Special interview: Foundations of Catholic ecology

With the new online home for Catholic Ecology, what better way to celebrate than a return to the basics—to the foundations of the Catholic engagement of ecology?

We are fortunate that Dr. Jame Schaefer, Associate Professor of theology at Marquette University, has taken the time to help us with this topic. Dr. Schaefer is the author of Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts and her work at Marquette focuses on the constructive relationship of theology, the natural sciences, and technology with special attention to religious foundations for ecological ethics.

She worked with faculty of other disciplines to develop Marquette’s Interdisciplinary Minor in Environmental Ethics for which she serves as Director. For more on Dr. Schaefer, visit her Marquette faculty home page and her professional vision statement, which are both quite impressive.

Catholic Ecology: As the Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension, we’re reminded of the intimate link between heaven and earth in Christianity. Tell us a little about this link and what it should mean for believers.

Dr. Schaefer: Earth is where we first encounter God and strive to lead our temporal lives in relation to others in God’s presence. On the Feast of the Ascension, we are motivated by the offer of eternal happiness with God to embrace God’s creation by relating lovingly to other people, other species, ecological systems, and the biosphere--all of which mediate God’s presence and tell us about God (e.g., God’s goodness, patience, freedom-giving, empowering, loving). As believers, we need to know as much as possible about the entities we are encountering in our daily lives, how we are affecting them, and how we can act responsibly to promote our mutual well-being which is the sustainability of Earth. And, we need to act accordingly by joining our bodies with their bodies, our flesh with their flesh, sacrificing self-interest for an interest that is inclusive of God’s diverse and interrelated creation. Only then can we put ourselves in God’s unmediated presence. I will think more about this and move on to your other questions. Do not hesitate to ask for clarification on this rich topic.

CE: Your book Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics provides an exhaustive study of 2,000 years of Christian writings that reference humanity’s relation to nature. How has the book been received?

Dr. Schaefer: TFEE is not “an exhaustive study”; it is merely an entry into tapping some sources in the Catholic theological tradition that need to be retrieved, built upon, and applied to how we think about ourselves in relation to God’s creation and how we act upon current issues that are threatening its integrity. I had to be selective about what I covered in the book; there are many more sources to tap.

My students—undergraduate and graduate—and other professors who have used the book have told me that they found the sources “surprising,” “enlightening,” “helpful,” “energizing,” and “motivating.” They also appreciate the “critical-creative method” I developed and applied throughout the book which provides a systematic approach for addressing ecological issues like the accelerated rate of species extinction, the destruction of habitats, the degradation of ecological systems, and threats to the biosphere. In my own undergraduate and graduate courses on religious foundations for ecological ethics, I have been amazed and gratified by my students’ application of the nine concepts covered in TFEE to ecological problems occurring throughout the world, and they have always found humans who are adversely affected or threatened by these problems, thus demonstrating the interconnectedness of humans now and in the future with the well-being of other species and systems. Toward the end of my undergraduate course, the students individually and subsequently collectively rank the concepts for their effectiveness, and their rankings over the years have varied considerably. Some groups have negotiated among themselves and selected more creative concepts (e.g., creation’s praise for God by acting according to their natures with humans joining in the chorus by willfully acting as informed decision-makers) whereas others have been more practical (e.g., humans cooperating with other species and systems for their common good as a way of cooperating with God who gives us the grace with which to cooperate).

My discovery of these concepts and work with them has led me to recognize that one of the greatest obstacles Catholics and other people of faith have to living more responsibly in God’s creation is what we think about ourselves. Thus, the concepts in TFEE gravitate toward identifying models from which to choose (intrinsic/instrumental valuer from the goodness of creation, appreciator from the beauty of creation, cooperator from the functional unity of creation, etc., etc.).

