Belief in Jesus as the Christ, Emmanuel the human revelation of God with us, is the foundation of Catholic faith and life, and respect for Creation. Incarnation is the term used to capture this belief - God made flesh in Jesus. That God is revealed and really present in material realities is the starting point for any Catholic relationship with the environment and statements on this experience. The belief that Creation is Good follows.
The communion of one Catholic Church has grown in this belief over two millennia and passed on through Scripture and Tradition. They play together to root faith in the person of Jesus and the lived experience of evolving church communities, a pattern witnessed to in the Acts of the Apostle. Jesus set the tone for teaching about the natural world in the way he used parable stories. Practice grew from the Jewish belief in God as Creator and Father of all. Jesus confirmed respect for the earthly patterns God has set by his own human life, death and resurrection.
Early Christian communities were tested by those who wished to deny these beliefs. They variously said that Jesus only appeared to take on human form, was not God or equal to God the Father. These ideas were rejected as heresy for not accepting that the material world has a spiritual dimension. Philosophical Gnostic notions that human communion with God could only be found in the pure realm of spirit and not the physical was also rejected, along with the notion that God’s presence is not to be found in human community. Over two millennia most movements that were rejected as unchristian by Catholics revolved around flight from the physical world as evil. The tension continued, manifest in escapist devotions, embracing suffering for its own sake or working for human social benefits while ignoring love and care for other parts of creation.
The rise of monastic communities, where believers intentionally dedicated themselves to exclusively serve God, led to new refinements of beliefs about creation. Some communities emphasised deep meditation on the earthly presence of God that lead to praise of God through worship. Celtic and Benedictine monasteries were among those who added study and physical work to prayer. Often choosing to live in remote wilderness areas monks, both female and male, innovated with new farming methods that respected their physical place. The monasteries of Saint Hildegard of Bingen developed theologies which praised a Verdant God and promoted medicinal healing using natural herbs. Monasteries preserved and developed classical writings about the relationship between God, Earth and Humanity and some evolved to become cathedral schools. As human populations and cities grew a new movement of wandering monks emerged exemplified by St Francis of Assisi. These monks lived out belief in the Incarnation of Jesus with a gentle approach to ordinary people and the animal world.
The relationship between emerging scientific knowledge and church authorities evolved but hit a snag in the 17th century. Formerly the Church had founded universities across Europe that produced scholars such as Aquinas and Copernicus but felt its authority was being threatened by the Enlightenment with its emphasis on human capabilities. Religious disputes over power led to the Catholic church emphasising increasingly narrow definitions of doctrinal truth, favouring the deductive method of thought rather than the emerging inductive method of science. This mentality was common when ocean explorers opened Europe up to a global world of new lands and cultures.
However some local Catholic communities and individual believers did engaged with a changing world. Missionaries vied with the powers of colonising nations. They lost many disputes but often preserved the languages of smaller cultural groups, including their unique descriptions of the natural world. In the 19th century pioneers such as Teilhard de Chardin advanced creation theology by engaging in scientific explorations as did Julian Tenison Woods in Australia. Thomas Berry told a 20th century New Story. The Second Vatican Council of reform 1962-65 called believers to re-engage with the world (Church in the modern World #10). From the eighties, the books of Sean McDonagh helped many Australians to live the phrase if you want to look after the poor look after the land. The short 1990 New Year Message of Pope John Paul II was monumental. Among its teachings it said that nature is valuable in itself and not merely for human use. It named Francis of Assisi as the Patron of Ecology. Visiting Canberra 24 November 1986 John Paul II said The Way to the Father’s house passes through this land.
Catholic Earthcare was setup in 2003 and Catholics schools in particular took up the challenge of forming students for action, and reducing their ecological footprint. Catholic Religious guided groups in reflection and action, including FEN. Increasingly outspoken papal statements laid the ground work for the revolutionary 2015 encyclical letter of Pope Francis Laudato Si’ on Care for our Common Home (LS).
His co-sponsoring of 1 September as a Day of Prayer for Creation with the Greek Patriarch, and participation in Season of Creation celebrations by multiple Catholic conferences of bishops deepens this commitment. LS expands Catholic Social teaching and notably joins the areas of ecology, economy, politics, society and religion, rejecting a siloed approach.
- “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
- This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” [Laudato Si, sections 1 and 2]
Significant for Australian Catholics are efforts to listen respectfully to Indigenous peoples and their stories, and to learn from Indigenous history. A different kind of knowledge to that gained through experimentation, Indigenous stories preserve the cumulative ecological and spiritual experience of millennia. Story was at the heart of the Amazonian Synod and is central to the network set up in 2020 by the Oceania and Asian Conferences of bishops (RAOEN).
Catholics and Nature: Two hundred years of environmental attitudes in Australia Charles Rue, 2006, Catholic Social Justice Series NO. 57
Edited from text provided by Charles Rue