By the books: Tobias Winright, editor of Green Discipleship

It’s back to the books with Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment (Anselm Academic, September, 2011)—a book that every Catholic ecologist should keep close by.

Introducing us to this helpful collection of twenty-one essays is the book's editor, Dr. Tobias L. Winright. Holder of the Hubert Mäder Endowed Chair in the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics and an Associate Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Theological Studies, both at Saint Louis University, Dr. Winright co-edits the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, is the book review editor for the international journal Political Theology, and is a contributing writer for Sojourners. He was also the co-editor, along with Dr. Jame Schaefer, of Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI's Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States (Lexington Books, 2013), a most excellent resource.


Catholic Ecology: Green Discipleship was developed as a textbook. But it also seems to offer a lot to the general reader. Tell us a little about your intentions in compiling this book and how you suggest it be used in the classroom and how it can be used in the living room.

Dr. Tobias Winright

Dr. Winright: The idea for the book originated in the classroom ten years ago. When I taught at Walsh University, which is a Catholic university founded by the Brothers of Christian Instruction in North Canton, Ohio, I wanted to teach a course on theology and ecology. Nearby, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, who operate a wonderful retreat center called Villa Maria, provided me with a small grant to develop this course, which I have continued teaching after I moved to Saint Louis University, a Jesuit institution. So the classroom was the primary setting that inspired Green Discipleship. Over the years, as I taught this course, I used many fine books; however, I wanted a textbook that is more than a reader or an anthology but not a long single-author book either.

I wanted a book that is informative and interesting (which is why I recruited contributors who are also gifted teachers and writers), as well as one that fosters interactivity in the classroom (in discussions) and beyond. A number of my students have told me that they have kept this book and shared it with family and friends to read. In short, the classroom and the living room should not be divorced from one another, in my view. I have also been invited to speak on theology and ecology at Catholic parishes and Protestant churches, so I hoped that the book might be accessible and useful in pulpits and pews. In my work as a Catholic theologian, I believe my calling is to serve academy, church, and society; therefore, although occasionally I write strictly academic articles and book chapters, I usually aim to write for as wide an audience as possible.

CE: In your introduction you quote Roger Gottlieb, an author and professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Gottlieb suggests that theology’s engagement of ecology falls along three themes: reinterpretation, criticism, and new contributions. This seems to imply that the appreciation of nature is something new in Catholic orthodoxy. (I heard Dr. Gottlieb speak in Rhode Island a few years ago and he said something similar.) How does Green Discipleship put Gottlieb and similar voices into conversation with others—such as Stephen B. Wilson, author of Chapter 10, “Toward a Eucharistic Ecology”—who stress that the Eucharist, a central reality of the Catholic faith, has always been understood as a pointer to the goodness of creation?

Dr. Winright: ​Catholic theological attention to environmental problems and how to address them is relatively recent when considering two thousand years of Christian thought, teaching, and practice. Only in the last four or so decades has ecology become a topic that theologians have tackled in academic books and journal articles, and most of this has really surfaced in the last two decades. In fact, I'd say it has really spiked up lately.​ This is not to say that "the goodness of creation" hasn't been pointed to throughout the Christian tradition. However, the connection between how the goodness of creation—as tasted and experienced (hopefully) during worship and, especially, in the Eucharist—and the ethical life of discipleship in this world has not always been explicitly highlighted or developed. The book includes contributions that reflect the three approaches that Gottlieb identifies. Wilson's chapter helps students (and others) to see, perhaps with newly opened eyes, the deep resources that are already there, theologically, for justifying why Christians should care for creation. His is more of a retrieval/reinterpretation approach. Of course, someone from more of a criticism approach might note that there are hymns, rubrics, rituals, and the like that have had a more negative impact on how Christians view nature. I imagine a feminist theologian, for example, might argue that when over the centuries only men had roles to play during worship (as liturgists, priests, altar boys, etc), this reinforced patriarchal attitudes and practices in society, so that it isn't surprising that women and nature have had to be submissive to men as well as exploited, manipulated, used, and dominated.

I suspect Wilson would acknowledge the validity of such a criticism, but that he would not want to throw the baby out with the baptismal water. The "vital new contribution" approach is theological work that is truly pioneering on the frontiers. I think some (not all) of these theologians have given up on the retrieval/reinterpretation approach, but this method usually appears in addition to the other two. In his book Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), Mark I. Wallace, who is a religion professor at Swarthmore, writes that "Christianity, at its core, has always been a fleshly, earthly, material religion" in a way that sounds like what Wilson writes; however, Wallace not only explores the cross, the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, baptism, and other traditional Christian doctrines and practices—he also imagines new, even erotic, ways of thinking theologically and seeing that "all things are bearers of divinity," as when we consider that "all of Earth's vital fluids that make planetary existence possible—blood, mucus, tears, milk, semen, sweat, urine—are infused with sacred energy." This seems like a new contribution to me, but Wallace also does retrieval/reinterpretation and criticism. None of the authors in Green Discipleship offers a completely new contribution like that, but some of the chapters highlight such contributions.