Another discovery when examining the texts of other religions is a common element that runs through them—the sense of the sacred. Of course, the different religious traditions are highly nuanced on this sense. Whereas the Catholic theological tradition would experience God through the visible, sensible world (thus, its sacramental character), other world religions would sense the world itself as sacred or perhaps particular species or places that are sacred. However nuanced, we share this sensibility that should lead us to act reverently in relation to other people, species, and systems.

CE: Are students and other readers surprised that so many in the Church have written for so long about appreciating creation?

Dr. Schaefer: Yes, because they have not been informed about these sources either in the classroom or from the pulpit. Yet there are so many songs that we sing at Mass and during liturgies (many inspired by or taken directly from the Psalms) that underscore the goodness of God’s creation, its beauty, sacramental character, and creation’s praise for God. Though Catholics are familiar with St. Francis of Assisi’s affection for other animals through hagiography, his predecessors shared his sense of humility and companionship with other creatures in their midst. Yet there is so much more, though what we can retrieve was not written during times of widespread ecological degradation and threats to the integrity of Earth that is ongoing today. Thus, we are challenged mightily to glean from our theological tradition whatever can be appropriated and applied today.

CE: What is one of your favorite patristic or medieval passages from the book?

Dr. Schaefer: Hmmm…. There are so many inspiring patristic and medieval texts from which to draw, and each has a way of stirring my imagination. One of the most charming passages I discovered is the 12th century description of the Cistercian Abbey at Clairvaux (Descriptio Positionis Seu Situationis Monasterii Clarae-vallensis) with which you are familiar.

CE: Regarding environmental ethics in general, what does the Church offer that is unique when it engages ecological issues, especially biodiversity loss and climate change

Dr. Schaefer: The Church magisterium (Pope/Bishop of Rome, the other bishops, and the cardinals) can offer directions on how we should be acting morally, beginning with the four cardinal virtues and moving into the sub-virtues (especially humility as human creatures among other creatures with whom we share ecological systems and upon whom we are radically dependent for our survival).

CE: In 2012 you assisted two Ohio dioceses by speaking at a public meeting on “hydraulic fracking”—a natural-gas extraction process that has many concerned about human health impacts. Tell us a little about those diocesan efforts. And how can they be a model for others?

Dr. Schaefer: The staff of the two dioceses and the Catholics lay leaders are truly remarkable exemplars for other dioceses. They are informed. They care about the people whose ways of life have been altered by the incredible speed with which drilling commenced before they were adequately informed about how they would be affected. And, the staff and lay leaders are highly motivated to help. When I visited with the people in the public forum held by the two dioceses, I was deeply concerned about the people under whose land the drilling had commenced and others who lived nearby who no viable way out of their predicaments. They were indeed the oppressed—the poor and vulnerable, and they need the support of the bishops, staff, and lay leaders of the dioceses.

CE: What are your hopes for an encyclical by Pope Francis on the environment?

Dr. Schaefer: He has so wonderfully demonstrated the moral virtues of humility and poverty motivated, as Thomas Aquinas underscores, by love (caritas to St. Thomas—love of neighbor). I am so eager to read what he writes in this long-awaited first encyclical on the human-natural environment relationship. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made significant inroads in his teachings, building upon and deepening initial insights by St. John Paul II, especially when underscoring the interconnectedness between the well-being of humans and other entities/creatures both animate and inanimate, the poor who are most adversely affected by ecological degradation, and the need for intergenerational justice in light of threats to future people. I would hope that Pope Francis will alert all Catholics to be more humble toward other species and systems, to see ourselves as cooperators with them not self-serving manipulators of them, to develop in ourselves the moral virtue of moderation so we habitually take only what is needed to sustain our lives, and to express gratitude to God and to whatever we take/use of God’s creation as some Native American tribes express.

CE: Have you had the opportunity to reflect on the recent Vatican conference on sustainability?

Dr. Schaefer: I have only begun to read some of the papers that Vatican conference on sustainability.

CE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dr. Schaefer: I close with gratitude to you for reaching out to other Catholics to inform them about the treasures that are available within our Catholic theological tradition and teaching by the popes and bishops.

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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.