It was probably in 2007 when Dr. Andy Hoffmann of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment first visited our community at Holy Cross Abbey. Andy Hoffmann happens to be a practicing Roman Catholic as well as an environmentalist. Addressing the community, he spoke in a conversational manner giving us a thumbnail sketch on his well developed thesis about sustainability. In current thinking, there tend to be two extremes: one is that natural resources are there for human beings to exploit as they see fit. This approach has gotten us to the crisis point that provokes the other extreme: human beings are a threat to the natural world. And he jokingly referred to a bumper-sticker he had once seen: Do something good for the environment: commit suicide. He then explained how the Catholic tradition of theology avoids both extremes: the natural world is creation, the intention of God the Creator. God creates both nature and human beings; together, nature and human beings, constitute creation. We are not necessarily, we are certainly not primarily, opposing or competitive forces. The trouble begins when we human beings forget that, like nature, we come from God and that nature comes from God as much as we do. The trouble begins when we fail to see ourselves as a part of nature and fail to seek what God asks from us as a part of nature and as representatives of nature.
Isn’t it interesting that during the years of the Industrial Revolution, of global politico-economic empires, of mechanized farming, of chemical warfare and genetic engineering, certain forms of theology forgot to address the natural context of Christian Anthropology? In the process, such selective theologizing indirectly fostered a spirituality opposing nature and grace. As a young adult, reading Aquinas, as I studied the middle ages for my major in art history, I was surprised to read that “grace builds on nature.” What a liberating concept that was! That opened the portal of trusting what God had created, focusing and listening to that nature, rather than suppressing, reshaping, clipping back, rejecting the natural potential. I didn’t realize at the time how such an insight affirmed another intuition: that we have a responsibility to one another.
If grace builds on nature, then it is worth exploring and understanding nature; and nature is a network of relationships on chemical, electrical, physical, organic, social and spiritual levels. To glance again at Aquinas, his ecclesiology recognizes such organic networks of relatedness. In another direction, Bonaventure, a contemporary of Aquinas, understood the human being in God’s creation as the medium, the mediator, between the created and the uncreated, between the natural and Divine. In his metaphysics, the incarnate Son of God is the archetype of the role each of us, as a human being, is called to fulfill. The natural world is not there to exploit but to be re-presented intelligibly in us. We can literally give voice to mute nature. We are not called, however, to exploit or destroy nature: that would be diabolic, neither genuinely human nor the Divine will.
It is this perspective that I want to consider today, specifically how the abuse of our natural resources impacts other human beings. This is an important point of the Encyclical Laudato Si, and one too often forgotten in the environmental debates in our country. For example, not only is water a limited resource but over seventy-five percent of the available water is monopolized by some twenty percent of the world’s population. Not only are fossil fuels non-renewable, but they a capitalized by a minority of the human race, putting all other peoples out of the running for economic improvement. In fact, as nations fall behind in our technology-driven economies, they find themselves falling down the slope of no recovery. Where will they be in thirty years? Fifty Years? Another century? Are they, too, condemned to extinction when they can’t provide a livelihood, sufficient crops, medical care, housing?
Pope Francis isn’t the first Pope to point this out. Pope Benedict XVI, who left Vatican City as the first sovereign state to leave no carbon footprint (granted, it’s small enough to achieve that even now), had pointed out that as long as the “developed” countries did not investigate viable alternatives to high-tech technologies dependent on non-renewable resources, they were responsible for perpetuating world poverty. Were we to develop viable, alternative low-tech solutions for agriculture, energy, transportation, we could provide the tools for other nations’ independence. Or is this exactly what we are trying to avoid so the rich may grow richer and the poor, poorer? Isn’t it baffling that such papal teachings, so concrete and so challenging to the status quo, are not better known?
This horizontal dimension of ecological sustainability is a very important part of Pope Francis’ Encyclical. This just isn’t a question of tree-hugging. What we also need to acknowledge is that the human race is one of the endangered species of the world we have made.
to be continued