Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor: "Laudato Si'" and Jesuit Higher Education

By Daniel R. DiLeo

In the spring of 2008, I was a junior sociology major at Cornell discerning a vocation to the Jesuits. This process placed my lifelong Catholic faith on the forefront of my mind more than ever before, and, while I ultimately felt called to marriage and family life, it prepared me to recognize climate change as a moral issue for Catholics.

One day in development sociology, my professor pointed out that the poor are disproportionately harmed by climate change despite historically contributing least to the problem. At that moment, I began to see that climate change is as much about justice and human flourishing as it is non-human creation.

is non-human creation. In general, ecological degradation most harms the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. This is because these persons and communities lack the economic, political, and social capital needed to address the structural causes, immediate effects, and future threats of ecological deprivation. In particular, the most severe geophysical and humanitarian consequences of climate change (for example, drought, flooding, food and water stresses, population displacement) are being – and will continue to be – acutely experienced by the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized in the United States and around the world.

My professor’s reference to the disproportionate climate-related suffering of the poor and vulnerable certainly caught my attention. What he pointed out next, however, set the trajectory of my life and career path: the poor and vulnerable are least responsible for causing the climate change from which they suffer most. For example, according to the World Resources Institute and World Bank, the world’s five wealthiest countries in 2007, as measured by total GDP, were responsible for more than half of all historical global carbon emissions since 1870. At that time, the U.S. alone was responsible for 28.8 percent of historical global carbon emissions.

Given the obvious ethical dimensions of climate change, and with a heightened awareness of my Catholic faith, I began to wonder if the Catholic Church had said anything about climate change. I started doing research and quickly discovered the church by that time, 2008, had repeatedly identified climate change as a moral issue (for example, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 and 1999 World Day of Peace messages; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2001 Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good). Excited by these teachings, I began working on climate change from a Catholic perspective and have never looked back.

St. Francis, Pope Francis, and “Laudato Si’”

Shortly after he was elected bishop of Rome, Pope Francis explained that he chose his papal name to honor St. Francis of Assisi and his concurrent concern for the poor, peace, and creation. In view of the pope’s namesake, it is unsurprising that“Laudato Si’”integrates care for creation with care for the poor within the context of climate change. In doing so,“Laudato Si’”gives the most authoritative and succinct Catholic account to date of the dynamics I recognized at Cornell.

First, Francis recognizes that environmental degradation disproportionately harms the poor. He quotes the Bolivian Bishops’Conference, which observes that“both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”(No. 48).

In particular, Francis observes that climate change harms the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized persons and communities more than all others (No. 25). Additionally, the pope points out that much global“warming is caused by huge consumption on the part of rich countries”(No. 51). As such, Francis says that rich nations owe an ecological debt to poor nations (No. 51).

In order to redress the injustices of ecological debt, Francis highlights the importance of the common good,solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, and the universal destination of goods(No. 158, 93). Moreover, the pope insists that “there are differentiated responsibilities”between rich and poor nations regarding climate change (No. 52).

Specifically, he says, developed nations should“significantly limit their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assist poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development”(No. 52). Concomitantly, Francis says poor countries must address international disparities and corruption (No. 172). Additionally, he says poor nations must employ“less polluting forms of energy production”with the help of rich nations(No. 172).

In order to adequately address ecological degradation and climate change, Francis calls for integrated socioeconomic responses (No.139). This is because “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is simultaneously social and environmental (No. 139). In particular, we must“hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”(No. 49, emphasis in original).

Jesuit Higher Education

“Laudato Si’” challenges all people of faith and goodwill to better care for creation and the poor. In response, Jesuit colleges and universities might respond in several ways to the call of the first Jesuit pope.

Catholic theological ethics distinguishes between charity and justice. The former focuses on local action while the latter seeks systemic change in society. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops refers to these complementary dynamics as The Two Feet of Love in Action and insists that adequate responses to socioeconomic and environmental challenges require both modes of social engagement.

Catholic Relief Service's  I Am Climate Change. 

Catholic Relief Service's I Am Climate Change. 

Animated by a spirit of charity, Jesuit colleges and universities could affirm the importance of Francis’“integral ecology”through programs like the Interdisciplinary Minor in Environmental Ethics at Marquette University. Additionally, institutions might devote resources to places like the Center for Sustainability at St. Louis University and encourage faculty to produce scholarship that leads to action like Healing the Earth, a free textbook on ecology published by the International Jesuit Ecology Project at Loyola University Chicago (see story, p.10) Finally, schools might sign and pursue plans with in accord with the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. As of April 2016, 12 Jesuit schools had already done so.

In conjunction with such local activities, Jesuit colleges and universities can also pursue ecological justice through faithful citizenship-based support for policies to address climate change. This step was taken by College of the Holy Cross, Fordham University, Le Moyne College, Loyola University of Maryland, and University of San Francisco in April 2016 when they signed onto an amicus curiae brief submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia offering faith-based support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Furthermore, schools might support Catholic Relief Services’ climate change policy work by founding CRS Ambassador chapters like those at Boston College, College
of the Holy Cross, Fairfield University, Loyola University Maryland, and University of Scranton.


The world is charged with the grandeur of God, and “Laudato Si’” has the potential to inspire people of faith and goodwill to better conserve the grandeur of our common home. As resourced institutions of
higher education rooted in Catholic mission, Jesuit colleges and universities have a particular opportunity – and responsibility – to share and act on the first encyclical on ecology from the first Jesuit pope.

Daniel R. DiLeo is a Ph.D. candidate in theological ethics at Boston College and Project Manager of the Catholic Climate Covenant.