Dease discusses university's commitment to common good, environmental stewardship

Dease discusses university's commitment to common good, environmental stewardship

Editor's note: Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, spoke to faculty and administrators at the annual academic convocation Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 4, in St. Mary's Chapel. In case you missed the convocation, Dease's remarks follow. (Or watch video here.)


It is a genuine pleasure to gather with all of you today, both new and returning faculty and professional staff, as we prepare to begin another academic year. I am always impressed with the energy, creativity and enthusiasm you bring to your service on behalf of our students. Our students and alumni regularly express their gratitude for the quality of education, caring, mentoring and support they have received here, both in and out of the classroom. Please know that your work is deeply appreciated by many.

Special greetings today to retired members of the faculty who have joined us: Dr. James Callahan, Dr. Frederick Zimmerman and Father David Smith. I know I speak for everyone here when I tell you how pleased we are to see you back on campus, and how deeply grateful we remain for all you invested of your life and work in this learning community.

Capital campaign
We are preparing to announce next month the public phase of a particularly ambitious capital campaign. Due to the talented leadership of Dr. Mark Dienhart and his capable staff, we are today very well positioned to carry out our most ambitious capital fundraising effort ever. I want also to commend Dr. Gene Scapanski and those who took part in the strategic planning that enabled us to identify our highest priorities, the funding of which will make the greatest difference for this university. Successfully reaching these priorities will ensure substantially greater access for prospective students, a higher level of programmatic excellence, and a more integrated sense of our faith-based nature.

We have many priorities and they will require substantial financial resources. All the funds in the world, however, will not get us where we want to go unless we continue to share a common understanding of, and enthusiasm for, our purpose as a university.

Emeriti House
St. Thomas has a growing number of emeriti faculty and we expect that number to grow at an even faster rate in the coming years.  We value the wisdom and continuity that a continued connection with emeriti faculty can give our academic community, especially in a period of rapid change on campus. Over the summer we completed a phone survey of our emeriti faculty, particularly those living in this region, and learned that they have the same interest in staying connected with us. We have decided, therefore, to establish on the St. Paul campus an Emeriti House – a place where emeriti faculty might pursue their scholarly interests and where emeriti and current faculty can engage in comfortable conversation. For this purpose we will use the house at 2130 Summit Avenue – a house that I know, because I lived there – that will offer a welcoming and comfortable environment. I am told that some necessary work on the house will begin tomorrow – not, I hope, as a result of my having lived there – and we expect to open and dedicate Emeriti House around the middle of the semester.

Medical school
Over the summer we have been conducting a feasibility study regarding the possibility of forming, in partnership with Allina Health Systems, a school of medicine. The objective of such a school, should we to go forward, would be to train primary care physicians in order to meet the growing shortage in the state of Minnesota. The feasibility study process has involved seven working groups, each created to examine a specific aspect of the question: student selection and support, curriculum, faculty and administration, facilities, legal and liability issues and financing. Each of these groups includes administrators from St. Thomas and Allina, and members of the St. Thomas faculty selected by the Committee for Nominations and Elections as provided for in the Faculty Organization Plan.  Most of the working groups include as well members of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees. I want to commend Dr. Thomas Rochon for organizing the process and for his extraordinary effort this summer to ensure its effectiveness. Indeed, this feasibility study could serve as a model for how the St. Thomas community can come together to examine the most important questions facing it.

I realize that the timeline of this feasibility study, with a significant amount of the work carried out over the summer, has not been conducive to full involvement of St. Thomas faculty and staff. However, the new academic year is beginning just as the outlines of the potential medical school are coming clearly into focus. In the next two to three weeks we will be able to answer basic and important questions such as how big the school would be, where it would be located, how the St. Thomas-Allina collaboration would comply with Catholic ethics and directives concerning the sanctity of life and – perhaps the biggest question of all – how much it would cost and how would those costs be covered.

Sister Katarina Schuth and the rest of the faculty leadership are organizing a Faculty Forum regarding the proposed medical school on Tuesday, Sept. 25. That timing is perfect. As you know, the St. Thomas Board of Trustees at its Oct. 25 meeting will review the results of the study and the administration's recommendation – a recommendation that, of course, has yet to be formulated. In the meantime, I look forward to conversations with you at the Sept. 25 forum and in other settings about both the feasibility and the desirability of establishing a school of medicine.

To advance the common good

Mission statement
I would like to speak today about an important aspect of the University of St. Thomas mission. Our Mission Statement reads:

Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.

The common good in Catholic social thought
The Mission Statement makes clear that fostering in our students a commitment to the commonweal is our mission and is what justifies our existence as a community of higher learning. So just what is this "common good" in service of which we prepare our students?   How precisely does "Catholic intellectual tradition" inspire us in this pursuit?

In a recent piece in the Boston Review, "In Search of the Common Good: The Catholic Roots of American Liberalism," author Lew Daly argues that any vital sense of the common good must be anchored in religious faith, and that when its moorings in the transcendent are lost, society's sense of a common good gives way to a prevailing culture of individualism.1  

Monsignor John A. Ryan
Daly describes the development of our nation's
social policy over the course of the last 70 years and how the pioneering social thought of Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and the more radical social thought of Pope Pius XI 40 years later in his encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, exerted a profound influence over the development of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal social policy through the mediation of one man: Monsignor John A. Ryan. Reading this article reminded me of Francis Broderick's biography of Ryan that I had read as a seminarian. It bore the catchy title, Right Reverend New Dealer John A. Ryan.2

Those of you relatively new to St. Thomas may not be aware that the St. Paul Seminary had a large dog in this nation's social policy fight during its most formative years: Monsignor John A. Ryan. An alumnus of both the College of St. Thomas (as it was known then) and the St. Paul Seminary, he returned to serve on the seminary faculty until his move to Washington where he was to become one of the great pioneers of U.S. economic policy in the first part of the last century. In his two major works, A Living Wage published in 1906 and Distributive Justice, in 1916, he persuasively applied the principles of Catholic social thought to some of the most pressing issues of his day. Daly described the young Ryan as "the man who would lead the Catholic Church into the Progressive Age and the New Deal coalition."3

More than a half century later, in 1996, it was in Ryan's memory that Professor Robert Kennedy founded here at St. Thomas the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought. The institute has thrived under Dr. Kennedy's leadership and that of Dr. Michael Naughton, who today serves as its director. It has become for this university a point of great pride.

Ryan's life's work of supporting American progressivism with the insights of Catholic social thought began to take shape when he read shortly after its issuance Pope Leo XIII's 1891 groundbreaking "labor encyclical," Rerum Novarum. This document itself emerged from the soil of a centuries-old tradition of Catholic social thought.

Ryan also was encouraged along this path by our founder, Archbishop John Ireland, who had ordained him a priest, and whose lament in 1889 at Catholic silence on the "social question" had become internationally celebrated.4 Ireland preached that "Christ made the social question the basis of His ministry."5

The decisive turning point for Catholic progressivism in the United States came in 1919 with the release of the Bishops' Program for Social Reconstruction, written by Ryan himself. Here, as Daly writes, "the American Catholic search for social justice" truly began. In Daly's judgment, "the program (and its widespread promotion) was the most important official act of the American Church in its history to that point, and in the years to come it would remain a major touchstone … in the development of social policy ... ."6

Ryan delivered the invocation at President Roosevelt's second inauguration in 1937. On Ryan's 70 th birthday his friends threw him a party that included many of Washington's luminaries. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins praised Ryan's personal role in the development of Roosevelt's New Deal:

We have still not caught up with Father Ryan's thinking ... but we are coming closer to it. Only lately has business begun to realize that economic policies are subject to ethics, and that a moral obligation to pay a good wage falls on the employer of labor as a consequence of his position of power over the fruits of the earth ... . There is no greater tribute I can give his persistent influence on American thought and action than to quote his own words. "Never before in our history," he says, "have Government policies been so deliberately and consciously based on the conception of moral right and social justice."6a

As Daly reports:

President Roosevelt sent a message to the banquet: "With voice and pen, you have pleaded the cause of social justice and the right of the individual to happiness through economic security, a living wage, and an opportunity to share in the things that enrich and ennoble human life." Here was a rough draft of the famous "Second Bill of Rights" [Roosevelt] would propose five years later in his State of the Union Address.

Catholic social teaching had revolutionized the moral landscape of capitalism.7

Not a bad tribute for an alumnus whose alma mater is dedicated to the service of the common good!  

