Pentecost and eco-Pelagianism

As I took part in a parish door-to-door evangelization event this morning, I was struck with how it provided a model for those of us working to protect the environment.

While teams of us were knocking on doors to introduce people to the parish, another team remained at the church on their knees before the Blessed Sacrament. Their prayers were for those of us actively engaged in the world. Their trust was in God, not us.

I’ve helped with these “Days of Evangelization” before, but the timing of today’s—on the eve of the Feast of Pentecost—offered a time to reflect on a simple question for Catholics in particular and Christians in general who are engaged in ecological advocacy: are we a people who think of environmental protection primarily in terms of our own activity—of our own activism, petitions, and protests—or do we place our ultimate trust in God?

I’ve worked with environmental groups since college—which means since I was an ex-Catholic who didn’t give much thought to God, and who has since returned to the Church. In my younger days I marched, shouted slogans, and helped hold large signs at rallies. I argued for this or that political or social fix to complex human and ecological problems and I complained about human inaction in one or two letters to editors. I had all the solutions—if only people would live the worldly advice that I proposed.

Looking back, none of that seems to have achieved much good. Nor did any of it offer me the sense of certainty that I get when I myself am on my knees before the Blessed Sacrament or when I am reading the living words of sacred scripture. This is because true environmental activism, like all transformation toward the good, is the work of the Holy Spirit—who animates all that is and who offers to elevate all that has fallen.

Not everyone will agree with this. I do not expect all people—especially those of no faith—to trust in the Holy Spirit and the grace that He imparts. But I would expect Catholics to do so. And yet I worry that many may not. I worry that in our ecological efforts we may place too much attention on worldly actives and little or no attention on Mass, adoration, fasting, abstinence, the Rosary, and the many, many other Catholic devotions that have buoyed the Church for two millennia.

In the ninth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s disciples fail to exorcise a demon. Christ does it for them. In the process he tells them that their lack of prayer (and fasting) prevented them from achieving their goal of helping another soul. In the Acts of the Apostles the disciples are immobilized with fear until the coming of the Spirit into their lives, after which they race into the world and change it—forever.

It is this last event—the coming of the Spirit on the disciples—that we celebrate this Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. In doing so, all Catholics who work toward worldly justice should also remain mindful of that detail in Mark’s gospel (and elsewhere) when the activity of the disciples failed because of their lack of faith—when their hopes in their own activity may have superseded their certainty in the transformative presence of God.

In the early fifth century, a monk from modern-day England (or Scotland, or Ireland, we’re not quite sure) preached a number of ideas that played up human activity over the need for God’s grace in our lives. Pelagius was so effective in spreading these ideas that we have a heresy or two named after him. Simply put, a Pelagian worldview is one that puts man’s salvation in the hands of men. God is not needed because we have the will to choose rightly.

The Church successfully confronted this idea—with a great deal of help from St. Augustine—but the idea that we possess the ability to save ourselves and our world is one that keeps appearing in Catholic circles.

It appears in non-Catholic circles, too. At a recent regional climate change conference I presented at, I was struck with the frustration of my colleagues over their lack of successes in changing the world. But then, the Holy Spirit is not in the arsenal of the secular.

And so, for instance, for secular ecologists, June 8th is World Ocean Day—a good and proper observance, but a limited one. For Catholic ecologists, June 8th is Pentecost. It is the Feast of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, our advocate, the Lord and giver of life, who has spoken trough the prophets and who ushers into our hearts the grace that makes possible virtuous, environmentally sustainable living—not to mention sacrificial love.

To close, I offer these following words from a common litany to the Holy Spirit. We should all read them. We should all pray them. We should all remind ourselves that it is these petitions that are needed for a true engagement of ecological issues.

From all evil, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From all impurity of soul and body, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From all gluttony and sensuality, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From all attachments to the things of the earth, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.​

From all hypocrisy and pretense, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From all imperfections and deliberate faults, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From our own will, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From slander, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From deceiving our neighbors, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From our passions and disorderly appetites, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From our inattentiveness to Thy holy inspirations, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From despising little things, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From debauchery and malice, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From love of comfort and luxury, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From wishing to seek or desire anything other than Thee, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

From everything that displeases Thee, Deliver us, O Holy Spirit.

May this Pentecost be a time of renewal and awakening for all faithful—especially for all those who understand and seek to correct the impacts of sin on the goodness of creation. May we place our trust and expectations first in God and in His grace so that when we do engage the world—for engage it we must—we shall bring with us the unstoppable joy and the efficacy of the first and ultimate giver of life.

Breathe into me, Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Move in me, Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Attract my heart, Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy. Strengthen me, Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy. Protect me, Holy Spirit, that I may always be holy.

"Angry Pacifist" photo credit: Flicker/Michael Fleshman

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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.