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A Few Thoughts on the Environment

farmerBoth secular environmentalists and Catholics are waiting with bated breath for the release of Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. Many Catholics are deeply worried that the pope will play into the agenda of radical environmentalists, while many secularists are thrilled that the pope will seemingly endorse their worldview.

I haven’t read the Holy Father’s encyclical yet (yes, it was leaked, but I don’t read Italian), so I don’t have anything to say about it—but I do have a few thoughts about our relation to the natural world, as it is a topic I have thought about quite a bit. I’m going to wade into controversial waters today and share them with you. Here they are in no particular order.

“It Doesn’t Matter”

A common refrain among concerned Catholics is that the issue of the environment simply doesn’t matter. “The salvation of souls is what we have to worry about. What does recycling have to do with our eternal destiny?” This is a common line of thinking. And to an extent, I would agree with it. Yes, the salvation of our eternal souls is preeminent—but that does not mean the Church must cease speaking about other issues. In fact, much of Catholic social teaching was expounded in times of great cultural crisis, and I believe we should be careful not to dismiss this issue simply because it does not, at least on its face, appear to relate to heaven or hell.

The second reason I believe this issue of the environment is important is because it is being used to promote one of the most anti-human ideologies in history. There are environmentalists who literally want to exterminate the vast majority of human beings in order to save the planet. This is, quite simply, evil, and we should not ignore this twisted ideology or let it go unanswered.

Just as previous popes combatted Socialism and Communism by teaching the true Catholic understanding of labor and property, I believe the Church must combat radical environmentalism by offering the true, Catholic understanding of the environment, an understanding that places mankind at the center. That is, we must proclaim the fact that God made the world for us, not us for the world. Only by teaching the truth about the natural world, and our relation to it, can this deadly anti-human ideology be defeated. So  in short, I believe this issue does matter and it should not be dismissed as irrelevant.

Conquerors or parasites?

There are many destructive ways of looking at the natural world, but I find they generally fall into two categories: Those who view the world as a meaningless resource for profit (The Conquerors) and those who view humanity as worthless invaders destroying a beautiful world in which we do not belong (The Parasites).

The Conquerors see the earth as utterly meaningless and devoid of any intrinsic value. Mankind is all that matters, especially our gain through stripping the earth of its fruits for profit. Respect the earth? Hardly. They don’t care about it in the least as long as it is providing them with income. In a sense, they view the earth as a slave, valuable only to the extent that it produces. This ideology is wrong in that it places humanity above the earth as its unlimited master.

The Parasites, on the other hand, view humanity as a destructive invader. We have no real place in this world, they argue, and ever since we have been here, we have done more harm than good. The world would be much better off without humans and our polluting influence. The growth of the human population is no better than the spread of a disease. To save the earth, we must eliminate humanity. That is their anti-humanistic reasoning. The Parasites advocate for things like abortion, contraceptive population control, and euthanasia. Their ideology is wrong and deadly because it places humanity below the earth and as subservient to it.

The Catholic understanding of the earth is entirely different. Unlike those who would place us  above the earth as its unlimited master, and those who would place us below the earth as a disease that must be exterminated, the Catholic faith teaches that we belong with and in the earth. It is our home, the place that God has given us to cultivate. Like St. Francis (who I would be the first to argue is often abused and twisted into something he never was), the Church would say that creation is not our slave or our master—it is our brother. And it is our brother for the simple reason that we have a common Father, our God who created both us and every living thing.

The Earth is a Gift to Be Loved

The earth is not a resource to be stripped bare, it is a gift to be loved. That is, God made the earth for us. He poured all his creative power into forming for us a home teeming with life and fruitfulness. In a very real way, all of creation is a gift from his fatherly heart.

With the gift-ness of the earth in mind, we should see it not as a meaningless resource to be destroyed endlessly for profit, neither should we see it something that we should serve with a worship that is due to God alone. Rather, we should treat it with respect and love, using it as we would any gift from someone we love—that is, carefully.

Have you ever been given a gift by someone? It doesn’t matter what it is. Perhaps your dad gave you a watch for your high school graduation. There is an unspoken awareness that this gift is a sign of love, and therefore that it should be respected and cared for. How grievous would it be if a son turned around and immediately sold his father’s gift on Ebay? Or threw it in the trash? It would be highly disrespectful. Likewise, when we abuse God’s gift of the earth, it is a slap in his face and it grieves his heart.

I believe the true, healthy, and anthropocentric view of the environment hinges upon this fact: That it is a gift of love from God our Father that reveals his goodness to us. Yes, we must use it, and we should cultivate and eat of its fruits. But when we lose sight of the fact that it is a gift, abuse will inevitably follow. In fact, I would argue that when we lose sight of dignity of creation, we also lose sight of our own dignity as made in the image of God, though perhaps we will not realize it immediately. Put another way, it is a very small step from seeing the earth as a resource to be abused for gain to seeing human beings in the same way.

