot on, despite his relative neglect in recent theology, though interestingly both Thomas Merton and Teilhard had a soft spot for Cusa. The theological neglect of Cusa may even make him more interesting as his impact is arguably stronger in circles outside of traditional theology (Descartes and Kepler cite him, for instance, and Cassirer, Koyre, Blumenberg, Boulnois, Dupre, et al all make Cusa central in different ways their respective narratives of modernity’s genesis). Personally, I’d be cautious about pressing the radical Thomist line too much — not only does Cusa break stylistically with scholasticism but substantively there’s more of Eriugena and Eckhart in Cusa than Aquinas — but that’s more of a petty footnote quibble than a real issue. Best wishes with the class.

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