A Conversation on Sustainability with an Ignatian Way of Proceeding

Thomas B. Curran

What does Jerusalem have to say to Athens?

Tertullian, a Christian author and apologist in the second century of the Common Era, asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This comes from his Prescription against Heresies (VII). He was discussing heresy and how to argue with heretics. Tertullian claimed that philosophical methods of inquiry should not be used in discussing faith, truth and Scripture. He believed that what took place in the Academy, public square, and centers of government should not influence the centers of worship, more specifically, matters of faith and the Gospel message.

I rephrase Tertullian’s question with the intent of creating an exchange between Jerusalem and Athens, that is, between the sanctuary and the public square in order to have a conversation on sustainability. To initiate this conversation, I suggest the use of shared terms: human dignity and common good. I do this in order to create a common language. To continue the dialogue, I propose using the Ignatian Way of Proceeding.

I divide this paper into four parts. In the first section, I submit a working definition on sustainability from the United Nations. In the second section, I provide background on the terms “human dignity” and “common good” from Catholic Social Teaching (CST). In the third section, I draw upon the tenets of an Ignatian way of proceeding to advance the dialogue on sustainability. In the Conclusion and Application, the final and fourth section, I proffer how this “way of proceeding” might be used in Jesuit business education.

Fr. Thomas B. Curran is President of Rockhurst University. An earlier version of this paper was presented at Colleagues in Jesuit Business Education, Saint Louis University, July 2013.

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I. Sustainability

While there are varying definitions for sustainability, I suggest using the definition proposed by the United Nations report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (1987, Brundtland Report). Sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.1

The concept of sustainable development can be portrayed as a three-legged stool. The three legs are economic development, environmental protection, and social equity. As with any three-legged stool, if any of the legs is missing, shorter, or longer than the others, then the stool becomes unstable and topples.



The leg marked social equity balances the other two legs. Simply, social equity puts economic development and environmental protection in check. Social equity requires that wealthy nations use resources prudently, that poorer nations are given a chance for economic development, and that all nations are attentive to their use of natural resources (Warren, 2009).2

Social equity works best when there is dialogue. The question is how do you initiate the dialogue between the poorer and more affluent nations. However, before the dialogue is even initiated there needs to be agreement upon the language and terms that will be used in the conversation. One possibility here is making use of the language and terms of Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

II. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) provides terms for Sustainability Conversation

Catholic Social Teaching (CST), sometimes referred to as “the Church’s best-kept secret,” can be understood broadly or narrowly. In the broad interpretation, it encompasses principles, terms, papal and episcopal teachings, ideas, theories, and oral tradition, over the entire history of the Church, on matters of social life. More

narrowly construed, it comprises the papal and episcopal teachings on the political, economic and social issues in the modern era. For most, CST is considered to have its origins in Rerum Novarum (Concerning New Things), circulated by Pope Leo XIII, in 1891 (Himes, 2001).3

At the foundation of CST is a set of guiding principles that number anywhere from seven to ten depending on whether the principles are interpreted broadly or narrowly and depending on whom you consult. Two of the foundational principles of CST upon which all the others are based are Human Dignity and Common Good.4 Using these two core principles I believe we can enter into a conversation about sustainability for people with and without a faith perspective, a conversation with shared terms for those from Jerusalem and Athens.

The two foundational principles are rooted in Genesis 1,26-28:

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. 27 God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.

New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Emphasis added)

Human Dignity, the first principle, is bestowed through our creation, being made, male and female, in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, when we act and are treated as fully human we are most God-like. If one subscribes to this thinking, then it follows that everything post creation can be evaluated and judged by whether or not it promotes human dignity. A consistent ethic of life, sometimes called the seamless garment approach,5 requires that all political, economic and social issues be interpreted as to how they uphold and promote human dignity. In short, human dignity must be preserved and cherished on all issues and at all times, from conception to grave.

St. Irenaeus is credited with saying that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive and the life of man is the vision of God.”6 For him, creation brings forth a special relationship between God and humanity. And that status of humanity demands universal respect and dignity.

