I’m sure you’ve had the feeling before. It washes over you as you’re outdoors – a contemplative feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself.
Over the years, Chris Thompson, dean of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, realized his time in nature was leading to his deepest levels of contemplative prayer. At the same time, he was seeing in his students a troubling lack of connection to nature, things outside the buildings in which they lived, studied, prayed and worshipped.
These reflections prompted him to begin an expedition of research and engagement around the Catholic faith and the natural order. As a result, he has become an ardent promoter of Green Thomism, which seeks to integrate the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas (Thomism) with the questions of environmental stewardship, sustainability and awareness.
“[Green Thomism’s] aim is to bring two groups of people together who are often at odds with each other: those who take seriously the issues concerning the environment and those who take the Catholic faith seriously,” Thompson wrote on his website. “Thomism … has been held out for Catholics as the model of faithfulness which seeks understanding, and it is our conviction that Green Thomism captures the search for a faithful, faith-filled understanding of environmental issues.”
While speaking with Thompson about Green Thomism, it becomes clear the concept is a kind of pathway for the Catholic Church toward a reengagement with the natural order and Christ.
‘The joyful mystery of the cosmos’
When Thompson first began researching Catholic engagement with the natural order, the trends were troubling: He found a systematic drop-off over the decades since World War II in the Church’s engagement, thinking and teaching around agriculture and nature. For years in Catholic higher education curricula, requirements around philosophy were based first on philosophy of nature, which created the basis for reflection on the human person; over decades that emphasis has fallen away.
“Of the 244 Catholic universities and colleges in the United States, none have a program in agriculture,” he said. “Think about how important care of the land is, how important agriculture is in our economy, how grand Catholic claims of social justice teaching and its sense of impacting the world are, and how Catholic universities are preparing students to engage the world. How can there be this incredible blind spot in our own industry and in the Catholic intellectual tradition?”
Pope Francis also has expressed his concern. In Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, published in 2015, he emphasizes integral ecology that underscores the necessity for engagement because it’s an engagement with ourselves.
“Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a setting in which we live,” Pope Francis wrote. “We are part of nature.”
An overarching goal of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Thompson said, was to “jump start this engagement” between Catholics and the natural order. The short-term results have been promising. That includes Thompson’s own contributions around the concept of Green Thomism.
“One of the greatest challenges to an effective evangelization lies in overcoming the loss of confidence in the splendor of creation and its capacity to disclose something meaningful; that is, to disclose the reality of God,” Thompson wrote in the preface to his 2017 book, The Joyful Mystery: “My efforts should be taken as a plea and a prayer for a much deeper agenda than merely promoting a consideration of the environment: to recover the joyful mystery of the cosmos and thus set in motion the only conditions in which a renewed, authentic Catholic culture can emerge.”
Into the light
Thompson uses a helpful metaphor to describe a flip in thinking that Thomism makes possible.
“It’s very popular to think about the search for wisdom as a child holding a candle, walking out into the darkness. 'Here I am holding the light of wisdom, exploring my world.' For St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s the opposite. The world is brilliant with light. I’m the one in the darkness,” Thompson said.
“When God creates, he creates out of sheer generosity and creates a range of creatures that are absolutely radiant with intelligibility, radiant with meaning, with depth and splendor,” Thompson said. “Thomas totally reverses the polarity. I am not walking out with light and my own intelligence into a dark abyss. It’s the created, natural order that’s brilliant and I’m the apprentice.”
In learning to engage with that light, Thompson said, Christians can learn to engage with Christ: As they profess Christ as the Logos through which all things are made, they engage with him directly in nature.
“It’s this extraordinary being who wants to draw you into an eternal friendship,” Thompson said. “Every morning he puts up a beautiful sunrise to say, ‘Come join me in a relationship.’ Every night, a beautiful sunset – that invitation is extended again. That is what the Christian faith is, that entering into the relationship.”
That relationship can lead to a deep ethic of care for the natural order, as well as an appreciation for the depth of knowledge from the scientific field. Green Thomism puts forward a pathway that, together, Christians can walk down with hope and courage.
St. Thomas’ Commitment to Sustainability
The university has a new comprehensive strategic plan that identifies goals and action steps it can pursue to advance its commitment to sustainability.
“The plan represents the commitment of our entire university to lead and achieve in environmental stewardship and caring for God’s creation,” President Julie Sullivan said.
“Our understanding of, and commitment to, sustainability is grounded in our identity as a Catholic university,” the plan states.
By implementing this plan, we aim to model sustainability in our own practices and to educate students who will improve lives today and build a better world for future generations.”
In 2008, St. Thomas’ then-President Father Dennis Dease signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, and the Board of Trustees adopted a strategic priority on environmental stewardship and sustainability. Since then, St. Thomas students, faculty and staff have championed many initiatives to infuse sustainability into the university's community.
The current plan centers on the vision, and outlines two main goals of achieving a Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) gold rating by 2025 (St. Thomas received a silver rating in 2018) and achieving carbon neutrality by 2035.
“The plan gives us a coordinated, strategic approach, and a sense of how sustainability fits into what we all do every day,” said Amir Nadav, assistant director of campus sustainability. “As an educational institution, one of the most valuable things we can do is educate students to be sustainability leaders. … To achieve that vision, sustainability needs to be part of the culture, something we can model and participate in all the time.”
Nearly 1,500 students, faculty, staff and alumni engaged in the planning process through class projects, a community visioning brainstorm, a strategic plan workshop and nine work groups.
The plan’s scope is wide and far-reaching, encompassing every aspect of St. Thomas: from the mission, to student and employee engagement; academics; sustainable investments; transportation; dining services; facilities management; and procurement. Underlying everything is the desire to create a culture where every single St. Thomas community member contributes to sustainability in their everyday lives.