While the title of Pope John Paul II's 1990 World Day of Peace Message, Peace with God - Peace with All of Creation, seems almost a slogan meant to be easily remembered, it actually goes to the very heart of the environmental challenges that we are facing today. These complex problems are not actually environmental in the first place, nor are they primarily technological or economic. They are rather theological and moral.3 Actually, the search for solutions to the present ecological crisis cannot be separated from our basic worldview: from our understanding of the human person, of relations among persons and peoples, and of our relationship to all of creation.
Throughout the Bible, there are references to God's creation that help us to understand why and how we are to promote a sound and healthy environment for all. The most basic values of the social teaching of the Church also point directly to the moral obligation to care for the environment. In addition, and environmental crisis knows no borders. It touches a large number of people, and Churches and other religious bodies are increasingly collaborating in addressing it precisely out of their religious belief. This paper will touch briefly on all three of these aspects.
The very timelessness of certain tales or stories comes from their capacity to reveal basic truths that are not immediately evident. They therefore remain relevant throughout the ages. This is the case with the very first pages of Genesis where we find the story of the origins of the universe, that is of God's very first self-revelation. This account is charged with significance. While it speaks of the very beginning of time, the words have become so familiar that it is actually difficult to seize their full meaning. Yet even the simple statement that God made all things has immediate implications as regards today's environmental degradation and about the all-too-often wanton destruction of plant and animal life, that is about our individual and collective egotism.
As is often the case with accounts rooted in peoples of oral traditions, the first verses of Genesis could almost be read by alternate choruses, with all joining in the refrain: "and God saw that it was good." The account on the sixth day, however, is markedly different:
Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.4
There can be no doubt; the human person stands out from the rest of created beings. While all of creation bears the mark of its Creator, in the biblical accounts there is an urgent and consistent insistence on the remarkable distinctiveness of this last act of creation. Indeed, the text of Genesis goes on to repeat, in almost poetic form: "And so god created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them". 5 This last phrase -- "male and female he created them" -- is of fundamental importance. The human person is, in fact, created in relation, first of all with God, then with other persons. He or she is not alone. Consequently, no one can act as if he or she were an end in self.
Noteworthy also is the fact that, in contrast to all other created beings, the human person is immediately given a responsibility for the rest of creation. Once more in the words of Genesis: "And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over ... every living thing that moves upon the earth'".6 The words "subdue" and "have dominion over" have often been cited as being at the root of the present environmental degradation. But what do the words actually mean in the biblical context? If we look at the second creation account in Genesis, we read that the Lord put man in the garden to till and keep it.7 "Till" and "keep" are words of active participation and protection. Still further light is cast on the words in question in the Book of Wisdom where Solomon prays:
O God... who hast made all things by thy word and by thy wisdom has formed man, to have dominion over the creatures thou hast made, and rule the world in holiness and righteousness... give me the wisdom that sits by thy throne...8
This dominion is to be one of holiness and righteousness, or of justice as some translations read.
From these rapid considerations on the first pages of Genesis, certain key points that both ground and regulate our relation with the rest of creation can already be identified.
The world and all that is in it exist because God so desired; it is not ours to do with as we will;
The human person, created in the image of God, is in a distinctive relation with the rest of creation, of which she or he however remains part;
The dominion that human persons are to have over all other living beings and over the earth itself is one of responsibility, of making fruitful, of caring for with holiness and righteousness. In other words, this dominion is a sacred trust;
While individually responsible for his or her acts, the human person exists in relation of others and cannot seek his or her own good alone, but rather is to seek the good of all, the common good.
There is another significant point in the creation accounts. At the end of the sixth day, "God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good".9 Have we not perhaps taken this phrase to ourselves, making it to apply to human beings alone? Yet, if we listen carefully, we hear: "And God saw everything that he had made..." It is the totality of creation that is very good. There is a wholeness in it that must be respected.
