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A religious vision of a sustainable future is less about politics than ethics. It means drawing on deep spiritual currents in the Catholic tradition—and environmental concern as if people mattered.
By Keith Douglass Warner, O.F.M.
A few years back, I was halfway through my lecture on the ecological theology of Pope John Paul II when I noticed one of my students staring at me with his mouth open in disbelief. Waide Hicks ’06 had a dazed look on his face, so I asked him if he had a response. After a moment he blurted out: “I have been concerned about the environment all my life, and this is my fourteenth year of Catholic education. Why has no one ever told me they were connected?”
This is the kind of question I field regularly from audiences of all kinds—in parishes, at workshops, and in the classroom. Pope John Paul II gave more than 30 formal talks that addressed environmental protection, and at least four that were dedicated to this theme, yet few U.S. Catholics have heard of them. It’s not surprising, because conventional and Catholic media have done a very poor job reporting the environmental teachings of the Church. But in fact, in 1979, John Paul II named St. Francis, the founder of my order, the patron saint of environmental education, and that is why my ministry is religious education about the environment at this Franciscan mission, now known as Santa Clara University.
Creation is ethically significant in its own right—regardless of how it benefits humans. The ecological crisis is a moral crisis for humanity. Those sentiments are at the heart of the World Day of Peace message issued by John Paul II in 1990. That message, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, marked the official end of the debate about whether Catholics should be concerned about the environment and shifted discussion to how Catholics should express their care for creation.
Drawing from the creation story in the Book of Genesis, the Pope described humanity as having an inherent ethical responsibility to steward the Earth. Science and technology could be used to help us in exercising stewardship, he observed—but he pointed to many examples in which humans have used these foolishly, and thus caused great harm. Reflection on this, he wrote, “has led to the painful realization that we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.” To remedy this, he recommended that all human beings—and especially Catholics—conduct a serious moral reflection on our shared moral responsibility to care for God’s creation.
A distinctly Catholic contribution
The year after Pope John Paul II’s message on The Ecological Crisis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the pastoral letter Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching. The bishops grafted their moral vision of the environment onto recently articulated discussions of economic justice, and they interpreted the Pope’s teachings in a more specific way for an American audience. Renewing the Earth proposes a “distinctly Catholic” contribution to addressing environmental crises. It frames environmental ethics with classic Catholic social teaching themes: a sacramental universe, a consistent respect for human life, common good, solidarity, and concern for the poor. In keeping with John Paul II’s vision, it presents stewardship as human responsibility; but more than papal statements, it emphasizes the interdependence of socioeconomic justice and environmental justice.
What do I mean—and what do the bishops mean—by environmental justice? Stated simply, it is environmental concern as if people mattered. It is environmentalism where people live, work, and play. No one should have to experience toxic pollution in their home or be exposed to dangerous environmental hazards in their workplace, whether field or factory. No child should have to worry about the safety of the air they breathe in the classroom or on the playground. Environmental justice incorporates social justice values with environmental protection by making the poor and marginalized the object of special concern. Its power lies in its appeal to a fundamental ethic of fairness: that it is unjust for politically marginalized, low-income communities of color to suffer such a heavy burden of polluting activities. Consequently, environmental justice concerns are always embedded in a broader vision for social justice in society.
Environmental justice brings ethical analysis to bear on the social justice dimension of our relationship with the environment. Drawing from Biblical notions of justice as “right relationship,” theologians have shown how this vision of justice also applies to the relationship between humans and the Earth. Justice, from a Biblical perspective, imposes duties on those with power and resources to care for people who are vulnerable (the widow, orphan, migrant), but also to care for the land and all creatures that depend upon it. From a theological perspective, justice is a quality of relationship, not the outcome of a legal process. This is a broader understanding of justice than legal or economic human rights. The Hebrew scriptures envision justice as the right relationship between all created things: human, nation, animal, and element. Creation stories from Genesis describe human beings as having the moral responsibility to care for the Earth on behalf of the Creator, reflecting the love God shows for the Earth.
In the 1980s, churches with a particular focus on civil rights realized that communities of color had to bear an unfair burden of pollution, toxic waste, and dangerous industrial work. To make matters worse, these poor neighborhoods were generally ignored by public environmental regulators as well as conventional environmentalists. These injustices were initially described as “environmental racism.” Drawing from public health, labor, and community organizing efforts, the civil rights church leaders were the first to use the term “environmental justice” as a positive vision for action to protect poor communities of color. The U.S. Catholic Bishops began use of this term concurrently, which has led to occasions of confusion—even, I would venture to say, among readers of this magazine.
The environmental justice movement, which began as anti-toxics activism to fight environmentally caused illnesses, now works to create positive economic alternatives for underserved communities. Many nonprofit and community groups actively recruit forms of economic development that are environmentally and socially responsible. “Clean technology” is a broad set of energy, transportation, and manufacturing enterprises designed to dramatically reduce resource use and pollution. Many of these businesses provide “green jobs,” or green-collar jobs, for working-class people, often from neighborhoods with a history of pollution.
