The three marks of Catholic ecology

A reminder that Catholics bring something (and Someone) special to eco-advocacy

As the slow days of summer roll along here in North America—and as multiple writing and eco projects take my time—I’ve been thinking about a criticism made to me a few months back.

The comment came from a member of a Laudato Si’ reading group. She was concerned with the title of both this blog and my column for the Rhode Island Catholic. “There’s just ecology,” she told me, concerned with the word “Catholic” as a modifier.

Mind you, we were at a Catholic parish.

This comment underscored an observation. There does seem to be a tendency of late for Catholics to see their eco-advocacy efforts as purely a worldly endeavor, one that differs little from secular efforts. As someone who had left the Church for two decades, and works squarely in the secular world, I know that this is not the case.

Our faith really does illuminate and elevate our activities in ways that we cannot and must not ignore. In fact, three realities about our faith are vital to the eco-tasks at hand.

Here’s why:

Catholic ecology is Revelatory

We champion the goodness and order of creation in large part because God has revealed these truths to us. Through sacred scripture, he has also charged us with caring for his great gifts of life and the garden that nurtures it.

Yes, these truths can be teased out of science, or simply with a look at the beauty of the planet and the cosmos that formed it. But Catholics take seriously what has been revealed to us in scripture, which allows us to take natural knowledge to a higher level. Indeed, all Christians should relish the Book of Genesis not as a science book but in how it offered the ancient world (and does today for ours) a unique understanding of creation as a great good. This stands in contrast to the understanding held by influential pagan empires around the ancient Hebrew people. Those pagan understandings taught that evil was a pre-existing substrate of creation.

If it hadn't been for Genesis, and the god that inspired it, that belief may very well have defined humanity's perception of creation.

Thankfully it did not. Today, Jews and Christians, and all those informed by them, love nature because God has actually spoken to us, and what he has told us begins with the message that all that he has created is very good. And it’s ours now to tend.

Catholic ecology is Incarnational

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, John tells us in the opening of his gospel. This continues God’s revelation and it also proclaims a reality within human history. The Creator has joined his creation so that he may save it from the inside—with our cooperation, of course. Unlike other faiths that keep apart the divine and the worldly, we Christians proclaim something different: that the great glory of God entered into the earthly molecules of a human embryo, gestated, was born, lived, and died for us. And his now glorified human body is the firstfruits of a new creation.

And so when Catholics speak of defending the good of the created order, we’re saying much more than secular ecologists. We’re adding to the conversation that creation is so important that God himself would enter into it. Moreover, in entering human affairs, he baptizes them—and so must we, which brings us to the last mark of Catholic ecology.

Catholic ecology is Sacramental

Our sacramental understanding of God’s work among us is intimately related to the concept of incarnation—of dwelling and being among, of being in close relationship with. And thus of elevating.

The seven Sacraments are God’s unique means to enter not just our lives, but the entirety of this world and all others. His presence in the proclaimed word, and when two or more of his disciples are gathered together, extend his means to be present among us. And where God is present, nature is elevated. When God is welcomed, darkness flees, and the sins of the world are taken away.

Likewise, our presence in the world is not merely a physical and political reality. It is a spiritual one, which should also (for it can) offer God’s grace to the activities of the day.

All this reminds us that our job as defenders of the natural order is not merely that of political advocacy. It is a role that should baptize. We should not merely engage in partisan and scientific discourse. With God’s grace, we should elevate it. Of course, we must first seek to become holy through our own reception of the sacraments, and then we can enter the world, proclaim the Word, and offer the means by which others can encounter God’s sacramental grace...and vice versa.

After all, with God, all things are possible.

Let us be mindful of all this as we go forth in our eco-political efforts. And let us remember that while saving creation is morally necessary, what is vital—and what makes care for creation possible at all—is the work of saving souls.

And the way we were told to do that has nothing to do with protests, petitions, or politics. Rather, we are first to go forth and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Because only by doing that will our protests, petitions, and politics be able to save this world, which so desperately cries out for salvation.

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.