The biggest conclusion that John Hart draws from his impressive survey of late twentieth century Catholic writings about the environment is that, with a few important exceptions, Catholic thinkers were profoundly anthropocentric. That is to say, they put humans in a special category, at the pinnacle of creation and maybe even a little above it, not as a people who are part of and profoundly dependent upon the natural world. Hart writes that “a significant reason for the devastation of Earth in predominantly Christian nations has been that the planet often has been viewed solely as a place of temporary pilgrimage, a short-term place of preparation for a life to come, the context of the human hope for and working out of “salvation.” Additionally, people have been regarded as being above all creatures. For both reasons, Earth and Earth’s creatures were seen as having no value except as they were needed temporarily by humankind.” Hart notes that such hierarchical notions are peripheral to the faith, much as the Ptolemaic model of the universe once was, and hopes that we will shift our ideology “from superiority of place to mutuality in roles.”
Hart’s approach to Catholic theology in What Are They Saying About Environmental Theology? (2004) is sympathetic yet critical, and he shows us the bad as well as the good. In particular, Hart recognizes that taking an anthropocentric approach to the environmental crisis does have its advantages. Everything I know about the way that climate change and environmental stressors have historically produced conflict between people, as groups fight over increasingly scarce resources, suggests that the same thing will happen again. It strikes me as inevitable that the earth will witness horrific conflict on a global scale at some stage during my daughter’s lifetime. And as in all wars, it is the poor who will suffer. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “the earth is ultimately a common heritage, the fruits of which are for the benefit of all. … It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence.”
The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff writes that “social injustice leads to ecological injustice, and vice-versa.” Boff quotes C.S. Lewis, who said that human dominance over nature is really the “power exercised by some people over others, using nature as a tool.” Another Brazilian, this time a Sister of Our Lady known as Ivone Gebara, notes that the struggle for environmental justice is “the struggle for survival in which innumerable people in my country, especially women and children, continue to be immersed.” A pastoral statement issued by bishops in the United States in 1991 entitled Renewing the Earth repeatedly reminds us that the fate of the planet is also that of its people: “At its core the environmental crisis is a moral challenge. It calls us to examine how we use and share the goods of the earth, what we pass on to future generations and how we live in harmony with God’s creation.” Solidarity with the poor, they write, “requires sacrifices of our own self-interest for the good of others and of the earth we share.”
The bishops’ challenge is a good one, but it is one that I think humanity will fail. How then do you raise a child, knowing that before she dies she will witness some of the most cataclysmic wars the world has ever known? Did John Connor’s mother do the right thing when she began teaching her young son survival skills and weapons training in Terminator 2? I don’t think so. My preference would be that of Pope John Paul II, who said that “an education is ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others, and for the earth.” How does one live well in a time of conflict? By acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). It will mean not imagining that you are the only person who matters on this planet. As God told Israel through the prophet Amos, “‘Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O men of Israel?’ says the Lord. ‘Did I not bring the Israelites from the land of Egypt as I brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?'” (Amos 9:7). Everyone has a right to life. Living in a time of ecological crisis will also necessitate being in solidarity with the poor and with the land. Marcelo de Barros and José Luis Caravias write that a spirituality of the land is “the experience of this road of following Jesus and communion with the God living in the practice of the struggle for the land and of the movement of the rural workers for their liberation and for the divine right they have to live in this land of our continent and to draw from it the sustenance of life.”
How do you instill values like this in a child? I’m not sure. Through prayer, perhaps, as Saint Monica (331-387), Augustine’s mother, did for him. But also by modelling this in your own life. I am a work in progress, but so is creation itself. John Haught writes that “if through faith we can interpret the totality of nature as a great promise, we may learn to treasure it not simply for its sacramental transparency to God but also because it carries in its present perishable glory the seeds of a final, eschatological flowering.” The earth is incomplete and is still being redeemed. As we struggle to move beyond our own selfish, limited perspectives and desires, creation too struggles to bear the burdens that we place upon it. We must face the future together with the earth, with the confidence that Christ Jesus suffers together with us and will ultimately renew creation according to His good pleasure. May God give us, our children, and our children’s children the strength and wisdom to walk this narrow path He has placed before us.