With that sensibility and history informing it, the most dynamic expression of American Catholic environmentalism has been a series of regional initiatives, bringing a Catholic social vision to bear on local issues through lay civic engagement: in Appalachia, the Columbia River Watershed, New Mexico, and more recently in the dioceses of Stockton and San Jose, Calif. These programs offer ethical principles from the Catholic tradition to guide our treatment of the environment, and a vehicle for deliberating the difficult moral choices we face regarding environmental protection. These are relatively small and poorly known due to the few resources allocated to them, but they portend increased public engagement with environmental concerns by U.S. Catholics. They weave Catholic social teaching with environmental justice themes into parish educational initiatives.
The Sacraments in the Catholic imagination
At their best, religious traditions inspire us to love God, our families, our communities, and the world. How do we grow in love and gratitude if not by recognizing what we have received from God, our families, our communities, and the Earth—and by giving thanks together? This is the essential meaning of the Eucharist in the Catholic tradition: to give thanks to our Creator for all we have received. The ritual expresses a much greater reality than words alone can convey, and this is the secret of the Catholic imagination.
The term Catholic imagination has an interesting history; it was coined by priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley to convey the belief that the material world can bring us into intimate relationship with God. The Catholic imagination is particularly powerful because it conveys a worldview enchanted with religious and moral meaning. It thus provides a shared story in which Catholics can participate to find their purpose in life, in their families and communities, in their work and play, and in their dreams and sorrows. The Catholic imagination proposes a vision of how human beings can live out their faith and relate to each other—and to the natural world—within a moral framework.
The Catholic imagination also reflects the belief that God’s love is revealed in a special way through the Sacraments. The celebration of the Sacraments discloses this love and opens up human awareness of a much deeper reality. The Sacraments are not only individual ritual events but rather a sweeping expression of divine love breaking into the world in material form. Note that sacramental celebrations assume that the material world is capable of revealing God’s love. For example, Catholics believe that God can use baptismal water to cleanse sins and to initiate a person into the life of the Spirit. The sacrament of Eucharist is a ritual meal of bread and wine that discloses Jesus Christ and is able to draw people deeper into the mystery of God. Sacraments reveal God in the material world, but they do not exist apart from a broader understanding of God’s activity in creation. Healthy and safe water, agriculture, and food are essential to the Sacraments.
Encountering the divine through active participation in the sacramental life of the Church is but one expression of the Catholic imagination. Much Catholic visual and performing art reflects the belief that God can be recognized in beauty. Church architecture, liturgical music, pilgrimage, images of Mary, opera, and religious passion plays all reflect this imagination. Faith-filled scientists have probed the structure and meaning of the biological, chemical, and physical world as an expression of divine goodness. Many farmers throughout history have cared for their land so as to sustain their harvests, but also to express gratitude for God’s abundant blessings.
The Spiritual Exercises and the natural world
Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wrote theSpiritual Exercises as a set of meditations and prayers to help people discern how they may best express their faith in practical service to the world. In the Jesuit tradition, discernment means deep listening to the voice of God, which often finds expression through the needs of the world, especially the poor and suffering. To discern one’s calling requires the exercise of the moral imagination: What are my gifts? Who needs them? How can I best put them at the service of the world?
Religious concern for creation dates to the origins of Christianity but has been obscured by some modern currents of thought. In The City of God, St. Augustine wrote: “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things.”
In the early 20th century, scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., responded most creatively to this invitation. His life exemplifies the Ignatian tradition of contemplative imagining applied to the findings of his scientific research about the origins of the Earth. He had a doctorate in geology and spent decades in China researching the Earth’s fossil record, prompting him to reflect more deeply on how God is revealed through the material world. He participated in archaeological research, including the famed discovery of Peking Man (an early example of Homo erectus) in the 1920s. His study of the Earth and its fossils led him to articulate an integrated understanding of scientific evolution and sacramental theology. He realized that the story of the evolution of life on Earth could help modern society deepen its appreciation of God’s activity in the world, and that conflict between the theory of evolution and the story of Genesis was unnecessary. During his lifetime, his work was seen as highly controversial by church officials; they banned publication of most of his work.
A decade after Teilhard’s death in 1955, the Second Vatican Council encouraged a more open stance toward modern science, and Teilhard’s vision inspired fresh perspectives on philosophy, theology, and the environment. Teilhard continues to stir religious appreciation of the Earth. On one hand, he offered a novel way of relating scientific knowledge and the religious dimension of creation. On another hand, all he did was to extend the vision of Augustine, who asserted that faith and reason do not exist in tension, for Teilhard indeed found God in all things. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI praised Teilhard and celebrated his vision of “a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host.” Thus, all of creation bears God to us and leads us to commune with God.
