Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, did not come out of a vacuum. As I’d noted in the first post, clear references to our relationship to and responsibility for the condition of the natural world first appear in the Papal teaching of Pope Paul VI; Pope John Paul II certainly referred explicitly to our environmental responsibilities and the impact of our choices on the world, while for Pope Benedict XVI, responsible stewardship was almost a pet project.
Would anyone be surprised that the Protestant Churches and liberal Protestantism, a progressive force in modern thought, would have a clarion voice in ecological matters? And this may be why many consider–or dismiss–environmental concerns as another liberal pre-occupation unrelated to data. However, this may be a simplistic judgment. Would anyone label Pope Benedict XVI, known as the Vatican’s “Rottweiler” when he pursued his duties as Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, a liberal? And what about the contributions of the Orthodox Churches, less known in this country and not well publicized, to the call to better stewardship? Again, these traditional, hierarchical churches based on apostolic authority and the maintenance of primitive Church Tradition, do not easily fit the liberal category. I thought it may be helpful to consider these contributions.
Was enough publicity ever given to the common declaration on environmental ethics signed by Patriarch Bartholomew and John Paul II in 2002? Does anyone remember this quote from that declaration? We have been making decisions, taking actions and assigning values that are leading us away from the world as it should be, away from the design of God for creation, away from all that is essential for a healthy planet and a healthy commonwealth of people. A new approach and a new culture are needed, based on the centrality of the human person within creation and inspired by environmentally ethical behavior stemming from our triple relationship to God, to self and to creation.
Where does this thinking come from? From a modern, post-Christian and secular culture? Or has it always had a place in the Catholic Christian tradition itself? The commitment of the ancient, hierarchical and tradition Christian Churches would affirm that this is no ephemeral fashion but part of the tradition. The present voices would suggest that the environmental problems we’ve developed in modern times arise from losing touch with Gospel teaching and ascetical traditions. Consider, for example, the monastic anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) for whom the renunciations of poverty, chastity and obedience were not rejections of the physical world but the means by which the monastic reconciled opposites within his or her self. The human being, created in the image of God–and Christ is the image of the unseen God, according to St, Paul–is a physical/spiritual complex with a capacity for the divine. Where this not true, the incarnation of the Son of God would not have been possible. Christ would have been a weird hybrid, sticking together God and humanity, like the phantasm of a centaur, sticking a human torso on the body of a horse. But humanity is created to have a capacity of God, given by grace, not by nature; but human nature is constituted, at the same time, as much on grace as on physical definition and limitations. The monastic vocation invites human beings to consciously reconcile within themselves the opposites of possession, consumption with creative capacity and hospitality (poverty), libidinous desire with communion in God (chastity), self-absorption with true freedom (obedience). Since the human person is physically constituted of the same elements as the cosmos (grace included) that human person becomes the locus for the transfiguration of the cosmos in Christ.
Note that Christ is the paradigm of both the individual and the Body of Christ, the corporate person of believers baptized in Christ. This teaching, going back to St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, underlines our corporate responsibilities. How much has our present environmental crisis been abetted by an individualistic spirituality pre-occupied with my own redemption, my isolated relationship to Christ? How false is such a self-centered spirituality, as if I am an isolated entity and not part of the people of God? Doesn’t such a spirituality tend to obscure that my choices effect you? Or what seems good for me may harm the common good? As is consistent, Orthodox theologians explain of our environmental responsibilities in terms of a theology of Transfiguration (interested readers will find more to ponder in the volume, Towards an Ecology of Transfiguration, edited by John Chryssavgis and Bruce. V. Feltz).
Such a perspective recognizes the sanctity of creation and the cosmic dimension of Christ. Faith is not an intellectual abstraction but must be concrete, encompassing not only human being but all created being. As one of the Twentieth century hermits of Mount Athos so boldly challenged, Whoever does not believe in the trees cannot believe in Christ. That is not an expression of romanticism but a very grounded confession of faith. A place as traditional as Mount Athos struggles with the issue of environmental responsibility, for the most part choosing options less lucrative but more conscientious (e.g., some recent decisions about forestry as an income, and avoiding exploitation of the Athonite woods; or labor-intensive natural farming to support each community). One monastery on Athos, Simonopetra, is responsible for a monastery of nuns (off site, of course, in Ormylia) The Holy Convent of the Annunciation. There the nuns’ organic farming has become a model for local farmers while the community also specializes the early diagnosis of cancer in women. Maintaining their contemplative vocation, they supporting themselves by restoring icons and other works of art. The lived experience of such monasticism recognizes the interconnectedness life not through some new-age fantasy but in the sacramentality of the Catholic Christian tradition.
…to be continued…