As executive director of the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, Professor Jeanette Rodriguez, PhD, is answering Pope Francis’ call to action on the climate crisis.

Bible in one hand, newspaper in the other, that is the perspective Jeanette Rodriguez, PhD, has on liberation theology, the Latin American Catholic tradition of reflecting on the gospel from the perspective of the poor and most vulnerable while engaging the world with Christian values and thought to address injustice and the climate crisis.

“Historically, in the Catholic intellectual tradition, people tend to go to Augustine or Aquinas, our intellectual giants, but we also need to engage the social sciences in order to respond to the complex social issues of the day,” Rodriguez says. “It’s not enough to absorb and transmit this repository of knowledge, but also to create and contribute to it.”

As executive director of the Seattle University Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture (ICTC), Rodriguez counts herself as a witness scholar in the tradition of Latin American liberation theology—hence listening to and learning from the world by reading the “signs of the times.”

Rodriguez is a tenured professor of Theology and Religious Studies who has also taught in the former School of Theology and Ministry as well as the graduate program for Couples and Family Therapy. Additionally, her classes have been cross-listed with Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Latin American Studies.

Through her career Rodriguez has engaged in a variety of scholarship, including Hispanic spirituality and women, and as a renowned Guadalupian scholar whose 1994 book, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment among Mexican-American Women remains in print. Her latest book, Women Called to Catholic Priesthood: From Ecclesial Challenge to Spiritual Renewal, written with Seattle U Professor Emerita Sharon Henderson Callahan, was recently released.

In recent years her time has been devoted to ICTC, founded in 2012, which she has been leading since 2019, first as interim director and then promoted to executive director in 2022.

As its leader Rodriguez is responsible for bringing a Catholic lens to view the modern world, creating a newsletter and programs to highlight the intellectual traditions that have had an abiding influence on shaping societies, such as the Catholic Heritage Lecture Series.

‘Thanks, Dad’

One of Rodriguez’s more pressing tasks is integrating the repeated calls from Pope Francis for the world to care for our common home and confront the danger posed by climate change, first articulated in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ and then fortified last year with Laudate Deum, an apostolic exhortation on the climate crisis.

In addition to liberation theology, Rodriguez also lives by another principle. This one guided her around the globe—to Guam, Micronesia, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Central and South America and South Africa—before finding a home at Seattle University in 1990. It springs from her family and background as the daughter of two Ecuadorian immigrants who raised seven children in the Astoria projects in Queens, New York.

That principle is to cast aside fear and face the world with hope and faith.

“My father would always push us like that,” says Rodriguez, whose talent for languages and willingness to ask helped her land her first job out of college as a tour guide at the United Nations in New York. “‘No’ is not going to kill you. Go try, ask. And so I kind of operate that way. If there’s something I want, I ask. And if they say no, OK. But surprisingly, a lot of people say ‘yes.’”

“Thanks, dad,” she adds.

Caring for Creation

With Laudato Si’, Pope Francis sought to steer the Catholic community toward caring for creation as a duty to the young and vulnerable. The encyclical set off a chain of events that has led to a global revaluation of power and a commitment from Seattle University. In the exhortation that followed, the Pope argued that progress is not happening fast enough in light of the dire circumstances and deplored climate denialism.

“In both Laudato Si’ and Laudate Deum, the pope is addressing both Catholics and people of goodwill,” Rodriguez says. “It’s important to note that he doesn’t say ‘climate change,’ he says ‘climate crisis.’ I think that shift in language, that sometimes people might miss, is significant.”

SU President Eduardo Peñalver signed in 2021 a letter of commitment for the university to participate in the Laudato Si’ Action Platform and the “Seven-Year Journey Towards Integral Ecology.”

When the university sought to put the commitment into action, Rodriguez reached out to Yolanda Cieters, associate director of sustainability at the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability.

“Dr. Rodriguez was very intentional about bringing together some key actors from around campus, asking questions about what this means to the university and how to translate the call from the pope into taking action,” says Cieters. She hailed Rodriguez’s leadership for weaving together the strands that make up the action platform’s mission and doing so in a way that aligns with the university’s values.

“When she takes initiative, when she leads, acts and collaborates, there is really very deep thought behind it,” says Cieters, crediting Rodriguez with asking vital questions to ensure that not only does the process run smoothly but that it is done right and successfully.

In her spare time, Rodriguez likes to dance and spend time with her son Joshua, daughter, Gabriella, son-in-law James and her two grandchildren, Issac and Ezra.

She makes time for Sunday group Zoom calls with all her siblings and checks on her father, Gonzalo Victor, who at 99 years old still reads the newspaper every day, along with praying two hours a day and playing chess.

Professor Rodriguez to be featured speaker for spring Red Talks

This April, Professor Rodriguez will be the featured speaker for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion's Red Talks series. Coinciding with Earth Month, Rodriguez will speak on “La Tierra, Home, Identity and Destiny—A Latina’s Perspective on Integral Ecology,” April 16 at 12:30 p.m in Pigott Auditorium. She will offer insights on better understanding the connection between people and nature as well as new perspectives to inform decision making for the common good.

Written by Andrew Binion

Wednesday, April 3, 2024