Within the Catholic tradition, moral guidance from the social teaching tradition can be woven into a fabric of meaning, a moral purpose for education, and for professional service to the world. The sacramental imagination is particularly powerful in its use of symbols, for these can touch the deepest core of our humanity. These symbols can help us in the exercise of the moral imagination, or in using our creativity to discern how we might best serve the human family—indeed, the entire community of Earth. If we can imagine Santa Clara University practicing a deep listening to the world and its needs, discerning how we can best respond to the needs of the world, we can indeed “lead in the development and promotion of practices, businesses, and technologies that will ensure a viable and just future for all,” as Santa Clara’s President Michael Engh, S.J., proposed in his April 2009 inaugural address. We can imagine inspiring possibilities, not only here in Silicon Valley, but as participants in global Jesuit educational partnerships.
As president of Santa Clara 1988–2008, Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60 advanced the promotion of justice and critical moral reflection on economic globalization. He drew from ethical analysis and Catholic social teaching about economic justice to articulate a moral framework to guide globalization. Fr. Engh was attracted to the position of president of the University by these themes, but he perceived that the campus needed to be challenged anew. Santa Clara had distinguished itself by its integration of justice concerns across all aspects of the University, but he wanted to refresh the school’s mission in response to the needs of the world.
President Engh caught some people by surprise when, in his inaugural address, he proposed that the University “become a major center… for examining the ethical dimensions of how we treat the physical world.” This was a bold idea; it would broaden the scope of our University’s concern for social justice to include the environmental context of human society. Jesuit education has always brought an ethical vision of the commons, but Fr. Engh wanted to expand this to human relations with the Earth and, through the natural world, with each other.
From one vantage, though, Fr. Engh’s proposal simply reflects the evolution of a Catholic moral perspective on creation, prayerfully imagined per the Spiritual Exercises. Justice, solidarity, and a moral vision for humanity frame Jesuit efforts to promote sustainability worldwide. An initiative building efforts around sustainability falls squarely in the mainstream of Catholic environmental thought.
Tellingly, at the beginning of 2010—on the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Ecological Crisis— Pope Benedict XVI offered this suggestion as the title of his World Day of Peace message: “If You Want To Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.” Future generations, he said, “cannot be saddled with the cost of our use of common environmental resources.” In addition, he underscored the responsibility that leading industrialized nations, such as ours, bear in setting things right—ecologically and morally.
Jesuit universities offer a humanistic education, so we are weaving together environmental concerns with the performing, visual, and language arts, and including reflection on the diversities of human experience and culture. Science, technology, and engineering play a vital role, yet we can be faithful to our Jesuit tradition by ensuring that human flourishing, moral significance, and creativity are reflected throughout this initiative. Theology, philosophy, ethics, and religious studies should contribute substantively to this effort. Many students begin their undergraduate studies with simplistic ideas about spirituality, religion, and our modern environmental problems—assuming that these are rival interests, or that they are unrelated; and they assume that religions are constituted by lists of rules. The three required religious studies courses at Santa Clara present an adult, intelligent approach to understanding faith. Hidden behind daily headlines about religious extremists are many other religious people working hard to fashion a more just and sustainable world. Students find inspiration in religious expressions of concern for the environment, and these prompt them to reconsider the role of religion in their lives, and in human society. Ultimately we can only create a more environmentally just world if we can imagine one.
Santa Clara is fashioning its response to Fr. Engh’s challenge based on its core strengths: integrated humanistic education of the whole person, engaged scholarship, community-based learning for a well-formed solidarity, and critical reflection on how science and technology can best provide benefits to those most in need. Given the scope of human-caused environmental problems, our core competencies might not be sufficient to fulfill a broad vision of environmental justice. We will develop additional strengths, but beyond that, we might need to reconfigure some elements of our school and incentives for everyone to participate in this vision. Although I am quite pleased that Fr. Engh has oriented us toward these goals, I am concerned that the approach we take will likely be incremental and modest. In this era of environmental crises, I believe the Catholic sacramental and moral imagination can and should inspire us to bold and creative action.
As the human family now confronts a rising tide of environmental crises, Santa Clara can bring the best of Jesuit education and Catholic imagination to propose an environmentally just future. This will require some re-visioning and reworking of campus resources, but this certainly is in keeping with what Ignatius wanted. After all, Jesuits practice a this-world spirituality, which is reflected in their tradition of universities. Jesuit education never stands still, and apparently, Fr. Engh wants to make sure this is doubly true for us at Santa Clara.
Keith Warner, O.F.M. is a Franciscan friar, a lecturer in SCU’s Department of Religious Studies, and the assistant director for education at the Center for Science, Technology, and Society. His books include Care for Creation: A Contemporary Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008), co-written with Ilia Delio, O.S.F. and Pam Wood. Read more about his work here.