“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” – John Muir
What has Christian wisdom to do with environmental thinking? Care of God’s Creation, the environment, is one of the seven pillars of Catholic Social Teaching, and takes up that very subject. Here are five talking points about the environment that every Catholic should be ready to discuss.
#1. Right to Use, Not Abuse
First, humans have a right to use the environment, but not to abuse the environment. The physical world is an intrinsic part of our story as human beings, and it must be respected as a key piece of God’s plan for the human family.
We learn integral lessons about ourselves and about God from the natural world. We learn, for instance, that He delights in Creation and gives us dignity by inviting us to be co-creators and stewards of the environment. We also learn that Creation reflects God and our stewardship draws us closer to Him, our Father. One of the key feelings that natural majesties evoke is a sense of wonder. This can orient our hearts to transcendence, to hope for an even higher beauty and source of order.
While a person can never be an object of use, other animals and plants can be properly used for our needs, such as for food and medicine. This is something most of us take advantage of on a daily basis! The Church has always upheld that this right to use creation is not without responsibilities and limits, such as the responsibility never to abuse animals. That we have a right to use but not to abuse isn’t a matter of inclination; it’s a matter of faithful discipleship.
#2. Cultivate Appreciation of Place
Care of the environment also means that we are called to invest in places, to cultivate greater appreciation of places.
We are body-soul composites. The fact that we have bodies means that we are situated in particular places, and those places significantly shape us. In fact, for the ancient Greeks, the matter of where you were from was practically your identity, a sufficient answer to who you are. In an age of increasing mobility, globalization, and technology, which can make it hard to grow deep roots in one place, the message that we need to notice and care for the places around us is all the more pressing.
Perhaps a simple way to start to better appreciate the environment that surrounds us lies in intentionally noticing the little details and wonders of our particular “neck of the woods.” Wendell Berry gets at this point when he writes:
No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.
This demands of us reflection: What places in creation are we called to care for most particularly?
#3. We Live in a Web of Connection
Thirdly, since we are body-soul composites, caring for the environment actually has a lot to do with caring for ourselves.
Consider the inconsistency in upholding the importance of pure water and at the same time advocating birth control methods that pollute women’s bodies as well as our water supply. Caring for creation can include recycling, certainly, but extends also into areas of sexuality and how we treat ourselves and others. How we treat the environment subtly reflects views we hold about ourselves and our nature as persons.
How we care for the environment also reflects our view of God. The connection between God and creation is lyrically described in this reflection from St. Paul in Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.For in Him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through Him and for Him.He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
St. Paul’s keen-sighted view of the environment is that creation has a Creator: God! The reality that God formed both the physical universe and us creates a link between us and nature, and between nature and God. This connectivity, which does not destroy the differences and hierarchy among beings, allows for a kind of communion. It also carries with it an obligation. “Everything is connected,” writes Pope Francis. “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”
#4. The Eucharist Grounds Us
The fourth point Catholics should be ready to discuss about the environment is that the Eucharist is what ultimately grounds our perspective of creation, life, and death, leaving us neither naïve optimists nor gloomy pessimists about our surroundings.
Reflecting on Laudato Si, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson has written that the celebration of the Eucharist places care for creation on theological ground by “emphasizing that God’s goodness is the source of the things of this earth used in liturgy.” He continues, “The water is a natural symbol from God’s providence; bread and wine result from human manufacture of what the earth has produced.”
In the celebration of the Eucharist, things of this world are used to assist in the worship of God. This helps us to understand how the seemingly ordinary things that surround us can and should play a part in helping us to know and serve God. The Eucharist reveals this to us: Our surroundings can be integrated into our worship of God!
#5. Put Theory into Practice
Scripture doesn’t spell out recycling or tell you to buy fair-trade goods. What precise policy you should support or action you take to live out this principle of care for God’s creation will necessitate personal discernment. But it all starts with a solid understanding of the reason to care for creation—God Himself asks us to!— and a desire to enter into a deeper relationship with our Creator.
As a final idea for reflection, consider how Pope Francis suggests in Laudato Si that, ideally, learning to properly respond to and care for God’s creation is something that happens in the family. Is there a way to help your family better care for God’s creation, or explore the environment in light of the reality of the Eucharist?