As church historian Jeffrey Burns has written, Ryan had "insisted that the social and economic problems that confronted the modern era were essentially moral problems, and as such, the ... church ... had an important role to play in the reconstruction of the social order.8

The common good as defined by recent popes
How does Catholic intellectual tradition understand the notion of the common good? Pope John XXIII defined the common good in his encyclical Mater et Magistra as "the sum total of conditions of social living, whereby persons are enabled more fully and readily to achieve their own perfection."9 And in Pacem in Terris he emphasized that the way to guarantee the common good is to uphold "personal rights and duties."10 The ecumenical council he convened added that the welfare of each individual and the common good are interdependent.11 John XXIII cautioned, however, that one's notion of the common good not be limited to one's own nation or society, but be seen as a transnational reality that is universal.12

His immediate successor, Pope Paul VI, deduced from this broader understanding, an obligation incumbent upon wealthy nations to reorient their terms of trade, investment policies and foreign aid.13

Perhaps it was from his own personal involvement in the Polish struggle to free itself from Communist control that Pope John Paul II viewed the commitment to the common good as a virtue – one he termed "solidarity." He defined the common good simply as "the good of all and of each individual."14 John Paul II expanded the notion of solidarity (or commitment to the common good) to include care of the environment.15 As Jesuit theologian David Hollenbach has pointed out: "John Paul II's call to include the good of the biosphere in the understanding of the common good is a genuinely new emphasis in church teaching that is likely to see further development in the future."16

The environment

It is the environment, and this university's role in protecting it, on which I will focus the remainder of my remarks.

About seven years ago, Dr. Nancy Zingale and I were in the midst of sponsoring conversations between the faculties of the University of St. Thomas and the University of Havana. I remember being struck with how deeply they were invested in the study of sustainable resource management. When Dr. James Vincent from our Department of Economics arrived in Havana, the Cuban faculty could hardly contain their excitement. They welcomed him like a Hollywood celebrity. Cl
early up to that point I had not been aware of the extent to which his work in developing economic metrics for sustainability had achieved international recognition.

Three years later I was privileged to spend a day at a fledgling Catholic university in Uganda. Again I was impressed to discover a state-of-the-art curriculum that gives prominence to professional ethics, especially in the areas of business and government studies, and to sustainable resource management, particularly in agricultural studies and eco-tourism. Commitment to care for the environment, in fact, is written into that East African university's mission statement.

I realized, then, that this was a Catholic university not only in name but in fact, for its roots ran deep in Catholic social thought, which teaches that just as our relationship with the world in which we live is essential for our biological life, so is our relationship with the world an essential component of our human and spiritual identity.17 It is for this reason that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has expressed its concern that "the conquest and exploitation of resources has become predominant and invasive." To look upon "the environment as 'resource,'" the Council explains, "risks threatening the environment as 'home' ... the balance between [humanity] and the environment has reached a critical point."18

Just as Daly sees a sense of the "common good" threatened by its disengagement from the transcendent, so does the Pontifical Council trace the heedless disregard for the environment to the secularization of human society:

A vision of man and things that is sundered from any reference to the transcendent has led to the rejection of the concept of creation and to the attribution of a completely independent existence to man and nature. The bonds that unite the world to God have thus been broken. This rupture has also resulted in separating man from the world and, more radically, has impoverished man's very identity. Human beings find themselves thinking that they are foreign to the environmental context in which they live…It is the relationship man has with God that determines his relationship with his fellow men and with his environment.19

The late Pope John Paul II attempted to offer the world a word of encouragement. He wrote that the human community's "capacity to transform, and in a certain sense create, the world through [its] own work ... is ... based on God's prior and original gift of the things that are."20 Accordingly, human "intervention in nature ... must be for the purpose of developing it – not for abusing or damaging it.21 In an address to participants at a convention he declared:

If humanity today succeeds in combining the new scientific capacities with a strong ethical dimension, it will certainly be able to promote the environment as a home and a resource for … all … and will be able to eliminate the causes of pollution and to guarantee adequate conditions of hygiene and health for small groups as well as for vast human settlements. Technology that pollutes can also cleanse, production that amasses can also distribute justly, on condition that the ethic of respect for life and human dignity, for the rights of today's generations and those to come, prevails.22

Here in the United States, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops have also taken up the cause. In a 2003 statement they wrote:

The world that God created has been entrusted to us. Our use of it must be directed by God's plan for creation, not simply for our own benefit. Our stewardship of the Earth is a form of participation in God's act of creating and sustaining the world. In our use of creation, we must be guided by a concern for generations to come. We show our respect for the Creator by our care for creation.23

Care for the environment, in other words, has become a legitimate way for contemporary believers to express their faith and spirituality.

