Caring for the earth isn’t optional
Good Catholic theology always has the earth in mind, says theologian Celia Deane-Drummond.
Deane-Drummond goes one step further: Not only is environmental justice an intrinsic part of being a person of faith, faith is a necessary tool to understanding our present environmental crisis. She believes that while science can tell what’s gone wrong in our world, it can’t motivate people to change. This is where religion comes in.
“If we recognize creation as a gift from God rather than something to be manipulated,” she says, “that starts to change our own understanding of assets and material goods. The natural world becomes a gift rather than something to manipulate for our own pleasure.”
The model for how to shift our view of creation, according to Deane-Drummond, the director of Notre Dame’s Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing, is in Scripture and the rich Catholic tradition that combines environmental justice with care for the world’s most poor and vulnerable. While environmental issues may be more widely considered after Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), different understandings of humans’ relationship to the rest of creation go all the way back to Scripture.
How is caring for the earth a fundamental part of our faith?The first step is to stress the importance of interrelationships with one another, with God, and with the natural world. They’re all part of one piece, so they’re all interconnected.
The environment isn’t just this extra thing that only a few people should be concerned about. It’s about the fundamentals of our faith. When we talk about creation in the context of religion—what’s called ecotheology—there’s this idea of interconnectedness, and that’s really, really important not just for ecotheology but for all theology as well.
Is this deep commitment to relationships and interconnectedness found anywhere else in our Christian tradition?In the letter of Paul to the Colossians, Paul writes a hymn to Christ that says, “In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (1:15–16). The Christ that Paul is describing isn’t just significant for human beings but for the whole earth. Somehow he’s come to save everything, not just humanity.
This is the heart of our own Christian faith. If you think about Christ in this way, you can’t just put creation off to the periphery. It’s woven in with salvation, history, and our understanding of the future, what theologians call eschatology.
For example, if you look at the biblical account of Revelation, the book talks about a new heaven and a new earth. What’s interesting is that the text can also be understood as a “renewed earth.” In other words, it’s not going to be destroyed and we start again: This earth will be carried forward into the next life, and that means we’re responsible for taking care of it. Our task as disciples of Jesus Christ is to look after the earth that God has given us.
I don’t think the very early church fathers ever questioned this belief. It wasn’t until the post-Enlightenment period that Christians started to think about human salvation without considering the rest of the created order.
What happened during the Enlightenment that changed people’s beliefs?We tend to point to things like Luther’s belief that salvation is by faith alone, but Lutheran and Calvinist texts are actually very affirming of creation as well. Over time we’ve interpreted the reformers’ beliefs in this one-sided way that maybe isn’t quite accurate.
As science progressed we also became disillusioned with the idea that religion could ever compete with the sciences in helping to understand nature. So people of faith abandoned that search, and we ended up thinking more about the human history of religion. Our search turned more and more inward.
But I think we forgot what makes us human: our relationships with other beings, with each other, and with God. It’s the dense interconnectedness with the natural world and our evolutionary process that made us human.
What’s unique in how the Catholic Church understands creation care?In the case of the Catholic Church, it’s more about thinking through development questions and questions of poverty. Catholics have this recognition that development and ecology aren’t separate. It’s not like if we care for the environment we somehow are not then giving our energies into issues of poverty: The two are interconnected.
Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis all used a term called ecological conversion. This doesn’t simply mean a turn to nature; it’s about how human flourishing and well-being are deeply connected with the life of the planet and an understanding that what we do to the planet is going to impact our own well-being.
And it’s becoming more and more obvious that this is the case. The impact of climate change is almost always on the poorest of the poor. In this way theology, in addition to giving people of faith that motivation to do something about climate change, can also be a spokesperson on behalf of the most marginalized groups who are suffering the worst effects of climate change.
Where do ecological and human suffering overlap?Factory farms, or concentrated feeding lots, are a kind of industrialization of animal lives in order to make killing them more efficient so that we get cheaper meat to eat. The people in these facilities, the animals, and the surrounding ecosystems aren’t treated as other beings. They’re treated as instruments that allow us to have cheap meat. If we really knew what was going on before we ate our piece of ham then maybe we wouldn’t do it.
First, these facilities have a negative environmental impact in several ways. They release methane, which contributes significantly to climate change, because methane has a much higher greenhouse gas effect than carbon dioxide. There’s also nitrate runoff into the environment; these farms kill many other local ecosystems and species. Also, the lives of the animals in these facilities is appalling. They very often can’t move around. They are fed unnatural products in order to fatten them up quickly. Sometimes they’re even bioengineered so they don’t notice they’re in confined spaces. There are all these practices that demean the lives of these creatures in some way.
In addition to the negative environmental impact, those who work there are often very marginalized groups, perhaps those who are not recognized as citizens. These people are working in these situations because they’re desperate, they have no rights, and they’re exposed to all kinds of health impacts.
I have a colleague, Augustín Fuentes, who’s an anthropologist who does field research at these lots. He says it’s impossible for people working at these kinds of facilities to not be completely transformed for the worst. When he goes into these buildings, he’s usually physically sick, but the people working there have had to lose that sensitivity.
