Valuing creation a long-held Catholic tradition

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Marie Venner

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With its release, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment will be the first such document to focus exclusively on issues of ecology and humans’ place within and relationship with God’s creation.

While Francis’ document has sparked renewed interest in this area, Catholics have a history of valuing creation. Its care is one of the strands of Catholic social teaching -- along with maintaining the dignity of all people, the common good, and peace and reconciliation -- present across the fabric of our history.

The call to stewardship of creation, for Catholic and Judeo-Christians alike, extends from our most recent popes and goes all the way back to Genesis and the story of Noah.

After each step in creation, “God saw that it was good,” we read in the first chapter of Genesis. In Noah’s story, God made a covenant with man and all creation. Later, God calls for sabbatical resting of the fields every seven years. 

It’s there in the Psalms, as well. “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it,” begins Psalm 24.

In his teachings, Jesus often spoke of God as father of all, creator and caretaker, and especially householder “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” he said in John’s Gospel.

Jesus described God as one who cares for the birds in the field as well as each strand upon our heads. He himself healed and advocated for the vulnerable and those who had been left out, seen as wrong, in debt, unable to speak for themselves or who lacked advocates in the system of their time. 

Ecology, economy and ecumenical are words that all come from same root in Greek, ecos, meaning “household.” We are not separate from creation but part of creation. We are one with God through creation, and our saints have tried to teach us some of the subtleties.

St. Ambrose, the 4th century bishop of Milan, remarked that God cares about all creation, that “the mystery of the Incarnation of God is the salvation of the whole of Creation.”  

Doctor of the Church St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) exhorted us: “Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks with Compassion on this world,” our household. As Catholics, as God’s hands and feet, we have responsibilities: to carry on the care and management of our home, the Earth.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) described the created universe as the fountain fullness of God’s expressed being. As God is expressed in creation, creation in turn expresses the creator. Bonaventure also tells us that to love God, we need to love all that God created. In the second book of his Commentaria in Quatuor Libros Sententiarum, he said, “Everything that God does, God does in order to manifest himself.”

“Unless we are able to view things in terms of how they originate, how they are to return to their end, and how God shines forth in them, we will not be able to understand,” Bonaventure said.

Both Anthony of the Desert (c. 251-356) and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) said there are two books of scripture: the natural world or creation and the written Bible.

Aquinas called creation “the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine.” In his Summa Theologica, he said:

“God brought things into being in order that his [sic] goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because his goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, he produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided.” 

Aquinas went on to say, as Christians and sinners, we recognize that sin “has distorted the human relationship with the natural world: We have disturbed the balance of nature in radical and violent ways. Sin damages our relationship with God and with one another, the relationships between social groups, and that between humanity and earth.”

A quick review of history shows times when humanity has gotten off-track from its valuing of creation. The Industrial Revolution brought with it many goods and allowed for the formation of modern civilization. At the same time, it brought pollution of the air and water sources, and is viewed as a trigger to climate change.

A couple hundred years earlier, in the 15th century, papal edicts forming the Doctrine of Discovery authorized European Christian nations to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed … to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and to seize their possessions and property. This mentality, embedded in the European worldview and the legal codes of the lands they colonized, gave justification for denying indigenous peoples their rights, as well as respecting the rights of the land itself.

St. Francis of Assisi, an inspiration to this pope and many around the world said, “If you have people who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have people who will deal likewise with their fellow humanity.”

Last May, Pope Francis said, “The knowledge that comes from the Holy Spirit … allows us to grasp, through Creation, the greatness and love of God and His profound relationship with every creature.”

Our ecos, or home, what surrounds us, is a priority of Ignatian spirituality, which asks us: How do we encounter God in all things? How do we respond to God that we encounter?  Do we care for our common home?

Our rightful place within creation respects and protects the vast web of life. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken of the need for “ecological conversion.”

John Paul noted in his 1990 World Day of Peace message that “there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life… Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past.”

He continued: “The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs… The ecological crisis reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity.”

Climate change is addressed specifically in the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (paragraph 470), which says the relationship between human activity and global warming must be constantly monitored, for “The climate is a good that must be protected.”

In his own World Day of Peace message in 2010, Benedict said that preservation of creation has become essential for the peaceful coexistence of mankind.

“Can we remain indifferent,” he asked, “before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?

“Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees,’ people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it -- and often their possessions as well -- in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement?” he said.

Benedict went on to say there’s an urgent need for a greater sense of intergenerational solidarity, one that recognizes how our use of common environmental resources will affect future generations.

“The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction,” he said.

The last three popes have all called the ecological crisis “a moral issue.” Doing so does not diminish human dignity, but allows us to express our deepest value of life with consistency.

[Marie Venner is chair of the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board subcommittee on Climate Change, Energy, and Sustainability and former co-chair of the Risk and Resilience Planning and Analysis subcommittee. She is also a member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement.]

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