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Irenaeus represents a Christian perspective but the preservation of human dignity is an essential element of the Jewish and Muslim traditions as well. For all three religions, the dignity of each and every person is a given. I will give greater acknowledgment of the Muslim interpretation of human dignity and common good, in the third part of this essay, when I examine the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and the EU’s commitment to sustainability.

This passage from Genesis supports the notion of human dignity; it also raises some confusion and a possible contradiction. If all humanity is deserving of respect and dignity, then how do we reconcile the parts of the passages that encourage dominion? Is there an inherent contradiction in dignity being given to all humanity while allowing and even encouraging this same humanity to exert dominion over the rest of creation?

The use of dominion in this passage comes from the Hebrew word, radah. It can be translated as to tread down, that is, subjugate; to have dominion .) הדר( prevail against, to reign, rule and overtake. The use of dominion, radah, in this passage needs to be interpreted in its context and in a way that is consistent with the phrase that precedes it. So, if we believe that we are created in God’s image and according to God’s likeness, then how do we exercise this dominion over creation?

In Genesis 1,26-28, radah or dominion can be likened to the notion of the “king’s dominion.” The use of radah in Genesis is similar to the use of radah in Psalm 72,8 where the king is described as having “... dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth...” These passages characterize men and women, as ancient kings, who provided royal care for the goods of the earth.

A thoughtful and persuasive understanding of dominion describing the care and concern the king would have for his dominion is found in the work of Gerhard von Rad, a Lutheran and Old Testament scholar from Germany. He wrote: “Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed above the earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth.”7

For him, the dominion that is called for is to act in God’s stead, caring for God’s creation as God’s steward. If we are to act like God in terms of creation, then the dominion called for is the care that God would exercise. We would be hard-pressed to believe that God wants us to exercise dominion in a way that is destructive or wasteful of a world he created. Instead, if we believe that we are created in God’s image and likeness, it follows that we are to live and act as God’s most prized creation. We are to steward what he has created for us. Perhaps, the question about

what to do with the created goods of the earth can be expressed in these words: “What would God want us to do with what he has created?” When God asks us to exercise dominion, he is asking us to domesticate the created good of the earth, not dominate it. He is not giving permission to subjugate nature, but to steward it. His exhortation is to oversee what he has given us, not overtake it. Dominion is not a right to prevail against and abuse. Rather, it is a gift that entails responsibility and genuine concern.

The other foundational principle of CST is Common Good. This principle involves the promotion of community. It considers what things strengthen the community including sufficient food, work, clothing, health, education, mobility, care for the elderly, and culture. This principle is also based upon Genesis 1,26. It is captured in the phrases of “let us make,” “in our image,” and “likeness.”

Most of the story of creation describes God in the third person singular, providing us with a litany of what God did including dividing day from the night, creating two lights, providing waters with abundance of living creatures, and bringing forth the grasses, trees and seeds, etc. Then, all of a sudden, the voice changes from third-person singular to first-person plural. It reads, “let us,” and “our.” What happened?

Here we are introduced to the community of God. Genesis affirms that the creator God is truly one God. Genesis does not explicitly teach the Trinity. However, everything God created on earth, on each of the days of creation, according to the Genesis story, was brought forth by his Word and infused with his life-giving Spirit. This would be confirmed in several of the New Testament passages. A few examples include John 1, 1-14; John 3, 5-6; & Matthew 28, 19.

The indication of plurality of the Godhead is first found in Genesis. This is why we can say the Father (Creator) is God; the Son (Word as agent of the Creator) is God; and the life-giving Spirit (Ruah) is God. For our purposes, these indicators reflect the community of the Godhead which can be used to illustrate the principle of Common Good, or how we form and build up the human community made in the image and likeness of this God.

