Something's in the air at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. It's in the water, too. It's a consciousness about environmental issues that shows up in its classes, worship, facilities, and community.

When the school built its new academic center three years ago, it made the building (pictured above) as green as possible within budget. At the same time, its old building - a 1920s-era former hotel that had been home to the school for 38 years - was retrofitted with a more efficient heating and cooling system, timers for lights, and other energy-saving features.

Catholic Theological Union (CTU) offers elective courses such as "Care of the Earth" and "Environmental Ethics," and the school just added a new degree program, the master of arts in justice ministry, which offers a concentration in environmental justice. During the last academic year, the faculty looked carefully at how it addressed issues of creation and sustainability in its classes. At its final assembly last year, the faculty voted to sign on to the Green Seminary Initiative, an affiliation of almost 40 theological schools that share ideas about how to be green in their curriculum, operations, and outlook.

"The environment has been seen for a long time as a kind of add-on to the Christian life- one issue among many," says David Rhoads, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a member of the Green Seminary Initiative's steering committee. "But it's not an add-on - it is foundational to our vocational calling and mandatory for leadership training. Therefore, the goal of greening a seminary is to integrate care for creation into the full identity, community life, and educational mission of the seminary. That can only fully happen if the trustees are on board."

CTU is the first - and so far, only - Catholic institution to register with the Green Seminary Initiative. Despite some innovative environmental work at a handful of Catholic schools such as CTU, Catholic seminaries and theological schools as a whole are particularly late in expressing concern for creation care and climate change.

"Catholic seminaries are just not the engines of creative, thoughtful wisdom on this topic," says Keith Warner, a Franciscan friar who teaches in the religious studies department and is assistant director for education at the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University. "It's very clear what the priorities are, and there's no room in the curriculum." Indeed, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops revised its Program for Priestly Formation in 2005, it increased requirements for philosophical studies to a minimum of 30 credits, leaving little room in seminarians' academic schedules for elective courses.

Is it possible that might change? "We seem to be at a hinge moment," says Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, an organization launched in 2006 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and 10 other organizations, including the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. "As more people experience climate change in the coming years, it will become more of a concern by the church."

The Vatican, of course, is already concerned. Misleh points to the writings of "green popes" Benedict XVI and John Paul II, who have made explicit connections between social justice and human development on one hand and creation care and environmental justice on the other.

While Warner praises some U.S. bishops for having made creation care a priority, he says they are the exception rather than the norm. "This issue is a blind spot in our American church, and the most striking problem is the lack of participation of ordained ministry." Rhoads agrees. "Right now lay people are ahead of the priests in this." In the worst-case scenario, he says, people end up thinking these issues are not connected to their faith.

But for the many Catholic seminaries that might believe it's not easy being green, a growing number of schools are taking up the issue of creation care and sustainability in all kinds of ways.


"It's becoming increasingly important to prepare effective ministers who have a working sense of the questions of the day and are really going to lead," says Christopher Thompson, academic dean at Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity (SPSSOD), which is part of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. "This issue is dominating the cultural conversation, so they have to be able to listen to and engage and work with people on it. They need a faith-filled response."

SPSSOD, an archdiocesan seminary, is one of a number of Catholic theological schools that are organizing conferences that focus on creation, sustainability, and environmental ethics. From October 29 to 31, the seminary will host "Renewing the Face of the Earth: The Church and the Order of Creation." Eighty miles up the road, St. John's School of Theology-Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, made "Simplicity and Sustainability in Community" the theme of its 2009 Monastic Institute. Professors at the Benedictine school presented alongside local artists and organic farmers, and though most of the participants came from monastic communities, theology students also attended the summer gathering.

Both conferences drew on heavyweights in the Catholic tradition. At St. John's, the institute presenters explored how the Rule of Benedict applies to sustainability at both the local and global level. At SPSSOD, St. Thomas Aquinas will provide the grounding thought. "Thomas has a vision of creation and the human person that's comprehensive and fundamentally ordered to God," says Thompson. "This is not just a practical problem of how to do recycling or wetlands management. There are deeper theological questions: How do we understand our relationship to the created order in light of original sin? What is the value of the created order and our role in creation?"

Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry - an ecumenical school whose partners include the Archdiocese of Seattle, the Jesuits, and Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers - attracted about 100 participants to the four-day Institute for Ecology, Theology, Spirituality, and Justice in July. Surrounded by the mountains and water of the Pacific Northwest, "Ecospirituality and environmental justice are in the air we breathe," says Mark Markuly, dean of the School of Theology and Ministry. While those two movements can draw heavily on Native American and New Age spirituality in that part of the country, Markuly believes that Catholic tradition and scholarship is capable of leading the charge. "I think it flows naturally out of our sacramental theology. When your theological system really sees God in the world, it makes sense to ask these questions."

Integrating green learning with green living

Beyond the institute, Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry has worked hard to make creation and care for the earth part of its focus. "We're trying to figure out the most effective way for an institution of theological education to engage this particular issue," Markuly says. The school first started exploring this topic nearly 20 years ago, when it created a now-defunct certificate program in ecology and spirituality. In 1997 the School of Theology and Ministry organized a national conference on liturgy for sustainable communities. The school still offers classes in ecology and spirituality and ethics, and when it moved to a different building on the downtown Seattle campus nine years ago, the school did a major renovation using LEED guidelines. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED is an internationally recognized certification program for new and renovated buildings that aims to save energy and water, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, improve indoor air quality, and lessen the overall environmental impact of buildings.)

The Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley has also taken a multifaceted approach to environmentalism. Students have established a green committee, and some faculty and students have attended soil restoration trainings, and are composting and using green cleaning products. Facilities manager Bill Moore reports the school has installed low flow toilets, park benches made from more than a thousand recycled milk jugs, and energy-saving light bulbs. In the school's garden, most plants are native, drought-tolerant species.

The Franciscan School of Theology is offering a course this fall called "Ecology and Liturgy," and over the past few years the school has sponsored a presentation with an environmental focus each semester. Topics have included a Franciscan perspective on the Earth Charter and an overview of Franciscan environmental ethics (presented by Keith Warner, who is a regent at the school in addition to his full-time duties at Santa Clara University). A 2008 Lenten series included a presentation on the Amazon rain forest.

Seminaries and schools of theology that are affiliated with Catholic universities often have an ecological edge over freestanding institutions. Markuly points to Seattle University's commitment to purchase renewable energy, the use of biodegradable plates and utensils at university-wide events, and a focus on green landscaping. The university environment offers the kind of forum that naturally leads to connections between disciplines such as religion and science and government. Plus, says Misleh, "Younger people just get this."

Starting from the ground up

When the Archdiocese of Edmonton discovered that St. Joseph Seminary and Newman Theological College were in the proposed path of a new six-lane highway, leaders realized they had an opportunity to do something dramatic. The archdiocese ended up selling the land to the province of Alberta and designing a new two-building campus using LEED guidelines. The new facilities are currently under construction on a site in the middle of Edmonton that's adjacent to other archdiocesan offices and the North Saskatchewan River. While the sale left Newman about 15 million Canadian dollars short of the cost of relocation, the college received a $4.18 million federal grant - its first - in August to help cover the costs of library technology, classrooms, and a video conferencing center. (The grant is part of the Canadian government's two-year, $2 billion plan to repair and expand facilities at Canadian colleges and universities, and is not connected to the green aspect of the project.)

Architect's renderings of the planned new buildings at St. Joseph's Seminary (above) and Newman Theological College below. Images provided by the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

Project manager Garnet McKee says they are salvaging everything possible from the original 1957 seminary building, including the stained glass windows, ornamental handrails, and terrazzo floor emblems. During construction, workers are recycling copper, steel, drywall, and concrete. Trees that are in the way of the new buildings are being relocated elsewhere on the site, and at least 10 percent of the materials they're using are manufactured regionally. The completed 65,000-square-foot building will have plenty of windows to take advantage of Edmonton's ample daylight. (It's one of Canada's sunniest cities.)

McKee has been conducting tours just about every week, sharing the progress with all six bishops in Alberta, plus donors and other interested people connected to Newman or St. Joseph. "The archdiocese wants to make sure we have a ‘care for creation' attitude," McKee says.

The seminary building is being built first, and both it and the college are scheduled to be completed in time for the start of the 2010-11 school year. Archbishop Richard Smith has high hopes for the seminary, which, with room for 60 seminarians, will overlook the river valley and have access to nature trails. He expects it to be "an oasis of beauty and peace in the middle of a major city."

"Seminarians are immersed in the social doctrine of the church, and respect for creation is part of our social teaching," says Archbishop Smith, pointing out that the natural beauty of the area and the building itself will help reinforce that teaching for seminarians and graduate students.

The archbishop is particularly excited about the new location, which is far more visible than the original campus. "The citizens of the city will see this on a daily basis, and what they'll see is a building of great beauty," he says. "Not luxurious or ostentatious, but truly beautiful." And the buildings are also an opportunity to tie in to the archdiocese's five-year evangelization initiative. "Nothing More Beautiful" is a series of catechesis and witness talks that are being given between 2008 and 2013, and Archbishop Smith believes the new buildings "will proclaim in beautiful architecture the beauty of our faith. This gives us an opportunity to proclaim the gospel today in a way that's accessible and understandable to people.

"The gospel proclaims the majesty and the love and the saving will of God that have been revealed to us in Jesus Christ," says Archbishop Smith, "and the more we reflect on those revelations, the more we are drawn to the many ways God's love and care for his people have been manifested. One way is the provision of a beautiful creation, and we have the responsibility to give it proper care."

The board's role in going green

If the goal is to bring care for the creation into a seminary's mission and purpose, the board needs to be in on the discussion, especially if the commitments under consideration could cost some money - as most do. "Care for creation should be of paramount concern to the full board of directors and to their various working committees," says David Rhoads of the Green Seminary Initiative. "Trustees set the mission of the seminary, make critical decisions about building and grounds, approve strategic plans, give direction to fundraising, approve academic programs, and give moral and spiritual support to the seminary community. In these matters, trustees can be affirming, collaborative, and generative of efforts to care for creation."

  1. As a first step, the board might choose to study the organizing principles that are posted at, inviting members of the faculty to join them in discussing the theological and educational implications of committing to a green agenda.

  2. Next, the board should ask that the faculty and administration prepare an action plan, complete with anticipated costs for proposed actions. The board should review the plan, and when comfortable with what they see, give it their approval.

  3. With the plan in place, the board should develop a set of dashboard metrics to track the school's progress in meeting its stated goals. For example, if the plan calls for the school to continue to expand the recycling program and increase the percent recycled out of total solid waste each year, the board should track the change from one year to the next. Or if the plan states that by a certain date, a certain percentage of courses will be paperless, progress can be tracked on the green dashboard. Unless the listed goals are measurable, it's not likely that the school will achieve genuine progress.

—Heather Grennan Gary and Rebekah Burch Basinger

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