Interview with Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond. Part 3: Justice, hope, and "the heart of faith."

"Ecology is at the heart of faith."

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We come to the last of our three-part interview with the University of Notre Dame's Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond.

Catholic Ecology: We’ve mentioned climate change a number of times. I am increasingly concerned about the division within the Church between those who take climate change seriously and those who don’t—and the politicization on both sides of the issue. What are your thoughts as to why some people believe that the Church should stay out of the topic?

Dr. Deane-Drummond: I think part of the problem is that what happens in America—and it’s extremely unusual—is to link climate change with a particular political party. So it becomes attached to a political party and it is then associated with other things, like pro-life issues, in a way that is extremely damaging. In fact if you are pro-life than you should support eco-theology and ecological issues.

I find it very hard to understand this politicization, certainly, as a foreigner—

CE: I’m a life-long citizen of the United States and I find it hard to understand!

Dr. Deane-Drummond: [Laughs] Well, I do try. These issues should be apolitical, they’re too important to become politicized. And I think one of the reasons for these trigger points and why people are hostile is because they view them as having politics behind it. And climate change has been used as a political tool in an irresponsible way, in order to attack the other parties. I find that very discouraging—the distortion of information in order to win a certain political agenda.

CE: Some of those anti-ecological and anti-climate-change concerns within the Church come, I think, from seeing Catholics engaged in ecology who soon become too worldly—too political. What theological tethers should Catholics hold on to when monitoring international efforts or marching for solutions to climate change or in any way becoming active in the public square?

Dr. Deane-Drummond: The first thing is ecology is at the heart of faith. It’s not just another social concern. It’s actually embedded in how we think of ourselves as Christians. Christ is the cosmic Christ. He is deeply incarnate in the natural world, and we understand ourselves as creatures alongside other creatures. So we should get rid of this idea that the environment is something “out there” that we need to somehow manage. We should come much closer to the idea that we are deeply entangled and embedded in that natural world around us. But we’ve lost that sense of connectivity.

I’ve just written a book on theological anthropology called The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human Becoming (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). That book charts a different kind of theological anthropology in that it tries to get away from this sense of “we are humans at the top of the pile and we’re here to manage the natural world around us and ourselves.” Instead we must have a much deeper sense that we’ve become human through our entanglement with other creatures.

You can actually track this in secular anthropology. There’s been some work done to show that the earliest humans were shaping the natural world around them and that shaping actually impacted on the way the evolutionary process worked. So we’ve actually become agents of our own becoming through our entanglement with our world around us. So in a quite literal sense we’ve become our own ecology. It’s so important to see that. And so the way we’re shaping the world now will also affect the future generations. When we view our responsibilities we shouldn’t see them as just added on responsibilities. They are responsibilities for what we are becoming as well as what we’re doing sort of “out there,” as it were.

And so again, we should see ourselves as sort of entangled and embedded. And that entanglement and embeddedness is also deeply part of who we are and how we understand ourselves to be as Christians, as believers, as dependent on the Creator for our daily existence.

And as I’ve said, we’ve sort of lost that sense of dependence. So in a way the creaturely world can perhaps give us a window into that understanding. Because in a way we may perhaps think that as human beings we can cut ourselves away from that sense of being under the providence of God.

CE: Amen. And again, it seems to me that some Catholics behave at times no differently than secular ecologists—as if politics and activism are the only ways to improve our current situation. But we can’t forget our dependence on God and in His Grace to make the decisions and to transform and elevate our natures and offer that to the people around us. Is that part of seeking that “lost that sense of dependence?”

Dr. Deane-Drummond: Yes, and I think it’s also a mutual interdependence. So it’s dependence on God and also dependence on the natural world. In a way what the secularists have done is that they’ve looked at the dependence on the natural world and in some cases made that dependence a form of religious belief, but they’ve forgotten what I call the genuine religious dimension, which is the one recognizing God who is the Author of all that is. In that sense, God as Creator is very important. But so is God the Redeemer.

And so one of the thing that the secularists do not do well is give that sense of hope. So without hope I don’t think we can possibly have the energy to change and transform ourselves and the world around us in a way that’s going to be fruitful and beneficial.

So those two things are important—that sense of the Creator, and change the world into the divine instead of the world becoming part of the entangled world in which we are all creatures of the one God, and at the same time the loss of that sense of hope, or redemptive sense, means that we’re not going to have the courage to act in very difficult and dark times.

I know that there are several secular writers in the English literature who have written about hope in a dark time and things like that. But there is something missing in that writing. The basis of hope there is not really very solid. It’s a very fragile basis. And if you go down the evolutionary path, via evolutionary biology, then belief in progress and all these other things are illusions. Whereas in the Christian tradition they’re not illusions, but the belief in progress is something under God—so our hope is not in our progress but in the coming of the Kingdom. So it’s a very different view or mentality of what the perfect world might look like. It’s the world of the Kingdom of God rather than one according to a certain material good.

CE: And lastly, I always ask this as the last question: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?

Dr. Deane-Drummond: Yes, one thing I would like to say here is the combination of eco-justice and environmental justice. Although we’ve probably touched on it indirectly, I’d think I’d just want to emphasize this. Because eco-justice is about biodiversity loss, extinction of species, whereas environmental justice is about the disproportionate impacts of environmental harm on the poorest of the poor. Very often there are what I would call inappropriate industrial and other practices that lead to pollution impacts and health impacts to the very poorest of the poor but they also impact the natural world and other species.

So those two areas together are both impacted on by climate change. And that’s one of the reasons why climate change has become one of the big issues to look at for those interested in this question because it hits both the biodiversity and human societies as well. So I think that being aware of the justice question is something that the Catholic tradition is pretty good at. We should recognize that and realize that we have something to contribute here in thinking about how we are to respond over and above the secular world.

Justice through a theological lens will maybe look a little bit different from the secular because we will perhaps put different priorities in place that give greater credence to those who are suffering the most.

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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.