Laudato Si’: Education

Laudato Si’: Education

In chapter six of Laudato Si’ Pope Francis discusses “towards a new lifestyle” and environmental education. Francis starts in §202 with “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change”. The course needs to be changed, but the path of renewal is a long one with a great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge before us. 

The overarching problem is that in a capitalist society, we are automatically consumers. The Pope points out that people can easily get caught up in a ‘whirlwind’ of needless buying and spending. There is an assumption that we are free if we are free to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. The Pope points out that postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety: too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.

Is education aimed at ecological citizenship limited to providing information? Pope Francis indicates that growing in virtue is what is needed on an individual level. If we consider what Aristotle says in The Ethics, virtue lies in between extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example if courage is a virtue, taken to excess it would manifest as recklessness; and in deficiency it would manifest as cowardice. Striking the right balance is how to cultivate virtue, but education of some sort is needed in this process of cultivation. In the context of small changes that affect sustainable lifestyles, in §212 the Pope points out the benefits to society of striving to live a virtuous life: it benefits society even if the actions such as recycling, using public transport and so on are small actions.

Environmental education can take place in a variety of settings: school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere. This does assume that all of these settings actually exist in parish life, and a certain engagement in the family with environmental education. The Pope is quite rightly setting out the ideal scenario here, and education is such an important area generally; it extends beyond the issue of environmental education. Education requires some level of intervention: usually schools, colleges and universities would be the main vehicle of this. An unknown author once said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. Education is more than filling a bucket with water, or a pupil’s head with facts, statistics and methodologies. What Pope Francis wants is something that lights a fire within us to grow in a responsible simplicity of life which is emphasised in §214 of Laudato Si’. Educating in the face of the ‘culture of death’ requires considerable effort, which extends to areas such as beginning and end of life issues, and striving for justice even for the unborn. Such education involves taking risks and innovation.

What is needed is a paradigm shift to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. It is interesting that the Pope states this involves an education on appreciating beauty, as this overlaps into philosophy. Indeed, it probably overlaps with education on the classics and the traditional ways of building human communities. I suppose the type of education being offered in schools, in the family and so on, depends on what sort of society we wish to build. In some situations, it would be more valuable to teach practical skills in permaculture, which is a system of agricultural and social design principles centred around using the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. In other situations, depending on what sort of urban based jobs people are likely to be doing, it may in fact be appreciation of beauty and the arts which is most important to try and cultivate. In §215 Pope Francis writes, “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if they treat everything as an object to be used and abused”. Another aspect of ecological education is making the money and resources available in schools, for children in cities to spend time in the countryside, to get to know the land where our some of our foods are sourced from, and become familiar with some of the rare species of birds and animals that are in our own country. A challenge might be to ask: what is needed in education to enable pupils to choose to work on the land or produce their own goods, if they want to? The same could be applied to adult education, and educational opportunities in parish life.

Above: Permaculture allotment

Finally the Pope in §214 emphasises that political institutions and other social groups are entrusted with helping to raise people’s awareness. And so too is the Church. The Pope hopes that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and protection of the environment. Blackfriars take heed!

Unlike consumerism, the development of a virtuous life does not happen automatically. Education is needed firstly to give reason for living virtuously. Education is also needed to give reason for Christianity, which unlike consumerism we are not born into, but instead requires intervention at many stages in our lives, starting of course with our baptism.

Fr Luke Doherty is assistant priest at Holy Cross, Leicester, and Catholic Chaplain to HMP Leicester