Part of the discussion about the future of our economy raises the question of what sort of economic base will secure the future for our country and our families. And part of the answer to that question seems to lie in so-called “green” industries created to give energy while protecting the resources of the earth. In the light of faith, how might we reflect on the “green revolution” that is being called for?
Over 30 years ago, when I first visited Greenland, the huge ice-capped island off the northeastern coast of North America, I wondered why it was called Greenland. It was all rock and ice, black and white, with very little soil and, consequently, no recognizable pastureland or trees. For vegetables to balance a diet of eider duck and seal blubber, the Greenlanders harvested kelp, a seaweed that grew in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. I was told that when Leif Ericson first visited the island 1,000 ago the climate was moderate enough to enable a short growing season and that sheep could graze on the south end of the island. Obviously, the world’s climate has changed constantly and naturally over the centuries, but the fear of catastrophic change now is being linked to human activities that disturb what had been the earth’s natural equilibrium. The major culprit, we’re told, is carbon dioxide emissions that create a new and dangerous phenomenon of global warming.
If ecological consciousness means recognizing that everything in nature is interconnected, it is the counterpart of the Catholic doctrine of spiritual and ecclesiological communion. We are members of the Body of Christ; what one does, for good or ill, affects us all. Nature is also an example of communion; a volcanic eruption in Indonesia affects animal life in Florida. For some ecologists, however, the human species now tyrannizes the earth and, because modern times and the myth of progress are based on humanity’s working steadily to overcome the limits of space and time through carbonbased technologies, human consumption patterns that threaten the life of the world must be changed by a “return to nature.” It’s never explained whether or not that means giving up aspirin and pasteurized milk as well as electricity. At the lunatic fringe of the ecological movement, some make the planet itself divine and seem to believe that the earth would be better off without man. If the earth is our only mother, then, of course, the grave is our final destiny.
This thinking is obviously in contradiction to our belief that God, out of his own love, made everything out of nothing, saw that it was good, and created angels and human beings so that creation could forever live in love with him and all he has made. We are part of God’s creation, and Catholic natural law morality condemns manipulation of nature, especially of human nature, for purposes in direct conflict with the purposes of nature itself. This conviction helps explain Catholic teaching on artificial contraception, on embryonic stem-cell manipulation, on in-vitro fertilization, on abortion and euthanasia, all of them sins against nature as well as against God. Even private property is always held with a “social mortgage.” We have no right to decide our own pattern of economic development without reference to our impact on the poorest countries of the world.
If fallen nature has an eternal destiny, it is because Christ overcomes the limitations of sin and death and invites us to cooperate in the work of redemption. It is stupid to simply romanticize nature, for the same Mother Nature that gives us a balmy spring day also gives us measles, polio, cancer and the plague. Our role is to overcome the limitations of nature, but in ways that complement and fulfill a natural world that was not created simply to be a field for human exploitation until we destroy it.
The Old Testament readings for daily Mass are taken this month from the Book of Genesis. We will read from this first book of the Bible also during the Easter Vigil, when the history of God’s ways with nature and man will be reprised. In Genesis, the natural world is given us to take care of, to regard neither as divine nor as fodder for development only according to our own designs. We are to respect and bless the land in working it. We are not owners of the earth but its caretakers (Lv 25:23).
If the relation between God, man and physical nature has been broken, the fault lies not in biblical religion, which predates global warming by several thousand years, but in human selfishness and pride, in economic systems that sacrifice everything and everyone for profit and in scientific arrogance that accepts no moral limitation on its research. God asks Job: “Where were you when I created the earth?” (Job 38:4) And the Psalmist responds: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your hands … what is man that you are mindful of him? Yet you have made him little less than a god … and have given him power over the works of your hands. How great is your name, O Lord our God, through all the earth” (Ps 8).
In the practice of our religion, the rhythm of creation and redemption is to shape the rhythm of our lives. This is especially clear in the observance of the Sabbath, which has been preserved among the Jewish people. The Lord’s Day for Christians used to be better observed before the rhythms of work and of recreation took over our lives; when I was growing up here, all the shops were closed on Sundays and sporting leagues had not pre-empted family worship time. Time spent in worship of God restores the balance of human nature. The Biblical Jubilee allows the earth to lay fallow and rest; it restores the balance of physical nature.
Everything created by God is in solidarity with the rest of God’s creation. In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi, friend of birds and wolves, wasn’t just being poetic when he praised God for “Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” A century before, Hildegard of Bingen pointed out that all creatures are faithful to their Creator in living according to the laws of their nature, with the exception of human beings, whose disobedience to their Creator punishes also the animals and all of nature.
The problem of right relationship between God, man and the earth is moral before it is political or financial. As we look for ways to rebuild our political and economic order, the need for an “ecological conversion” should bring us first to worship and prayer. We are neither the masters of the universe nor its slaves. We learn that lesson in adoring our Creator and giving thanks constantly for the gift of his creation. God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago