Interview with Dr. David Cloutier—Part 1: Making all things holy

Part 1 │ Part 2Part 3

It’s a delight to have one of my favorite contemporary theologians and authors offer his thoughts on faith, nature, relationships, and much more.

Dr. David Cloutier is a professor of theology at Mount St. Mary's University. [Ed. note: Dr. Cloutier now teaches at Catholic University of America.] He teaches moral theology, Catholic social ethics, and marriage and sexual ethics. A prolific writer, he is the author of Love, Reason, and God’s Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008), and editor of the collection Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics (2010).

One of his most important essays—“Working with the Grammar of Creation: Benedict XVI, Wendell Berry, and the Unity of the Catholic Moral Vision” (Communio, Winter 2010)—will be discussed in Part 2 of this interview. For now we begin with his latest book, Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press).

Catholic Ecology: I’ve ordered your new book but it’s sold out! A good sign, I take it. From what I’ve seen online, its organization seems to follow that of salvation history. Starting with Chapter One, “Beauty,” then “Losing our Place,” (which seem like ways of approaching Genesis’s account of creation and the fall) then on to theology, practical applications, and concluding with “Making Places Holy.” Was that intentional and what were the reasons for going in that direction?

Dr. Cloutier: Yes, I think so. Liturgical Press reached out to me and requested a book on a kind of pastoral level—a parish level—that would describe Catholic theology and the environment for people. It seemed to me that to do this you needed to start in that context with people’s experiences, particularly the experience of beauty and the kind of displacement that makes it difficult for us to see and experience beauty.

And by leading with that, move into salvation history as the theological narration of our experience of our appreciation of beauty but also our loss of it.

CE: Then you move in to practical aspects.

Dr. Cloutier: Yes. The second half is oriented toward practice, ethics, what should we do to protect the environment.

CE: So in a way the book is teaching ecology but it is also teaching on the Catholic faith as well.

Dr. Cloutier: Absolutely. My assumption in writing the book was that there are certain basic beliefs that Catholics, if you ask them on a survey—like, did God create the world and put it in a particular order, that kind of knowledge—they say, “oh, yes, of course.” But in terms of really understandings what that kind of claim means theologically, many people may not have an appreciation of that. And so I wanted to make sure that people saw the ways in which environmental teachings and practices of the Church are rooted in basic theological claims.

And so I say in the introduction that sometimes people think the environment is a sort of trendy add-on to Church teaching—like, oh yes, everyone is talking about the environment so now the Church needs to—but I wanted to show the ways in which the commitment to the environment arises out of the theological basics.

CE: I’m glad to see that. I think many of us have, well, a battle with people inside and particularly outside the Church that don’t appreciate the way Catholic theology is so linked to nature and its protection. They think that we’re late to the conversation.

Dr. Cloutier: Yes, which is why I broke up the section on salvation history into two chapters. In the Old Testament chapter I deal with the creation story and the idea of an ordered creation. And then how agrarian-friendly the Law is in the Old Testament—for example, the restrictions on land ownership and laws about gleaning. It’s very anti-accumulative. There is a strong sense of care for the land that is built into those laws – since most of us do not live on the land anymore, or actually read Leviticus, people often just completely neglect this part of divine moral law.

But it’s more than just neglect of the Hebrew Scriptures. In transitioning into the New Testament, I start off with the infamous Lynn White essay from the late 1960s—that basically said that Christianity is responsible for the environmental crises because of its focus on saving individual souls, and therefore it doesn’t care about the material world. I take that on directly. That [view] rests on a misunderstanding of Christianity, but one that some people do seem to have. [Laughs]

That gets to another piece of the catechesis that absolutely needs to happen—that the Christian sense of redemption and salvation is not purely an otherworldly, soul-centered account detached from the order of creation.

CE: So it’s a work for evangelization and apologetics as well as catechesis and environmental stewardship.

Dr. Cloutier: I would hope so. I’m hoping that people gain an appreciation about what to do not just for certain environmental problems, but also a kind of overall vision of what it means to be Catholic—and a Christian in general, because I tried to write it from a general sense, too, although the audience for Liturgical Press is generally Catholic.

