Human Ecology: What Is It?

WARNING: This post is not about Astronomy.  However, since the subject of this post will be the media buzz for a while (in a good way), I felt it was important to cover.

Rumors have been afloat that Pope Francis' next Encyclical on Human Ecology will be published soon.  There are many hopes (and fears) Catholics have expressed to me about what this Encyclical will contain.  My fear is that we will endure, once again, a media blitz of "Pope Francis is 'finally' modernizing the Church" stories.  In defense of the forthcoming spin doctors, Human Ecology as a theological category is quite new.  This newness will provoke a predictable question among the faithful: What is Human Ecology?

My first exposure to Human Ecology as a theological category was through the writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. After hearing of his early decision to pull Vatican City off the Roman power grid by installing solar panels, my curiosity was peaked. In time, my curiosity with Human Ecology deepened after Benedict's 2010 Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace entitled, "If You Want To Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation." In that message, I began to realize that ecological decisions have a profound impact on human dignity and contain a moral dimension.

Though the term Human Ecology was not used by St. John XXIII, the seeds of understanding the modern concern for the environment can be traced back to "The Good Pope."  Before his ascent to the Papacy, Angelo Cardinal Roncalli endured the horrors of the Second World War II in which the world lived through the twisted mentality of Adolf Hitler and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These two events made two, chilling social statements: The human person has the ability to destroy itself and the world contains social and political ideologies twisted enough to explore this possibility.  Throw the Cuban Missile Crisis into the mix, and we see how the world was sitting upon an atomic powder keg that potentially threatened human existence.

One of the more eloquent responses to these terrors was St. John XXIII's Encyclical, Pacem in Terris.  Much could be said of this text, but the best summary is reflected in St. John XXIII's quoting of Pius XII, "Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war." (Pacem in Terris, 116)  Though this might not be a direct statement about ecology, the moral message is clear: The use of weapons of mass destruction that do serious harm to or destroy the whole of creation constitutes a grave social sin and is never justified.  This ethic is also at the heart of the continual mantra of recent Popes, calling for an end to war, summarized in Blessed Paul VI's Address to the United Nations in 1965, "Never again war, never again war!"

As the "macro" threat to the environment created by the Cold War began to subside, there began a shift to the "micro" concerns of how environmental decisions impact countries, communities, and individuals.  St. John Paul II in his World Day of Peace Address in 1990 entitled, "Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation," gave voice to the growing environmental crisis that faces the world.  St. John Paul II strongly emphasized that the destruction of creation through practices of industry and agriculture that have no concern for the longterm impact upon ecosystems constitutes grave social sin.  These practices show no respect for human life and deepen the poverty of those who have very little.  In these reflections, we can hear the echoes of Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Rerum Novarum.  The Encyclical was written to address the challenges presented by the Industrial Revolution for workers rights and human dignity.  However, when we couple Leo XIII's call for workers' dignity with St. John Paul II's reflection on the responsibility industry has toward creation, we clearly see a moral call to protect the material goods industry and agriculture use to ensure that current and future generations have access to those same natural resources.


There is more that could be said about Human Ecology, such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's reflections in chapter four of his Encyclical Caritas in Veritate and his Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2008.  Nevertheless, what has emerged in recent years on the subject of Human Ecology has been a call to peace in the face of war and solidarity between the developed world and the third world through protection of the environment.  As we await Pope Francis' second Encyclical (the first in his own pen), let us pray that our world take seriously the moral dimension of Human Ecology.  Through the Pope's Encyclical, may our world promote peace by providing a stable environment capable of building up human dignity for current and future generations.

Question for Discussion: What aspect of the environment do you hope the Pope will focus on in his Encyclical?

Fr. James Kurzynski

About Fr. James Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and a hobby astronomer. Originally from the small town of Amherst in rural central Wisconsin, Fr. James completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, majoring in Applied Music (Saxophone, Voice, and Composition). After graduating from UW-SP, Fr. James worked at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as a Hall Director and pursued a M.S.ed. in Group Counseling. After a year at UNK, Fr. James left his position to attend the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary to discern his priestly vocation.

Fr. James earned a Bachelor in Sacred Theology, a Master of Divinity, and a License in Sacred Theology. While pursuing these degrees, Fr. James also studied Spiritual Theology with the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr. James was ordained a priest June 28, 2003. Fr. James’ first assignment was as an Associate at the Tri-Parishes of St. Mary’s - Durand, Holy Rosary Parish - Lima, and Sacred Heart Parish - Mondovi. After two years, Fr. James was assigned as Chaplain and Instructor of Religion at Regis Middle and High School and was also assigned Associate Vocation Director. In his final year at Regis, Fr. James was also appointed Parochial Administrator of Saint Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church, serving south east Eau Claire County. From 2012-2015, Fr. James served as Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish, serving the college students of Western Technical College and the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In 2015, Fr. James was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which also serves St. Joseph's Grade School (3K thru 6) and the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. In 2017, in addition to his responsibilities to St. Joseph Parish and StoutCatholic, Fr. James was also named Pastor of St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Fr. James also teaches Introduction to Philosophy for the Diocese of La Crosse’s diaconal formation program.