Application to the University of St. Thomas

So what does all of this mean for the University of St. Thomas?

It means, in part, that we need to incorporate issues of environmental sustainability into our strategic planning, including our facilities planning. It also means that we need to examine what we are doing and what we should be doing to educate our students to these emerging realities.

Kermit the Frog was right: "It's not easy being green." Nevertheless, in recent years a number of commendable initiatives have been undertaken by St. Thomas faculty and staff:  

In 1992 the faculty approved a major in environmental studies. Dr. Steven Hoffman, of Political Science, served as its founding director. More than 180 students have majored or minored in environmental studies since then. The major today ranks among our largest interdisciplinary programs. Its three objectives are: to transmit an understanding of environmental problems and their complexities; to motivate productive responses to those problems, both vocational and avocational, based on that understanding; and to foster the development of critical, inquiring minds.

The titles of some of the capstone projects undertaken in recent years reveal the range of issues addressed:

"Bio-fuels: a Viable Alternative to a Real Crisis," "Energizing the Campus: The Future of the University of St. Thomas' Electrical System," "Global Climate change and the Mississippi River: An Examination of Intentional and Unintentional Human Manipulation of Natural Systems," "Catch the Green Fever: A Solid Waste Audit and Proposal for a Greener Campus at the University of St. Thomas," "Environmental Justice and Clean Air: A Case Study of Emission Trading and its Impact on Low-Income and Minority Communities" and "Farming for the Future: Sustainable Agriculture in Minnesota."

We can take great pride in the strong leadership given to such critical issues by faculty members such as Simon Emms (Biology), Camille George (Engineering), Heidi Giebel (Philosophy), Tom Hickson (Geology), Steve Hoffman (Political Science), Paul Lorah (Geography), Elise Amel (Psychology) and Kristine Wammer (Chemistry), among others. As I stated three years ago regarding our program in environmental studies:

[It] is an exceptional example of the kind of academic program we want to embrace here at the University of St. Thomas ... .The scientists, policy makers, citizen activists, environmental educators, and business leaders who emerge from our environmental studies program do [live out our mission statement: They advance the common good.   In the process, they help us fulfill our new vision statement which says that we will pursue responsible engagement with the local community, as well as with the national and global communities in which we live.24

I want to commend in particular Elise Amel, director of the Environmental Studies Program, for conducting this past summer a faculty development seminar titled: "Purple, Grey and Green: Infusing Sustainability Into the University of St. Thomas Curriculum." This colloquium explored how fac
ulty might meaningfully integrate nature, environmental literacy and/or sustainability into the classroom. The range of disciplines represented by the faculty who presented gives some indication of the scope of the subject. In addition to Elise, there were Sue Chaplin (Biology), Brian Davis (OCOB-Business Law), Simon Emms (Biology), Chester Wilson (Biology), Paul Lorah (Geography), Mark Neuzil (Journalism) and Bob Douglas (Physical Plant). Perhaps most importantly, 18 faculty participated in the seminar from disciplines as diverse as Art History, Economics, English, Graduate Programs in Software, History, Modern and Classical Languages, Marketing, Sociology, and Theology – as well as those from science and engineering.

Two years ago this month, the President's Staff authorized a preliminary study to determine the feasibility of installing solar energy systems on the St. Paul campus. For a thought-provoking study which they subsequently undertook, I want to commend Professors Greg Mowry of the School of Engineering and Steve Hoffman of the Department of Political Science – despite the fact that whenever Dr. Hoffman enters my office or conference room he invariably shuts off the light, citing the copious abundance of daylight. Incommodious as this might be for me, he has thereby endeared himself to our financial managers.25 Though for financial reasons all the recommendations of the report could not be implemented immediately, the university's chief financial officer, Mark Vangsgard, determined that the university should consider using solar thermal energy in future construction projects, especially in the proposed aquatic center. He also found that it would make sense to allocate funds to provide energy-monitoring devices in all newly constructed buildings.

