The environment: rediscovering the balanced Catholic perspective

The environment: rediscovering the balanced Catholic perspective

Michael Casanova

Brisbane's Archdiocesan Catholic Education this year published its Lenten Program book under the title of Attending to the Sacred. The program had a thoroughly ecological focus as did last year's Australian bishops' social justice statement on the environment, A New Earth - the Environmental Challenge.

In the light of these, what is the particular approach of Catholic teaching, and of Pope John Paul II, to the environment?

The Pope, who calls us so consistently and powerfully to contemplate the Face of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh, is at the same time being hailed by some as "the foremost theologian on ecology and the environment" (The Irish Catholic, 20 March 2003).

From the first years of his pontificate, when he made St Francis of Assisi the patron saint of those who promote ecology, John Paul II has expressed that great paradox: the religion that attends more than any other to the spiritual also attains the most secure, enduring and properly ordered care for the environment. What is Catholicism's secret?

Interest in ecology

Some might recall their experience of making a silent retreat focused totally upon the spiritual (e.g., Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament) with no mention of the environment at all and, having finished that retreat, encountering sun, trees and people with eyes opened in an extraordinary way to their wonder, while feeling the need to treat them with a reverence their relationship to God required.

Such subjective experience really mirrors Catholicism's firm and well-ordered interest in ecology: as we learn about the concrete historical expressions of God's love for us in the Incarnation, as we get to know and love our Creator, as we come close to Him through the sacraments He gave us, we see the material world entirely in relation to Him.

"Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 399).

In his latest encyclical on the Eucharist, which is profoundly at the heart of our faith, the Pope also says to us: "The Christian vision ... increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God's plan" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 20).

Beginning with God and returning to God, the Church's ecological concern is enabled to be well-ordered and integrated with the absolute primacy of God and the social primacy of human persons. Virtue stands in the middle. Catholic ecology avoids over-simplification: neither placing environment over the value of the human person or human solidarity, nor dismissing ecology in the name of progress and the free market.

John Paul has warned that the great danger of the "civilisation of consumption" is the idolatry of the market (Zenit, 29 April 2003). Following the Pope's logic, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, addressed the UN on need for "Ecological Conversion" and said: "We have to reflect on human ecology; we have to change our models of production and consumption" (Zenit, 2 May 2003).

In a 'must read' document on environmental theology, the Pope's 1990 World Day of Peace message linked efforts to salvage both peace and the environment: "There is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capacity of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order".

Authentic peace and ecological movements presume or approach the conviction that there is an objective order, that solutions to our problems require the conversion of the human heart to truths beyond our whims.

Environmental concern

We might align the calls for conversion of heart of both Catholicism and environmental concern while distancing both from magic's trinkets and economic rationalism's technological techniques (such as cloning).

C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man writes: "There is something that unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the ancients, the cardinal problem of human life had been how to conform the human soul to objective reality; and the means were knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of the soul; and the solution is a technique."

Catholicism's ecology sees life and the environment as a gift to be received with gratitude, not a mere commodity to be grasped and abused.

There is something that gives Catholicism's ecological concern its depth and balance, its preparedness to sacrifice something of lifestyle for more important things, its staying power that lasts beyond the enthusiasm of fashion. This something gave Mother Teresa of Calcutta her staying power to see the poor as Christ sees them.

This virtue of seeing all things as coming from God and relating to God was caught by Mother Teresa and the Pope by discovering the teachings of the Church and by spending time in prayer, in retreats and in programs of reflection which focus deeply on Jesus, who suffered, died, rose, and is with us now.

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