CE: Similarly, the book concludes with your essay “Go Forth in Peace to Love and Serve the Lord.” In it you nicely connect the liturgy of the Mass with our everyday lives—and thus to environmental stewardship. Can you tell us a little more about what this may mean for the average Mass-attending Catholic?

Dr. Winright: A lot of my theological-ethical work is anchored in liturgy. I try to help the "average Mass-attending Catholic" to become more informed about what we are doing during worship, so that we can better participate in it, and then we can become even more formed and shaped by it. Vatican II taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The liturgy is the Christian life in a nutshell. What we do there does something to us. The songs we sing should come to sing us. The gestures we make should come to gesture us. When we sing "Make me an instrument of your peace" and when we pass the peace, we should be becoming more peaceable—not only in the sanctuary but in our lives 24/7.

One of my teachers, Stanley Hauerwas, sometimes asks Catholics, "What do all of those Masses do for you?" The Benedictine monk, Virgil Michel, highlighted this connection between liturgy and ethics, worship and morality, a century ago. He recognized that this doesn't always seem to happen, that it doesn't just happen automatically. There are a lot of us who go through the motions and who do not seem transformed morally by the Mass. Michel therefore emphasized the importance of education in connection with promoting participation at Mass. We are not supposed to be what I refer to as passive pew potatoes.

CE: Nancy M. Rourke writes in Chapter 9, “The Environment Within,” that “[e]nvironmenatal virtue ethics aims for the formation of good people, because good people are good ecological participants or good neighbors to all that is …” What would you suggest is unique about the Christian understanding of virtue in light of modern ecological issues and how does Green Discipleship showcase the connections between our choices and our planet?

Dr. Winright: Rourke does an excellent job in her chapter, "The Environment Within," demonstrating that theological ethics has as much to do with what kind of character we should have as with what kind of actions or decisions we should perform. In addition to the natural or cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance), she details how the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) are key for Christians. ​She also considers what one philosopher refers to as "dirty virtues" (sensuousness, wonder, adaptability, spontaneity, and more). I am not sure, therefore, that a Christian virtue approach is totally "unique," except that most Christian accounts of virtue also include reference to the role of the Holy Spirit or to how for Christians virtues are infused, and not only "natural," by the grace of God through, for example, the sacraments.

CE: Green Discipleship includes a variety of authors from widely different fields—theology, biology, history, sociology and others. This is just one of its great strengths. How difficult (or easy?) was it to cull all this together and select what fields and topics were best suited to this project?

Dr. Winright: It helped a lot that ​those contributors with non-theological terminal degrees (PhD's) also have graduate-level theological training (MA's or MTS's). I knew most of the contributors already, some more than others. Most of us met together and updated each other on our work while we attended academic conferences, so that we could get a good feel for the project and its tone. Anselm Academic, which published Green Discipleship, arranged for working dinners, for instance, at the annual conference of the College Theology Society and also at the Society of Christian Ethics.

CE: What are some of the most memorable student reactions when you use this text in the classroom? What surprises them and/or challenges them the most?

Dr. Winright: ​Just this past May at commencement I met a student's father who said he was reading the book. That's great. I love to hear about how students not only try to improve their own lives with regard to caring for creation, but also try to—dare I say it—do some "new evangelization" when sharing the book, or talking about what they learned from it and the class, with their friends, families, and churches. I think that is also their greatest surprise or challenge—that is, many of them find it difficult to persuade others to change for the better in how they live, and move, and have their being in this world. I can relate. What we learn and do here on campus is not always easily transferable to home, work, and community. Of course, the university, including my own, can always do better, too. It's also moving to see my students take the ball and run with it around here, trying to make Saint Louis University a greener campus.​

CE: The book was published in 2011. What would you add for an updated edition, either about theology or with regards to more recent environmental issues​?

Dr. Winright: An updated edition will happen in a few years. Anselm Academic now has the capacity to retain chapters as well as to add some new ones, allowing them perhaps to be mixed and matched.​ The book is already 500 pages with 20 chapters, and it includes end-of-chapter questions and exercises, as well as a glossary and an index. So I don't want to make the book too much bigger. We might delete the glossary, and one or two of the chapters could be trimmed since they are longer than most. The chapters that refer to the liturgy need to be updated, since they were written before the changes (e.g., "And also with you" rather than "And with your spirit") happened. I would have liked chapters on environmental racism, on maybe Eastern Orthodoxy or a Protestant perspective, plus on some other religions (in addition to the chapters the book already has on Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism), such as Hinduism or maybe traditional African religions.

The chapters on food, water, and war are popular with students and readers, so perhaps another chapter or two on concrete environmental problems would be good. Some chapters in the next edition may also need to be updated in light of Pope Francis' forthcoming encyclical on the environment!


Editor: Visit here for a complete list of CatholicEcology.net interviews.

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.