Both 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.
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.