So, how are you going to celebrate Earth Day? If you were to ask me this question about twenty years ago, you probably would have received a dumbfounded look with the simple response, “Why would I celebrate Earth Day?” Like many Americans, I had a rather suspicious attitude toward such celebrations, thinking of them as merely days of political statements and protests against anyone who didn’t embrace a 100% “Green” lifestyle. As a devout Catholic, I also struggled with expressions of what I would call an Environmental Spiritualism, treating the Earth as if it were God or another type of deity. In short, Earth Day was not high on my priority list.
In time, however, my attitude began to change toward Earth Day. The beginning of the change occurred when I was in college and started to delve into Catholic Social Teaching (CST). I was surprised to discover that one of the seven themes of CST put forward in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was to safeguard the environment. As I read through the principles we now label “Care for Creation,” I was struck with their common sense approach to the environment that can be summarized with the statement, If we destroy the environment, we ultimately destroy the human person and if we care for creation, we uphold human dignity. These sentiments were reinforced by St. John Paul II in his 1990 World Day of Peace address. The introduction of the address reaffirmed the key points of safeguarding the environment found in the Compendium.
In our day, 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 an progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.
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. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned abut this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives.
Many ethical values, fundamental to the development of a peaceful society, are particularly relevant to the ecological question. The fact that many challenges facing the world today are interdependent confirms the need for carefully coordinated solutions based on a morally coherent world view.
For Christians, such a world view is grounded in religious convictions drawn from Revelation.
As I read more from this “socially conservative pope,” I was struck with how St. John Paul II sounded more “green” than college friends I had who were studying natural resources. One of the healthiest aspects of this exploration was the eroding of what I would call the “false politics” of placing all people in a polemical relationship based on a uniquely American interpretation of the terms conservative and liberal. I was beginning to see that the faith I embraced did not fit into these polemics, but pointed to a third way, a transcendent way that placed the pursuit of truth as the primary goal of the Christian. This pursuit began to awaken in me a deep love for the consistent tapestry of human dignity found in CST and how that dignity calls us to care for creation by recognizing that we are a part of creation.
This understanding of care for creation was reaffirmed by the Pope who followed St. John Paul II’s, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Again, the shallowness of political ideology often sought to label Benedict XVI as “even more conservative” than St. John Paul II. The irony was that Benedict XVI was clearly “greener” than St. John Paul II. It didn’t take long for Benedict XVI to make a clear statement for the care of creation by installing enough solar panels in the Vatican to power all of Vatican City. This and other actions by the Pope Emeritus gained him the nickname, “The Green Pope.” So strong were the statements of St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that Earth Day celebrations began to reflect, in some circles, a deep appreciation and admiration for Catholicism’s approach to the environment. To this day, there are few Papal addresses about care for creation that impacts me more than Benedict XVI’s World Day of Peace address from 2010.
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. The degradation of nature is closely linked to the cultural models shaping human coexistence: consequently, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits”. Young people cannot be asked to respect the environment if they are not helped, within families and society as a whole, to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others. ~ Benedict XVI, World Day of Peace 2010. Paragraph 12
These and other writings from Pope Emeritus Benedict helped me see that “being green” was not a political slogan or a cultural mantra that will be forgotten in the future. Rather, care for creation was a clear matter of morality, affirming that good conservation and stewardship of the land is essential to upholding human dignity now and in the future. Our current Pope, Pope Francis, has taken this aspect of CST a step further, expanding upon Benedict XVI’s development of a human ecology and casting care for creation in the broader sense of integral ecology. Chapter four of Laudato Si’ provides the main themes of integral ecology that touches on social, political, economic, global, local, and personal dimensions of how we need to be more attentive to our ecological decisions. Toward the end of chapter four of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis provides a clear, practical reflection I have offered in the past for your consideration. The words ring with a meditative tone worth reexamining.
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn. ~ Pope Francis, Laudato Si’. Paragraph 160
These and other writings of the Church on Care for Creation have moved me from viewing Earth Day as something to be suspicious of to something for Christians to take seriously, reflecting upon how we are called to care for our common home.
Do I still find expressions of Earth Day that evoke the same discomfort as I experienced 20 years ago? Yes, I do. However, this discomfort is also met with the sobering call of Scripture and Tradition to take seriously the care of our common home for current and future generations. In light of this, I have decided to start moving toward being “more green” in my life. I still have a lot of work to do to embrace an integral ecology in my personal life, but it’s a journey worth taking.
Embracing integral ecology also points to an implicit ecumenism, realizing that environmental decisions, good and bad, impact all people regardless of race, gender, country of origin, or state of life. This recognition of the universal impact of our ecological decisions upon humanity allows Earth Day to be a time that we can bring the diversity of religious, political, and social thought found in our world into dialogue with one another, seeking common themes we can mutually embrace. In the United States, one of the mystic voices about God and creation through the experience of the National Park system is John Muir. To conclude this reflection, I offer this passage from his work, The Yosemite, for your enjoyment. Happy Earth Day!
The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world, and they increase both in size and number as their value is recognized. Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor, though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup, as well as in the carefully tended rose and lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks–the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc. — Nature’s sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like anything else worth while, from the very beginning, however well guarded, they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, industriously, shampiously crying, “Conservation, conservation, panutilization,” that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great. Thus long ago a few enterprising merchants utilized the Jerusalem temple as a place of business instead of a place of prayer, changing money, buying and selling cattle and sheep and doves; and earlier still, the first forest reservation, including only one tree, was likewise despoiled. Ever since the establishment of the Yosemite National Park, strife has been going on around its borders and I suppose this will go on as part of the universal battle between right and wrong, however much its boundaries may be shorn, or its wild beauty destroyed. ~ John Muir, The Yosemite. Chapter 16