Concluding thoughts

I really don’t know what Pope Francis’ encyclical will say, but I would ask you not to dismiss the issue of our care for the earth as irrelevant. It is not. Again, just as the church once addressed the evils of Communism and Socialism with the Catholic vision for labor, so must the Church address the evil of radical environmentalism with the Catholic understanding of the environment.

I would also remind those who may be concerned that Pope Francis is hardly the first pope to address this issue. While it doesn’t get as much attention, the care of the earth was close to the hearts of both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, and they spoke about it frequently. Whether or not what Pope Francis has to say is in continuity with his predecessors remains to be seen, but he is certainly not innovating by teaching on this topic.

At the same time, do not be surprised if the Church’s teaching on the environment has a “both/and” quality to it that transcends political labels. Catholic social teaching, whether it be on economics or the environment, often defies simple categorization. So on such issues, be quick to listen and slow to react.

I will conclude by saying that a care for the other does not necessitate a lack of care for the soul. One can simultaneously care for God’s gift of creation and strive for sanctity at the same time. No one knew this better than St. Francis, the preacher of penance, who loved God’s creation as a revelation of his goodness, but never once descended to the level of a pantheistic earth worship. No one was more concerned for the salvation of souls than he, and no one praised the beauty of creation more. I will conclude with his canticle that reveals our proper attitude toward the earth. Meditate on it carefully.

The Canticle of the Sun

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.

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Sam Guzman

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10 People Replies to “A Few Thoughts on the Environment”

  1. Alighieri

    “If a person has high confidence on the justice and efficiency of a corporate capitalist economic model…”
    then that person would have proven himself not very observant. Francis is absolutely correct. We in the USA
    are in thrall to a godless, rapacious system. There is no such thing as “free market capitalism”. There is only a system
    dedicated to enslaving all in service of profit for a very few.

  2. “Many Catholics are deeply worried that the pope will play into the agenda of radical environmentalists, while many secularists are thrilled that the pope will seemingly endorse their worldview…”

    And that’s exactly what he did. Worst pope of modern times.

    1. Tony DeAngelo

      Economic view? Yes. If you believe in capitalism and free markets this will justifiably enrage you and if you are a committed socialist then you will be delighted.

    2. I don’t think that’s what he did at all. Rather, it seems to me, that it takes what was started with Rarum Novarum a century ago, which was focused on the family over other (economic) interests, and which was amplified most recently in the encyclical started by Pope Benedict and finished by Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, and brought this message to the environmental concerns. And I think he did it brilliantly.

      And I’m not a Pope Francis fan.

      I think criticism of the Pope on this one tends to reflect a person’s economic view. If a person has high confidence on the justice and efficiency of a corporate capitalist economic model, they tend to discount criticisms of it. If they do not have high confidence in it, and traditionally Catholic pronouncements have not, they accept criticism of the model and its impacts.

  3. Very interesting read. One thing I am a bit confused about is the way you referred to those who view humanity as “destructive invaders” as parasites. They view humans as the parasites. Why do you refer to them as such– and how can they be referred to as such?

  4. I agree whole-heartily, as a devout Catholic, environmental engineer and agrarian. Thanks Sam for the great article.

  5. Dave S

    The most prominent arguments of the Church are falling on deaf ears. A larger all encompassing focus on the natural order rather then just specific smaller issues may just be what is needed for people to wake up to rational discussions about the reality of things (which includes all of those smaller issues). In a world that has gone mad we must be their light. Subsidiarity is the answer, and now is our time to shine.

  6. “The Environment” by Pope Benedict XVI is a great book on this topic. I’m excited to read this coming encyclical as I am fairly invested in nuclear power as a Nuclear Plant Analyst, I am not expecting him to say anything different from what previous Popes have discussed on the topic. For the most part, the environment is a simple topic but gets blown WAY out of proportion when you find those who try to cheat the system.

  7. Nice entry.

    My thoughts are similar, and frankly, as with Lumen Fidei, while I’m frankly much more of a Pope Benedict fan than a Pope Francis fan, I’ve found the (here premature) whining on this topic to be overdone. Indeed, I posted an item on my own blog on this the other day.

    Generally, the Catholic church has always been a big back of science, and if we go further than that and look at the long history of encyclicals we’d find that the Church has always been concerned about the nature of man, which means being concerned with man in nature. Rerum Novarum took on the unnatural and immoral aspects of Capitalism and Socialism, and argued for an economic system based on the family, a very natural view of economics. That gave rise to Distributism (an unfortunate casualty of World War Two), which was based on that and which also had a rural focus. More recently, Pope Benedict declared “The Rural Family must regain its place at the heart of the social order.” In Lumen Fidei Pope Francis renewed some economic thoughts that could be argued to be distributist in theme. Hardcore environmental leftist would see no link in these pronouncements, but then hardcore capitalist would not either.

    The link is that economics serves the family, or should. And man is a natural man in a broken, but none the less natural world. The world we in the West have created, and which we are exporting to the rest of the globe, has seemingly forgotten that in recent decades, which gave rise to environmentalism, but which seemingly has forgotten God and certainly seemingly has forgotten the Christian God and man’s place in nature.

    More power to the Pope for hopefully refocusing us on these themes.