I have emphasized two key principles of CST, namely Human Dignity and Common Good. Additionally, I have provided a Scriptural basis from Genesis, the first book of the Old/First Testament, for these principles. And while these principles may provide a zone of comfort for believers, I contend that these same terms can and are used in the public square by non-believers. They can serve as an answer to the rephrased question of Tertullian that I posed at the outset — in terms of sustainability, what does Jerusalem have to say to Athens? The answer is — plenty. And indeed Athens should speak to Jerusalem as well. In short, the conversation on

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sustainability between the public square and the sanctuary is enriched when both sides consider economic development, environmental protection, and social equity through the dual prism of human dignity and the common good. In the next section, I will illustrate how this is possible.

III. Conducting and Continuing the Conversation

Equipped with these basic principles of CST, we begin the conversation on sustainability. The approach is inferential. In other words, we observe the signs of the times, we evaluate what we observe and then we formulate a plan of action.8 And since we need a context for this consideration, I suggest the work of the European Union, a secular entity, in its pursuit of sustainability, to balance economic development, environmental protection, and social equity.9

In its Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000), the European Union (EU) makes Human Dignity its first article. “Human dignity is inviolable; it must be protected and respected.”10 Absent from the charter, however, is any religious foundation for this claim. The Charter also lists Solidarity (4).11 While this principle is also shared with CST, the EU provides no religious basis for this priority either. As for the Common Good, that which fortifies and strengthens the community, the following articles from the EU Charter are to be considered: right to integrity of the person (3); respect for private and family life (7); freedom of assembly and of association (12); equality before the law (20); non-discrimination (21); and equality between men and women (23).12

The only specific religious reference found in the Charter is the admission of the EU being “conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage.” Conversely, the Charter is emphatic about what its foundational basis is: “democracy and the rule of law.”13 The Treaty of Rome (1957) established the European Union. The treaty makes no mention of God. Additionally, the EU has a history of separating itself from any religious group or sect. Interestingly, the European Union flag contains 12 stars in a circle; twelve is considered a symbol of perfection. On its surface, this flag appears to be another secular symbol for the EU, but Arsene Heitz, a French Catholic who designed the flag, admits that he drew inspiration from the depiction of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars for the flag design.14 More recently, the European Commission, a body attached to the EU, ordered the Bank of Slovakia to remove the halos and cross from its coins for fear of being perceived as too religious. The Commission later relented and allowed the halos and cross. These examples reflect a historic tension in the EU about whether the association should or should not have any religious affiliation.15 The rejection of religious affiliation is also felt by the Muslim community. Not surprisingly, human dignity and community (common good) are referenced and supported in the Qur’an.16

It is a fact that this secular association, often called the European project, is pursuing a conversation on sustainability. Sustainable development is an overarching objective for the EU. A constitutive part of that pursuit is the use of language and terms common to both the EU and CST. And while the basis for their respective uses may be different, there is evidence that the terms reflect shared values and common language.

With shared terms (common language) to begin the conversation about sustainability, how do we continue or sustain it, so to speak? This is where we can consider the “experience of Ignatian conversation” (Appleyard, 2008). It provides us with a distinct five-step way of proceeding: 1) be slow to speak; 2) when speaking, do so carefully and affectionately; 3) be sensitive to others’ feelings and seek the truth in what others are saying; 4) state a contrary position calmly and gently; and 5) allow the conversation the time it needs.17

IV. Conclusion and Application

Ignatian spirituality speaks of “our way of proceeding” and considers all engagements as conversations. The pursuit of sustainability requires thoughtful and patient engagement. Providing that conversation the time it needs demands a discipline and intentionality. Our heritage in this endeavor illustrates a successful track record.

A class exercise on sustainability in one of our Jesuit Schools of Business and Management might unfold this way. Divide the class into five working groups. One group is a business corporation focused on the business and economic opportunity of a country’s precious but limited natural resource. A second group is a non-governmental organization (NGO) whose focus is the preservation of the natural resource. A third group represents the governmental agency whose job it is to regulate access and development of the resource. A fourth group represents the governmental agency whose job it is to promote the economic development of the country. And the final group is an advocacy group that regularly issues statements on justice and social equity (such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops). Each group is provided details about the use and overuse of the resource.

