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Sunday, March 26, 2017
Shrove Tuesday reflection: Is Catholicism really green?
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¬†Just two years ago it was considered weird and somewhat fringy to spend much time considering the link between Catholicism and the environment, now it is very common to see diocese all over the country dedicating whole days to workshops, lectures and discussion on eco-living and being "stewards of creation". It seems the Church is responding to the grass roots cry for a Catholic voice to be added to the universal concern for the environmental crisis. But as we enter Lent, a traditional time for reflection, it is vitally important the Church takes time to stand back and truly consider its position. My belief is that before it goes one step further it has to decide whether or not it is really green at heart. In order to explain why I think this is an important junction for the Church, allow me to indulge in a rather strange analogy. Imagine being told with great urgency that it is extremely important for you to go to take part in a religious ceremony from another culture. Everyone is demanding you go straight away because it is really important you are there and that your presence is felt. So you put your head around the door and are suddenly hit by insistent loud noise and frenzied activity. Many people are dancing around shouting things that you don't know how to respond to in a language you are not used to using. And yet everyone seems to be saying ≠ get in there, make your mark; show your authority! So you have to make a decision, to go and join in and not just dance but also try to lead the dancing! Or sit in the shadows and be criticised more and more. Confusion is confounded by the fact that you are not entirely convinced you are meant to be there. And the noise and the screaming and the urgency make decisions almost impossible. This is what I feel the Church is experiencing to some degree now. It is being pitched into a world of science and secularism in a totally new way. The language people are using is not the language of traditional religion (although in some ways evangelical environmentalism is a growing belief system!) The issues are not those that the Church feels is within its jurisdiction ≠ or have been up to now. The science of climate change, the effect of loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation are not terms used by the Church very often. But suddenly it is being told it has to take a lead in these issues and get involved at both a local and international level. So before the whirling environmental frenzy drags the Church into the middle of the fray and it ends up flat on its face it is time to stop, take stock and look at the big picture. And that can be summed up in one question ≠ how does the Catholic Church see humanity's relationship to the rest of the natural world? Whenever I have asked this question virtually everyone has pointed me to this passage, Genesis 1: 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so... And that all seems very good, if that had been the end of the story, but as we are all painfully aware, it wasn't. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and mankind fell from God's favour. And then it seems God didn't think we were good enough to be masters, we no longer possessed the innocence and honesty to have dominion ≠ and the contract was changed. "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, `You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Now that no longer sounds like dominion, we are thrown into disharmony and even enmity with the earth. And yet time and again the term "stewards of the earth" is felt to be a direct result of Genesis 1, although no one can tell me how. But even if we accept that term, what exactly does it mean in a hugely complicated, multi-national, economically driven world? Our world is not the one Christ lived in. His understanding of a steward was very different from ours. The beginning of the 21st century poses huge problems that are new to humanity and I don't believe covered by this ill-defined term. How does a steward balance the needs of a failing natural world against the needs of developing nations? If the suffering of people is helped by cutting down their natural resources and selling it ≠ is that wrong? How do we decide whether to spend money on species going extinct or human misery? When it comes to saving a habitat or keeping people's jobs ≠ what do we do? Stewardship, as defined by someone who cares for creation, is easy to say but very difficult to put in practice. And I don't believe the Catholic world really understands what stewardship means when it comes to actual problems on the ground. For a theologically correct understanding of the Catholic attitude to nature I turned to Catholic Christianity by Peter Kreeft published in 2001. It is a complete Catechism of the Catholic Beliefs based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and comes with a nihil obstat and an imprimatur, which means that it is officially sanctioned by the Church and is considered free from doctrinal or moral error. There are some statements in here which any environmentalist/zoologist/biologist - and for the record myself - find very hard to swallow. "Even the theory of evolution agrees with the Genesis account in seeing man as the culmination of the natural process. We naturally wonder what is the point of the whole universe: the answer is not the gases and galaxies but the man who asks the question. The galaxies are only the stage, the setting for the play; we are the actors." Actually evolution most definitely doesn't see man as the culmination of a process, leading inevitably to us. Evolution doesn't have a direction at all; it is just a blind process of experimentation. But let's put that aside. The point is Catholics believe everything in the universe is for us to do what we consider is best : "man is superior to nature by his reason and free will: and God entrusted him with his dominion (lordship and mastery) of nature (Genesis 1:28). Man is the artist. Nature is his material and his studio." But again, what does that mean in reality? In a section on animals Kreeft explains that although we should be kind to animals because they are God's creatures and by their existence they bless him and give him glory it says: "it is unworthy to spend money on animals that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery". If that were really the case then as the poor will always be with us, and as human misery is a constant factor in the world, then we should never spend any resources on animals. The same goes for habitats, although with even less priority because Kreeft states Catholics believe in a hierarchical creation as explained by the 6 days; the least valued things were created first, the most valued came later. Man is at the top, just below angels, and the inanimate world at the bottom. Animals are in between. Now this is vitally important when we consider the role of Catholicism in the environmental movement because with limited resources the restoration of habitats and natural ecosystems really don't have much of a chance. This world view firmly places them low down the list because everything has to be directed solely towards the good of humanity and the relief of suffering. Let me give one example. Spectacled eiders are a species of eider duck that lives in the most remote parts of the Arctic. Over the last 10 years their numbers have fallen by 95%, thought to be due to changes in their breeding grounds and a thinning of the sea ice where they spend the winter in the middle of the Bering Sea. Should we spend time and money trying to preserve them and save their habitat that we are responsible for destroying? These birds don't have any practical benefit for people. We don't eat them or use their feathers. Very few people actually even see them because they live in such remote places. So should we, as Catholics, worry whether they go extinct or not? Given the statements in Kreeft's book, it seems not. But published just 2 years later the tone of the Compendium for the Social Doctrine of the Church, a highly authoritative collection of the Church's teaching, is different. Its premise is one that resonates more fully with the environmental movement. It says: "The attitude that must characterize the way man acts in relation to creation is essentially one of gratitude and appreciation; the world, in fact, reveals the mystery of God who created and sustains it. If the relationship with God is placed aside, nature is stripped of its profound meaning and impoverished. If on the other hand, nature is rediscovered in its creaturely dimension, channels of communication with it can be established, its rich and symbolic meaning can be understood, allowing us to enter into its realm of mystery. This realm opens the path of man to God, Creator of heaven and earth. The world presents itself before man's eyes as evidence of God, the place where his creative, providential and redemptive power unfolds." If we need creation to be whole because it is essential to our spiritual life, that is different to being kind to it as long as it doesn't get in our way. So what do Catholics believe? This is an important junction for the Church. It is about to enter a world that expects it to do wonders, but there is some hard thinking to be done about what Catholicism actually believes about nature. It is now essential for the Church to stand back from all the clamour and demands of the environmental movement and look at the most basic question of all. What is the true nature of our relationship with the earth? Get this right and everything else will begin to fall into place. And this basic question is one many theologians, bishops, priests and laity, including myself, think we understand but in fact I don't think we do, and until we get it right there is no point taking one step further. BBC producer Mary Colwell is a parishioner of Clifton Cathedral and ecological campaigner. This piece was first published on the Clifton Diocese website.
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