In regard to his interest in astronomy, Fr. James is a member of both the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society and the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. He taught an Introduction to Astronomy course during his time at Regis High School in Eau Claire. Fr. James' first involvement with the Vatican Observatory came when an inquiry led to the development of the first "Faith and Astronomy Workshop" (FAW), designed for parish educators and clergy that are not professional scientists.

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Human Ecology: What Is It? — 9 Comments

  1. Dear Fr James, thank you for bringing up this important topic so timely! I can report that in Sweden and Europe there are high levels of excitement and debate in awaitenimg the Holy Fathers next encyclical. I hope it will arrive timely for the UN meeting about climate changes and up coming decisions i Paris. I just attended a networking conference on the topic of Ecotheology. We have been meeting in for about ten years now, coordinated by the Swedish Church Bishop Thomas Söderberg in Västerås Stift. The work has made significant progress also in networking among the Christian churches. Two years ago we had an eukumenical conferens hostel by the Catholich Church and the Swedish Eucumenical Council. Last year the Lutheran bishops of Sweden launched their program and positions at a WW Lutheran churches conference in Washington DC. Further, the entire Bishop Conference of the Swedish state Church has launched their position in the document attached on the link below. Let’s hope and pray for further progress and global Impact when Pope Franciscus makes his position clear to the rest of the world and our Church! I hope he included the important topics of human creativity, innovation and our journey through Cosmos. The later topic was brought up by Astrophysisist Professor Bengt Gustavson from Uppsala Univeristy at our networking meeting. I added the creativity, innovation and New Space Dimensions. Universe is aboundant in grace!

  2. Dear Fr James, your reflection is important! I hope we will find that the encyclical is rather a document of inspiration, clarifications and an agenda of how to progress and deepen both the Ecotheological and human personhood understandings and dogma of the Church, as well as guidance for laylife in current time and lifes on earth and in Cosmos, as well as pastoral work and care, not the least in the bishops conferences world wide.

    The field of Ecotheology, as well as the social doctrin of our Church are relatively young fields of research and practice, as you pointed out in the introduction of your first comment, and we have plenty of work to progress ahead on both these dimensions in transdicipline efforts of theory, dogma, political and everyday life of our existence.

    In the lutheran Church of Sweden it was found by church pastoral leaders, that many young people suffered from what has become known as ” ecofobia”. They understand Dome day to be at the threshold of tomorrow, like many perons belifs, hopes and fears at the messianic times of Jesus of Nasareth. After a number of years of practical pastoral care, it was understood that many of these perons fears where tied to their personal fears of the ending of their own lifes one day. In lack of sufficient pastoral care and soulcare, these persons peojected their own existential fears on the debate of the persumed ecological climate crisis. They saw no hope of changing the planets and human existence radical progress to exstinction. In working with their own faith and belifs and praying for what may not be possible or seemingly changed on earth, they found a better inner balance in also addresing the responsibilities of human stewardship on earth and in space.

    I think astronaut Ron Garan’s book ” Orbital Perspectives” and his project “Fragil Oasis” on the attached links are one example of how inspiration and hope can be brought into the ecotheological debate, and alter doomday preaching, to inspiration of lifes and days to come in graced cosmic blessing by personal responsibility of ” all men and women of good will”.

    In closing by using Stephen Duffys words: ” All is grace!”, I hope the Holly Father Franciscus can progress this thesis already in this encyclical! Quoting Pope John Paul II may focus our efforts: “Don’t be afraid!”

  3. Dear Fr James, we are just leaning that one of the announced key topics for dialog in Roma tomorrow Monday the 5th of May, will be ecotheology and global climate change, as Pope Framciscus meets Arcbishop, professor in Philosophy of Science, Dr. Antje Jackelen of the Swedish Lutheran Church. Let’s hope we get some informativt news from the meeting on our topic of concern! Very exciting and amazing how timely your reflections are!

  4. Interesting article and propositions from the Economist. How does Cosmology and Escatology fit into the proposed frameworks and analysis?

    Is sustainability unsustainable?

    “One critical question I’m hearing asked more often now though is whether we are even asking the right questions. We understand the “best” environmental performers in an economic sector as the most “sustainable”. But what if our planet, as a whole, across social and environmental systems, is not actually being managed sustainably even with the best performance in our current paradigms?
    What if our current ideas of what is “sustainable” actually are not?
    Even if you profoundly disagree with some or all of this thinking, it is at least worth considering that there is systemic risk baked into our current economic system where the planet is viewed as a resource which serves the unwavering, undifferentiated goal of economic growth, rather than economic growth serving goals which will allow current and subsequent generations to live meaningful and healthy lives.”

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