Details about the specific interests of each group would be shared only with the group’s members. There are two final ground rules — each group must: 1) express their goals using the language of common good and human dignity; and 2) agree to a conversation in the Ignatian way of proceeding. Nonetheless, each group is instructed and encouraged to be zealous in their advocacy. At the completion of the exercise, groups and individuals are asked to reflect upon the experiences. Specific attention should be given to usefulness or frustration attributable to common terms and/or the Ignatian way of proceeding.

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A conversation about sustainability is essential for all of us. At the outset of this paper, I adopted the UN definition of sustainability as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability will require decisions about economic development, environmental protection and social equity. A thoughtful dialogue incorporating the principles of human dignity and the promotion of the common good will keep the three-legged stool of sustainability balanced. Moreover, the use of these agreed-upon principles will keep believers and non-believers engaged. And while we may have differences about where these terms come from, we can start talking about how they might take us where we need and want to go. So, let the conversation begin in our Jesuit schools of Business and Management. It may provide the model for all business schools, communities, and regions to follow in their conversations about difficult, but critical topics such as sustainability. To paraphrase a song, “let’s give them something (and some way) to talk about” it.


  1. United Nations Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, “Our Common Future”. Gro Harlem Brundtland, 1987, p. 37. (In 1983 Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru) selected Gro Harlem Brundtland, Primer Minister of Norway, to establish and chair the World Commission on Environment and Development. The Brundtland Report, as it came to be known, led to the Earth Summit – the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.)

  2. Keith D. Warner, “Sustainability in Catholic Higher Education”, Explore, Santa Clara, 2009 pp. 5-7.

  3. Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, Responses to 101 Questions on Catholic Social Teaching, Paulist Press, 2001. pp. 5-6

  4. http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm. In this website, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provides the Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching. In each of these principles, either an explicit or implied reference is made to Human Dignity or Common Good. In his “Ten Building Blocks of Catholic Social Teaching,” from America 31 October 1998, William J. Byron begins with the dignity of the human person and how this person is nurtured and supported in a community (common good).

  5. The image of the seamless garment, originated in 1971, in an interview with Eileen Egan, a member of the Catholic Worker movement, a prominent peace activist and a co-founder of Pax Christi. M. Therese Lysaught, “From The Challenge of Peace to the Gift of Peace Reading The Consistent Ethic of Life as an Ethic of Peacemaking”, in The Consistent Ethic of Life”, Thomas A. Nairn, editor, Orbis Books, 2008, p. 112

  6. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 20, 7.

  7. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, A Commentary, translated by John H. Marks, 1961, p58.

  8. The inferential approach was introduced by Catholic Social Action, adopted by Pope John XXIII

    in Mater et Magistra and fully developed in the Second Vatican Council. The Magna Carta for Catholic Social Teaching is found in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vatican II, Gaudum et Spes, 1965: “The joy and hope, the grief and the anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents

Austin Flannery, OP editor, Liturgical Press Collegeville, MN 1975

  1. General Secretariat, Council of European Union, Review of the EU Sustainable Development

    Strategy (EU SDS), 2006, p.2.

  2. European Union, Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 2000, p. 9.

  3. Ibid., p. 15.

  4. Ibid., pp. 9-13.

  5. Ibid., Preamble p. 8.

  6. Andrew Higgins, “A More Secular Europe, Divided by the Cross,” N.Y. Times, June 17, 2013.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Human dignity: “And we have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them over the

    land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what we have created, with definite preference.” The Qur’an, Surat al-‘Isra (The Night Journey) aka Sura Bani Isra’il (Children of Israel) 17,70.
    Community (common good): “O mankind, indeed we have created for you from a male and a female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed. Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” The Qur’an, Surah al-Hujurat (The Rooms or The Dwellings) 49,13.

  9. Joseph A. Appleyard, S.J., “The Experience of Ignatian Conversation”, Human Development, vol. 29, No. 1, 2008, P.17.


Appleyard, S.J., Joseph, “The Experience of Ignatian Conversation,” Human Development Volume 29 Number 1 Spring 2008.

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