God’s Charity and Bears

Yesterday I had the fortune to be present at two events featuring Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University in NY and a prolific, challenging and inspiring author. In the afternoon I attended her visit to a small seminar of MAT at St. Catherine’s University, where I teach as an adjunct, and in the evening I attended the public talk co-sponsored by St. Kate’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity and Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

The afternoon session was informal. No presentation, just dialogue with Johnson, with questions ranging from her recent ecologically-focused work and some of her earlier writings. At one point, when the subject of women in the Church had been raised, someone asked her why she stays in the Church. She spoke about the need to stay in to help move the institution forward and about the value of community.

More importantly though is the truth of our faith. In that context, Johnson relayed a story from the event at Fordham a couple of years ago that involved a dialogue between Steven Colbert and Archbishop Dolan of New York. At one point during that, someone asked Colbert why he stays in the Church. As relayed by Johnson, Colbert said, “because the story has a happy ending.” At which point he stood up and walked to the front of the stage and gesticulating, said excitedly, “The tomb was empty!” A good reminder during time when our discussion of various issues involving the Church – whatever they may be (and they vary for different people) – get us frustrated or angry or upset. We have a truth claim about death and resurrection, and above all, that is what matters.

In the evening, Johnson focused on the environment, making a case for our concern for the whole of creation and for moving away from a human-centered locus of concern. She grounds her argument in both evolution and Christian claims about creation and Christ, connecting Christ not only to human beings but to all of creation and the world. (For a full exploration of her argument, see her newest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.)

She ended her talk discussing the need for conversion to the earth, suggesting three aspects to that. First, intellectual conversion, that is, a turn from a human-centered to a God-centered view that has room for seeing all creation as meaningful. Second, emotional conversion, by which she means a need to feel compassion for all living creatures and all of nature. And finally a practical conversion that calls us to think about all of our choices in terms of their effect on the environment.

It may be that Johnson overstates in saying that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato si, is the most important encyclical ever written by a Pope. But no one can ignore the damage we are doing to our home and the importance of taking action to preserve it.


For the Care of Creation

Today has been proclaimed by Pope Francis to be a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.  United with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, who have already been celebrating this day, on this day we ask God both for assistance in caring for creation and for forgiveness “for sins committed against the world in which we live.”  In his letter announcing the day, the Pope wrote

The annual World Day of prayer for the Care of Creation offers to individual believers and to the community a precious opportunity to renew our personal participation in this vocation as custodians of creation, raising to God our thanks for the marvellous works that He has entrusted to our care, invoking his help for the protection of creation and his mercy for the sins committed against the world in which we live.

Concern with our relationship to creation is not new.  One of the foundational principles of Catholic Social Thought is that of stewardship. A “steward” is someone who is entrusted with some good or talent on behalf of other persons; a steward is a manager and not an owner.

Stewardship, in the Catholic Social Thought tradition, derives from an understanding that God is the source of everything; everything we have – our time, our talents, all that is in the world – is a gift from God and we have an obligation to manage those gifts for the benefit of all; we are accountable to God for how we use those gifts. Created in God’s image, humans have a mandate to subject to themselves the earth and all it contains, but to govern the world with justice and holiness, with respect for all living creatures and the environment. In one sense, we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.

Stewardship is not a notion unique to Catholic Social Thought. Not only is this same notion of stewardship or trusteeship is found in Protestant forms of Christianity, but the Koran speaks of our being appointed by God as stewards over the earth, and, in Buddhist terms, the Dalai Lama speaks of the “universal altruism” and feeling of responsibility that is nonselective and applies equally to all that flows from a recognition of interconnectedness. Stewardship is perhaps better understood as a function of spirituality in broad terms, rather than the province of any one religion. In the words of one commentator, stewardship “is a deeply spiritual yet essentially practical question of how we react to the gifts and resources over which we have some measure of control and influence.”

This Day or Prayer for the Care of Creation is a good one for reflecting on our acts (and non-acts) with respect to the world we have been given.  How will you manifest your care of the environment?  What “sins committed against the world in which we live” do you need to repent for and avoid in the future?

For myself, I know I’m good about some things and less good about others.  I no longer buy bottled water when there is an alternative.  We don’t take extra plastic bags when buying produce at the store and we work hard at avoiding food waste.  I take short showers.  But we could probably drive less than we do.  I could be more careful about products that are better for the environment than others.  Etc.

