Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith

by David Cloutier Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Isn’t everyone talking about Climate Change? It seems so. Even in light of the drastic difference climate change is making on the wines of France, the changes are making a difference. The author begins his story with a walk and these stories because the idea of a mature we inhabit and tend, well or badly, is really the vision best suited to a Catholic theology and spirituality of the environment. It’s about a recognition of and wonder at our own particular places, and a renewed recognition of how, too often we ignore or even degrade their value in our everyday life. Our “walk through” the Catholic tradition will proceed in two parts. The first part of the book introduces the broad spirituality and doctrines on which the tradition is based. We begin by examining more closely our experience of beauty and how this moves our spirit; but we also recognize how our spirits are often distracted and neglectful of this beauty. This loss of our sense of place in a beautiful, ordered creation is due to three spiritual problems: scale, speed, and selfishness. These spiritual courter force will also be examined. Then we will turn to the basic theological beliefs of Catholics about God, creation and salvation, drawing especially on the scriptural writings. Various ideas in Christian Scripture can seem to lead to environmental neglect and even destruction. But read properly, the Scriptures reinforce a spirituality of wonder, care, and gift in relation to nature and its abundance.


The second part of the book moves into our lived response. In the transition section, we will see that the Christian life is not simply one of appreciating beauty, but acting on it. We will explore in depth our moral call to live out proper patterns of this vocation as caretakers. Pope Benedict XVI, the “Green Pope” writes, “Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior us and has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. Nature speaks to us of the Creator (cf.Romans 1:20) and his love for humanity. It is destined to be ’recapitulated’ in Christ at the end of time (cf.Eph:1:19-20) Thus it is too a ‘vocation’ (Caritas in Veritatte 48). Caring for creation is not a special interest for a few but an integral part of the Christian life. Recent papal writings have affirmed that this commitment is essential, not a novel addition or optional extra. From Genesis, which depicts a wholly good creation, in every element, through the Incarnation of Jesus in flesh and blood, even to the vision of “the new heavens and new earth” offered us Revelation, the Bible resolutely rejects a purely “spiritual” faith. “Being green” and helping the

environment can often seem overwhelming. The problems seem so big, the recommended actions so small (and numerous), I propose that we examen four basic patterns that animate our shared life today: how we eat and get energy, how we design our dwelling together, how we balance work and recreation, and how we direct our economic resources. These patterns, as we often practice them in society are distorted; for the first time in human history vast numbers of humans live far from any natural rhythm or cycle and have acquired sufficient power to manipulate or even destroy the created order on a large scale. We have stopped working with what Benedict calls “the grammar of creation,” and have begun to believe (falsely (that there is no greater grammar within which we live. Our fundamental calling, then is to identify these distortions and figure out how to resist them and build up alternative patterns. Our journey concludes with a reflection of how such alternatives ways of living are ways if real holiness, exemplifying the “universal call to holiness” at the heart of Vatican II’s vision of the church. That is the map for our journey. But here are a couple prehike traveling tips so that you avoid some common wrong turns and missteps along the way. The first and most important thing to remember is this: avoid thinking of the environment in either-or all-or-nothing terms. For example, either we eat, or we preserve nature. Either we drive our cars, or we go back to living in caves. Remember the walk: the world does not exist as this kind of either-or. Dan Misleh, who directs the US bishops’ campaign on climate change begins his talks with an exercise where he asks people to close their eyes and say what images come to mind when he speaks a word: “environment” as two different things, even as enemies.


By contrast, it’s essential for a Catholic view to see that we are participants in the environment, neither an “invasive species” nor mere disembodied souls. This, as we will see, many environmental issues have to do with getting our scale right. My opening exercise of walking was an invitation to enter into that project scale and perhaps a reminder that we are far too removed from that way of experiencing the world. Things tend to go wrong when we lose that sense of scale. We cannot live well on the highest mountain peaks or in vast deserts or hinder the ocean—nature overwhelms us. But we can overwhelm nature when in our building, our speed, our hunger for harvest, we deplete soils, fisheries, mines, and even the air. We throw off the balance, even as nature still knows how to throw us off balance. The ultimate choice we must consider as Catholics is whether we are shared participants in God’s creation or triumphant tyrants over it. This is the real choice we face. The man whom many cite as the founder of modern experimental science, Francis Bacon, believed that nature and humanity were in a battle. We must use science to achieve genuine power over nature, instead of having it have power over us. We learned nature’s secrets through experimentation, but the goal was not to wonder at its marvels.


Another point to keep in mind: concern for the environment should not be seen as something separate from, or in contrast to, other spiritual and moral concerns that are more commonly see as “Catholic.” The environment is not simply an issue along with a laundry list of others. They are all connected. In fact, many of the catholic teachings on life and sexuality are rooted in the same soil as Catholic environmental teaching: respecting and protecting nature, rather than doing whatever we want with it. Part of the task of this book is to help us see these connections more clearly, in hopes that God’s desire for “the renewal of the earth” may be more and more realized in our own desires and in the practices of our communities.

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