Remember where it all began

Sacrificial love was once a new concept. Let's make it new again.

Here's a truth we'd do well to remember: The desire of Western Civilization to foster love of nature and neighbor is a vestige of its Christian genetic code—a reality that secular and “merely spiritual” worldviews either reject or simply do not know.

Historian Christopher Dawson, a convert to Catholicism, wrote in the mid-twentieth century quite extensively (and readably) about how Christianity made Europe what it is. Many others have called attention to the Christian genealogy of Western Civilization, most especially Pope Benedict XVI. So should we Catholic ecologists.

Given that the West has for some time been a significant source of the world’s consumption and pollution—as well as solutions to the ills thereof—we must understand not just what minds like Dawson and Benedict XVI have been telling us, but the implications of all this for Pope Francis in his task of nurturing responsible lifestyles.

What Catholic DNA does

Catholic thought rejects any theology or political philosophy proclaiming that human activity is capable of transforming our nations into states of bliss, or the world into paradise. This does not mean that we are powerless in the face of evil, whether its within us or others. It simply means there are significant limits to what we can do without a change of heart.

Here I would call to mind a few words of a young Joseph Ratzinger in his work on Saint Bonaventure. He said that “the Church which hopes for peace in the future is, nonetheless, obliged to love in the present.”[1]

It is the love that pours out from the Cross that quiets addictions and inspires us to love strangers—two areas in which humans must grow to answer our social and ecological responsibilities.

What this loving in the present looks like became a topic of a great many writings and homilies of Benedict XVI, as they are now for Pope Francis. And while Laudato Si’ is the first encyclical dedicated to ecology, Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est was the first to focus on Christian love, especially in our modern era.

In that encyclical we hear how the love of Calvary—that is, sacrificial love—is what ultimately directs us and allows us to truly care for another. It is the love that pours out from the Cross that quiets addictions and inspires us to love strangers—two areas in which humans must grow to answer our social and ecological responsibilities.

All this implies that modern and popular understandings of love must be reconsidered. Or, rather, re-remembered. This must include the realization that how we love is often complicated by the human desire to merely associate with those that we choose—typically those who comfort us or that excite our physical pleasures.

And so in today's world, love is often understood as that which brings pleasure. It is precisely here, at the epicenter of our contemporary self-love, that Pope Benedict challenged us in saying “[t]he difference between a friend and a brother is this: a friend is someone I have sought; a brother is given to me.”[2]

And this is, of course, precisely what grounds the pontificate of Pope Francis.

Hence the stumbling block for many: For the Christian, one is commanded by God to love both friend and brother—especially when our brother, be it a stranger or an enemy, has considerable needs.

What had concerned Benedict XVI and now concerns Pope Francis is this: humanity always goes dangerously off course when it denies the divine demand that we love not for pure pleasure but because to love the other is who we are and what we are meant to do. The denial—seen so often in the West, most especially among the post-Christian secular and the "spiritual but not religious"—rejects (or does not fully appreciate) the Christian Trinitarian, relational, Incarnational, self-revealing, self-sacrificing God who creates with order (which is negatively seen as a life with rules), goodness (including the offering of mercy to the guilty), beauty (which implies that we are not the authentic creators of beauty), truth (which demands justice) and, most of all, love—a love that surrenders.

Of all the consequences that a rejection of the Catholic faith implies, the most apparent is the contemporary subordination of the priority of relation to the priority of self.

The abandonment of the Christian God has occupied Western thought for some centuries. This hoped-for deicide is evident in the refutation and demonization of the Church out of which Western civilization was born. Certainly, the sins of the agents of the Church have offered much ammunition to those who seek its downfall. But throughout the centuries, generals with vast armies or inept, sinful prelates and lay people have been unable to disassemble the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Of all the consequences that a rejection of the Catholic faith implies, the most apparent is the contemporary subordination of the priority of relation to the priority of self. This creates an ever-expanding divide between Christian communal, other-oriented love and a post-Christian self-centered love.

Truth, love, and consequences

Such post-Christian, neo-pagan views of desirous love ultimately reject the suffering of self-denial and self-sacrifice, both of which are required to truly engage our social end environmental crises. Pope Benedict made his case clearly in an October 2008 General Audience. In it, he asks,

why did Saint Paul make precisely this, the word of the Cross, the fundamental core of his teaching? The answer is not difficult: the Cross reveals “the power of God” (cf. 1 Cor 1: 24), which is different from human power; indeed, it reveals his love: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (ibid., v. 25). Centuries after Paul we see that in history it was the Cross that triumphed and not the wisdom that opposed it. The Crucified One is wisdom, for He truly shows who God is, that is, a force of love which went even as far as the Cross to save men and women. God uses ways and means that seem to us at first sight to be merely weakness. The Crucified One reveals on the one hand man’s frailty and on the other, the true power of God, that is the free gift of love: this totally gratuitous love is true wisdom. Saint Paul experienced this even in his flesh and tells us about it in various passages of his spiritual journey which have become precise reference points for every disciple of Jesus: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor 12: 9); and again “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1: 27). The Apostle identified so closely with Christ that in spite of being in the midst of so many trials, he too lived in the faith of the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself for his sins and for the sins of all (cf. Gal 1: 4; 2: 20). This autobiographical fact concerning the Apostle becomes paradigmatic for all of us.

These words may not at first seem related to the world of ecology, or the state of the world in the aftermath of the United States presidential election. But they are related to both these and more, and deeply so.

Benedict XVI’s words speak of the core of the Gospel and the inner mysteries of the Church. Thus, they speak of how the Christian life keeps individuals, communities, cultures, and nations rooted in lifestyles that do not consume each other or the planet’s resources and ecosystems. The denial of our urges is certainly counter-cultural—especially in a society that tells us that the existence of a good feeling bestows the right, duties, and permission to fulfill it. What the Church offers is the power to keep us from falling prostrate before every desire we experience.

What the Church offers is the power to keep us from falling prostrate before every desire we experience.

Christ taught and showed us that to live well, and to help others do so, we must pick up our crosses of self-denial and follow Him. And more than that, His activity as both true man and true god has forever opened for humanity the gates of heaven, from which the sacramental grace of God can strengthen us to live joyfully and with very few material possessions.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ and it is our task to share this news honestly and with charity in this new era of political, social, and ecological turmoil if we are truly committed to both our faith and what reason is telling us.

In other words, we must be aware that human consumption, and the desires that drive it to its destructive ends, are the symptoms of life replete with technology and absent from the Triune God.

And so to truly make our nations great, we must be clear and unapologetic that the Sermon on the Mount and the Cross of sacrifice are the personal and cultural foundations of on which the solutions to our social and environmental struggles will be rebuilt.

[1] Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, trans. Zachary Hayes, OFM. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971), 163

[2] Ratzinger, New Outpourings of the Spirit, (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006), 82.

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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.