Feel free to share your ideas for how you are caring for creation…or where you could be doing better.

Dominion Is Not Exploitation

I’ve finally had a chance to dig into Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment that came out while I was on retreat. Others have already written much on the document and provided helpful distillations of the major points (e.g., here), so I will not offer any major summary here, but limit myself to a single observation.

The account of creation in the Book of Genesis (written, as Francis observes in “symbolic and narrative language”) speaks of humans being granted “dominion” over the earth.  Some have always misinterpreted that language as justifying “unbridled exploitation of nature.”  In the encyclical, Francis

forcefully reject[s] the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.  The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world…”Tilling: refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.  This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.  Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

The earth is not ours to do with as we will.  We are stewards of an earth that belongs to God.

There is much having to do with care of the environment we can argue over – what are the best means go address pollution or climate change, and so forth.  Much that is in the realm of prudential judgment.

But what is not open to debate is our obligation to till and keep – to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”  And that is an obligation imposed on us collectively and on each of us individually.

Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day has been celebrated on April 22 for 45 years.  Here is a short account of the history of the day:

The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.

As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.

As we await Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Earth Day offers us an opportunity to examine our relationship to the gift of creation.  To consider the extent to which our own actions (and inactions) contribute to the preservation or deterioration of the environment.

It is true that lots of the problems that brought people to the streets in 1990 are bigger than any one individual – corporate pollution and oil spills.  But both through our power as consumers (from whom are you buying your products?) and in our homes and workplaces (are you recycling as much as you can? reducing waste in the first place? saving water and electricity?) we can make a difference.

And, as stewards over God’s creation, we are morally obliged to do so.

You can find a good ecological examen here.

God and Francis on the Environment

As I sat in my prayer space at home this morning, I looked out and saw the automatic sprinklers operating in my yard and those of neighbors. The scene reminded me of a post my friend Richard wrote last week, sharing a dialogue sent to him by his brother-in-law. The dialogue is humorous, but makes a point that is anything but funny.

Here is a portion or the dialogue:

“Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.”

It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make theSuburbanites happy.

Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -sometimes twice a week.

They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

Yes, Sir.

These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

You can read the entirety of the dialogue here.

By pretty much any standard of measurement, we are doing a pretty miserable job of stewardship of this earth we have been given. We don’t conserve the resources we have, our actions degrade the environment, and what we do (and don’t do today) will have enormous consequences for those who follow us.

We need to do a better job.

Benedict on the Environment

Our Sunday Visitor has published The Environment, by Pope Benedict XIV. The book is a collection of excerpts from audiences, speeches, encyclicals, messages, letters and homilies of Pope Benedict’s that address matters related to the environment. I was delighted to receive a copy of it from The Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

The book addresses what is obviously an important topic. Pope Benedict observed in one of the general audiences excerpted in the book, that “life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other.” I think it is fair to say that we are not being as good stewards as we are called to be. That we are not doing enough, either individually or collectively, to care for the earth we have been given (or for each other). And we see and hear the effects of that all around us. Climate change. Deforestation. Famine for far too many of our brothers and sisters. Lack of access to clean drinking water for many.

Pope Benedict has had much to say about the environment. In these excerpts, we find a clear exposition of the Church’s social teaching about our call to assume political and social responsibilities in the world and of a “eucharistic spirituality” that aspires to sanctify the world. We find beautiful statements about the meaning and value of agricultural labor and of the rural family. We hear warnings about the effects of scarcity of energy supplies on portions of the world’s population. We hear a call for global solutions to issues such as sustainable development and climate change, which the Pope calls “matters of grave concern for the entire human family,” the ethical implications of which “no nation or business sector can ignore.”

If I have a quibble about the book it is that I could not discern any principle of organization to the excerpts, which are simply presented one after the other. Although it would have been a difficult task to achieve, the book might have benefitted from an effort to organize the material thematically. I also think some of the shorter excerpts might have been left out with no loss to the book. An example is several of the addresses to particular groups, which by their nature tend to be very formalized and thus say little of substance. Having said that, their inclusion serves to highlight the extent to which Pope Benedict has spoken on this important subject.

Far too many people are still woefully uninformed about the principles of Catholic Social Thought, including that of stewardship. This book is a useful aid in presenting the Church’s teachings on the environment and our stewardship responsibility in an accessible way.