"We are losing our attitude of wonder, of contemplation, of listening to creation and thus we no longer manage to interpret within it what Benedict XVI calls 'the rhythm of the love-story between God and man.'"
+ Pope Francis
Two weeks ago, I brought my mom for her first COVID-19 vaccination. After almost a year of providing most of her 24/7 care—a consequence of protective lockdowns—I and everyone else at the community center that morning were all (mask-covered) smiles. The giddiness came certainly from the sight of so many vulnerable men and women finally being vaccinated. But there was something else: the sight of so many people in one spot was itself strangely gratifying. After months of isolation for young and old, it was a relief to be part of a crowd.
There was a lesson in that moment—one we Christians must embrace anew if we’re serious about protecting our natural world and building a better, more just society.
Christianity and relation
For Christians, to be fully human begins with our relationship with God, first and foremost, and then with each other and with all of creation. This is a foundational truth, one revealed at the very opening of the Book of Genesis and that escalates throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the New Testament, Christ elevates this reality as God with Us. In the person of Jesus Christ, divinity enters the stuff of creation—water, minerals, electro-chemical signals, and all the created realities that comprise the human body. And it is Christ Himself, both through his ministry and ultimately on the Cross, who shows us what true love looks like. Today, He remains with us sacramentally through the stuff of creation and the presence of other people. This underscores for all ages the relational nature of God, creation, and humanity.
The nature of love
All this gets us to another truth. Another Christian proclamation.
Love, we Christians propose, is not some mere sentimental or, worse, self-serving emotion. It is utter abandonment to God, each other, and thus to the common good.
It is not the modern notion of empowerment. It is, instead, the embrace of humility.
We find clues about all this in the original Greek texts of the New Testament. There, the word love had a particular meaning that is lost to so many English speakers today.
While the Greeks had several words to speak of love, such as the physical eros and the familial philos, when the authors of the New Testament spoke of love, they used the Greek word agape.
While eros and philos can be twisted into demanding desires and tribal intolerance, agape, little used among Greek writers of the time, signifies a fully self-giving love of other.
It is truly the love of the Cross.
Thus, to be truly human is to be always and everywhere a person who sacrifices, who seeks not some transient worldly, tribal, or biological love—not eros or philos—but a love that serves all people.
This tells us three things.
First, we are social creatures—which is why month after month of “social distancing” has taken its toll and why we’re longing to once again be part of a crowd—of a community.
Second, we are meant to place our lives in service to all. In an age of empowerment, Christians must practice two counter-cultural realities: temperance and humility.
Third, because our relationships extend beyond each other, we are meant to live within our wider social and ecological means. We are meant to consume and produce and subsist within our local and global ecosystems in ways that do not cause harm to the natural order or to other human beings.
Pope Francis champions all this especially in his encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti, which can really be understood by first grasping the Christian understanding of the Trinity (pure relationship) and the Incarnation (pure, sacrificial love of other), and then acting accordingly.
(I would add another encyclical, Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est, which dives into the eros-philos-agape discussion discussed above. Perhaps that’s for another post.)
What this means for Catholic ecologists
While the political engagement among the faithful is critical to assure sound environmental policies, Catholic environmental advocates have a more potent political tool—and, indeed, a responsibility. The first rule for Catholic ecological advocates is to evangelize.
That, my friends, is our not-so-secret weapon. And it is necessary that we employ it in the spiritual war underway.
Because to share the Gospel in word and deed both saves souls and baptizes cultures, and if we’re truly intent on protecting creation, we must baptize all cultures with the Gospel of Life and the grace of the Triune God that helps us live it.
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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.