I would like to recognize a few other examples of creative efforts put forth by St. Thomas faculty, staff and students:

  • On Sept. 21 the School of Law will host a national symposium titled "Peace with Creation: Catholic Perspectives on Environmental Law," at which Archbishop Harry Flynn, who serves as chairman of our Board of Trustees, will give the keynote address. The proceedings will be published in the school's law journal. The purpose of the symposium is to foster scholarship and dialogue regarding what insights Catholic social thought can offer in the evaluation of existing environmental laws and in the proposal of new environmental laws and regulations. It is our hope that this also will foster discussion among environmental lawyers, Catholic theologians and the wider community.
  • The School of Law also offers a course in environmental law.
  • Students have established a club called the Green Team. Its mission is to challenge the campus and the community beyond to become more ecologically aware.

This is just a small sampling of the many creative efforts being put forth here: all tangible expressions of the way we are living our mission "to advance the common good."

Call for a great campus conversation
To continue to foster in students a commitment to the common good in a world that is rapidly changing will require the full resources of this academic community. The question I would like to raise with you as we embark on a new academic year is this: How might we more effectively marshal the energy, wisdom, good judgment and expertise of this community? The challenge of preparing students to serve the common good is one that we will best meet if we come together in some kind of disciplined way, and thereby rise to the challenge as a community.

Dr. Thomas Rochon has suggested that in these remarks I issue "a call to a great campus conversation" during the coming year. It would consist of a series of structured discussions and exchanges to which all members of this community would be invited. The purpose would be to engage those issues and priorities that relate directly to the key elements of our mission. Care for the environment is but one of several such issues – one that weighs on the minds of many faculty, staff and students. There are as well other mission-related issues that would benefit from structured reflection this year: community engagement, the interrelationship of faith and reason, and the respect owed, on the basis of their human dignity, to all members of our community. Such dialogues would provide for us an opportunity to examine what is most important to us, to explore where we are today and where it is we hope to go.

If, as Lew Daly has written and John A. Ryan has demonstrated, the faith tradition has much to offer in the formation of social conscience and good public policy, then a Catholic university should be a wonderful place for issues of such importance to intersect. Please join me in those conversations in the year ahead.

End notes

1 Lew Daly, "In Search of the Common Good: The Catholic Roots of American Liberalism," Boston Review (May/June, 2007). < >

2 Francis A. Broderick, Right Reverend New Dealer John A. Ryan (New York: MacMillan, 1963).

3 Daly.

4 On Nov. 10, 1889, observing the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the hierarchy in the United States, Ireland delivered a speech at Baltimore's cathedral addressed to the nation's' Catholics in which he declared: "What has come over us that we shun the work which is essentially ours to do? These are days of action, days of warfare ... . Into the arena, priest and layman! Seek out social evils, and lead in movements that tend to rectify them." John Ireland, "The Mission of Catholics in America," The Church and Modern Society I (St. Paul: The Pioneer Press Publishing, 1905) 97.

5 Ireland 96.

6 Daly.

6a Daly.

7 Daly.

8Jeffrey M. Burns, "John Augustine Ryan" The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Judith A. Dwyer, 851.

9 Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 65. (See also, the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes, 26.)

10 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 60.

11 The Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 32.

12 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 134-135.

13 Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 43 ff.

14 Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38-39.

15 Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 34.

16 David Hollenbach, S.J., "Common Good," The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Judith A. Dwyer, 196-197.

17 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), 452.

18 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 461.

19 Ponti
fical Council for Justice and Peace, 464.

20 John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 37.

21 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace , 461.

22 John Paul II, "The Environment and Health" 924 (March 1997), 5; L'Osservatore Romano, English edition (9 April 1997): 2.

23 U.S. Catholic Bishops, Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility (2003).

24 Dennis Dease, "Environmental Studies," a brochure of the University of St. Thomas (2004).

25 Greg Mowry and Steve Hoffman, Assessing the Feasibility of Solar Energy on the University of St. Thomas St. Paul Campus (December 16, 2005).