CE: I really look forward to reading it. Tell us about the practical elements that follow in the second half.

Dr. Cloutier: Those were a real challenge. The book wasn’t supposed to be long (it’s about 150 pages), and as I’m sure you are aware, it can be very easy for environmentalists to start creating very, very long lists of things to do, things you can change in your life. And these lists can become overwhelming, or somewhat trivial, or both!

CE: [Laughs] This is true.

Dr. Cloutier: So the question was, how do I talk about this? And I settled on talking about patterns—trying to get people to realize that there were certain key patterns in their lives that really required attention if we’re going to act in light of this environmental vision.

And so I have four patterns in the last half of the book: Food and fuel usage—simply calories and their consumption. Then dwelling—neighborhoods, urban spaces, how we think of houses, space. Then work and leisure—how we understand the work that we’re supposed to be doing and what we’re supposed to be doing in our leisure time. And then finally, the global economy. That’s the chapter that I talk about certain kinds of structures of sin, or structural issues that one has to deal with.

In all the chapters I try to focus on the big stuff. I try to help people see that there are big things that if they truly pay attention to them in their lives it can really make a difference. Not that it’s easy to do! But these are the things that really matter.

CE: Excellent. Sounds like a great approach. And it is difficult. Okay, now for the end of the book you have “Making Places Holy” as a conclusion. Can you tell us a little about that and how it relates to teaching the faith as well as environmental realities?

Dr. Cloutier: Yes. The center of that chapter is the universal call to holiness from [the Vatican II document] Lumen Gentium, and especially in the laity’s call to world transformation. It is clear from Lumen Gentium that the central vocation for lay people is to bear the fruit of Kingdom in the world. That is what is meant by holiness in this Vatican II document.

So I use this as an additional opportunity for catechesis about holiness. That word doesn’t mean that we’re all supposed to be nuns and priests, or praying Rosaries all the time—and I don’t say that because I’m against praying Rosaries! But it seems evident when you read the document that the primary emphasis of holiness in terms of the lay vocation is to do holy work in the world, in transformative ways. We make the places we live and work holy—sanctifying them—for God’s purposes.

I start off this concluding section with the third Eucharistic Prayer. “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, and all you have created rightly gives you praise, for through your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power and working of the Holy Spirit, you give life to all things and make them holy,”—to all things! And make them holy!

So I talk obviously about the transformation of the Eucharist—of the transformation of creation in the Eucharist—how this is a sign of what’s supposed to be happening universally. There is supposed to be a holiness of all things that God the Holy Spirit is engaged in—this work of transforming all things into holy things. And we get to assist in that work in some way.

So again, it’s a call—a universal call to holiness—to Catholics who might not connect that with environmental practices. And on the other hand, to Catholics who are really committed to environmental practices but who may not connect that with the liturgical life of the Church or the language of holiness. So I’m hoping to make that connection for both groups.

CE: Amen. That to me is the million dollar connection.

Dr. Cloutier: Right. I’ve certainly seen from your blog and from our conversation that we both see this as the critical connection. We have one group of people who are interested in the environment and another group of people in the Church who are interested in something that you might call holiness or the sacramental life of the Church—and both groups seem to be at odds with one another. Unnecessarily!

CE: Exactly.

Dr. Cloutier: And you’ll notice in Walking God’s Earth I intentionally begin every chapter with a quote by Benedict XVI. I wanted to do this so people realize the depth and complexity on environmental issues, which I think helps connect these groups.

CE: So where is there a home for those of us that want to keep one foot in the liturgy, the sacramental grace of God, and another foot in the world to bring that grace to the world?

Dr. Cloutier: Simple. In the documents of Vatican II. Especially in the papacy of Benedict XVI—but really, in all the popes, right? Pope Francis, for all the press coverage, is just as much as a pious person as Benedict and John Paul II were. It’s not as if Francis is saying that piety and prayer, and spending time in Church, are passé. What he obviously is criticizing is the idea that those things are sufficient for the Christian life. And again, anyone who was a careful, good reader of Benedict XVI would know that he was making the same points. He was not a “sacristy Christian,” to use Francis’s language—even if he was interpreted that way by some people.

Jump here to Part 2 and Part 3.

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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.