Would you call climate change and these broken relationships sinful?Certainly the part of climate change for which humans are responsible is a sin.
It involves not recognizing the gift of creation. Thomas Aquinas said the Trinity is present or reflected in every living creature. It wasn’t enough for God to be just reflected in one species, us; the Trinity is mirrored in everything. Therefore, if we damage the earth, we’re somehow damaging God.
If we don’t have this understanding of sin, we won’t take environmental degradation seriously enough. It’s definitely a sin. It’s something we should confess when we go to confession.
And care for creation is also part of what’s necessary for reconciliation. Reconciliation is about learning to make peace with our God, each other, and the natural world around us. They’re all tied up together. It’s not one or the other; everything is integrated. That’s the real message of ecology.
How can we start to make peace with God and the world around us?That is an extremely difficult question, I think, because we’re talking about cultural conversion. Pope Francis talks about this as well in Laudato Si’—a cultural revolution. I’m not quite sure how we approach that, except to encourage people to listen to witnesses from around the world who are talking about their impoverishment or suffering due to climate change and environmental problems. Then we can try to generate a sense of solidarity.
We have an incredible opportunity to make a real difference in the Catholic Church. That’s exciting, and we should call on the Holy Spirit to enable us to make the kinds of changes that we want to make but often feel powerless to do so.
We need to embed ourselves in prayer. We can’t fix these relationships on our own; it’s too difficult. We’re locked into these lifestyles that are very often damaging to the natural world.
But once we start to realize this, the Spirit can allow us to become more ecologically minded. We all struggle with these issues, we’re not perfect. We won’t all become environmental activists overnight, but we can take small steps, and that’s all we can ask of each other.
What is an example of one of these small steps?One of the things I’ve done with my class is send my students to spend time closely observing a tree over a period of seven weeks. The result was absolutely remarkable; I never expected it. Many people had never actually spent time with a non-human living being before, especially not a static living thing like a tree.
My students loved it. It was transformative. Just spending time in the quiet gave them a sense of peace. But it also encouraged them to feel differently about their relationship to trees. There was this growing awareness of the fact that trees are living creatures just like us. Being responsive to that, watching the leaves come out, watching the growth, the sap, that rising energy that comes with life as it breaks into spring was a very experiential way of understanding how everything is interrelated.
Some of my students ended up going and becoming activists, working with Jesuit Volunteer Corps on environmental and other issues after they graduated. It’s very encouraging that this very simple lesson had this huge important impact.
I think the idea of encounter is really important. I’ve become more and more interested in how our deep evolutionary history is one of very close connections with other animals and organisms. I’m trying to understand our own humanity in relation to how we connect with other animal lives, rather than understanding morality as coming out of our isolation from other creatures. We are embedded in the relationships and interconnections between us and all other organisms. If we understand creation in this way, our relationship with everything else on earth becomes a relationship of encounter.
Tim Ingold, a British anthropologist, talks about this as living in the Earth, not on it. It’s about recognizing ourselves as integral to the natural world rather than just seeing ourselves floating on the top of things. When we think about ethics, then, the question is not so much “How do I make a decision as an individual about what I should do?” and more “How can I understand myself as in this very dense, interconnected relationship with other beings and what does that say about how I should act?”
You say that the church as a whole hasn’t always been great at engaging environmental issues. Do you think that’s changed since Pope Francis and Laudato Si’?That’s a very interesting question. I certainly think there has been a huge amount of energy around these issues, but I have the suspicion that the energy is around those who are already quite convinced. There is still a lot of resistance coming from the more conservative quarters that don’t necessarily want to listen.
Part of the reason a lot of action hasn’t been made may be because Pope Francis hasn’t spelled out in much detail what practical actions need to be done—for deliberate reasons, but there’s a gap between the encyclical and people’s actions.
I also think there are some barriers preventing people from accepting it full-heartedly. One is suspicion about Pope Francis’ theological credentials. Pope Benedict has affirmed that this is nonsense: If people affirm Benedict XVI as pope, they should listen to what he says about Francis. Of course, many choose not to do this.
The population question is also often very sticky for Catholics. Whether we like it or not, the carrying capacity of the earth is reaching its limit. How do you deal with that without devaluing human life? That dilemma wasn’t dealt with very well in Laudato Si’. Then there’s the gender issue, which again is very important but wasn’t tackled sufficiently and which some feminist scholars and others have resisted. So liberals often object based on these gaps in Pope Francis’ argument, and conservatives object because they don’t trust the rest of his theology.
But actually Pope Francis’ framework of integral ecology is a remarkably sophisticated map of interconnectedness. That wisdom only can come from someone of his age and experience. I think many people try to resist wisdom; they’d rather have things in small, bite-sized pieces they can understand. Instead, Francis is trying to do something more difficult, which is to look at the whole—the scientific story, but also the political and economic story behind environmental degradation.
Overall I would say that Laudato Si’ has had a positive effect, despite some of the criticism and difficulties. The task for theologians now is to fill in some of the gaps and face up to some of the critiques rather than just pretend they aren’t there. That’s what I’m trying to do: overcome some of the difficulties to make it more successful.