But the story does not end there. A disruptive element is introduced: sin. This original sin is nothing less than a deliberate violation of God's plan for creation. As a result, not only are relations between man and woman troubled, God also says to Adam: "Cursed is the ground because of you".10 Can there be a clearer statement of human responsibility within creation, of the relationship between human action and the well-being of the rest of creation? We have another example of this close relationship in Cain's sin of fratricide. It also affected the earth:
And the Lord said... the voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength...11
It would be possible to trace this relationship between human activity and the rest of creation throughout the Old Testament. Let us briefly consider just one more key narrative: that of Noah. After the flood had abated and Noah had left the ark with his family and all the animals, God repeats the very words that he used in the primitive blessing: "Be fruitful and multiply upon the earth".12 As with Adam and Eve, everything is delivered into Noah's hands.13 God then goes on to establish a covenant, not only with Noah and his descendants but also with all living creatures, the sign of which is a rainbow.14 God remains faithful to this covenant; it is we who sin by ignoring God's intention as regards what is actually his and the earth suffers as well.
God's plan for creation is an unfolding one, culminating in God becoming one of us. In doing so, Jesus established a radically new identity for the human person,15 and restored our relations with the rest of creation. We can no longer plead ignorance of God's plan:
For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.16
It is only in and through Christ that we can know and follow this plan. How carefully then we must discern it, reading its signs in the world around us.
As sin has affected all of creation, so the coming of Christ has restored all things. The passage of Romans that refers to the second coming of Christ at the end of time is well known. All of creation is waiting in a mysterious way to be set free and to obtain a glorious liberty together with all the children of God.17 We are less familiar perhaps with the passage in Colossians:
For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.18
As Abel's blood was spilled on the earth in an act of violent jealousy, so Christ's blood has been poured out as an act of new covenant.19 It is no longer the rainbow that is the sign of God's fidelity and love, as in the time of Noah. Now it is Christ himself - one of us in all things but sin20 - who is the new covenant. "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood".21
This is the definitive answer as regards the relationship between our sinfulness and the wholeness of creation. We have been reconciled with God in Christ together with all things. The past is over. With Christ, we no longer look back to the Garden of Eden, to some paradise lost, as it were. Rather, we turn to the future, to the end times.
The Seer of Revelation speaks of the end times in these terms: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth... and I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God...".22 But what is this new heaven and new earth? Peter tells us that righteousness dwells within them.23 When the very earth is at peace, justice ultimately reigns. It is interesting to note that the image of a city, not that of a garden, is used for these end times. What better bears the mark of human work, of relations among peoples, than a city? Be it the image of a city or a garden, however, the same basic themes occur: the reconciliation of all of creation, human responsibility, righteousness or justice, the good of all.
The biblical texts are startlingly clear as regards the vocation of the human person to care for all of creation. We seem almost to have forgotten it until the earth itself and all that surrounds us began to cry out. Through a converging series of circumstances -- signs of our times -- we have now become aware that something must be done and that we are the ones who must do it.
In the light of these biblical imperatives, let us look briefly at some of the environmental problems that face us today, remembering, however, that there is very little scientific consensus on the seriousness, extent, or even the causes of some of the phenomena that we are witnessing. Among the problems that give rise to more or less generalized concern in the scientific community, among governments, and in public opinion are:
The depletion of the ozone layer leading to global warming;
The exhaustion of non-renewable resources;
The pollution of air and water;
The destruction of forests;
Plant and animal species depletion.
Many other serious issues could be listed, but these will suffice for our purpose. Faced with such a range of troubling manifestations, let us consider just two moral values: solidarity and the universal destination of created goods. They are inherent to the social teaching of the Church and will help us to see how each of the above phenomena is but part of a more generalized moral crisis that affects us all.
Much of the damage to the environment is caused precisely by persons or groups that are motivated by two driving forces: the pursuit of power and profit as ends in themselves. If the first intention of those seeking such power or profit may not be to damage the environment, entire ecosystems are often effectively hurt. This is actually but one indication of how these tow forces can contribute to disorder in the world.24 The environmental questions can also certainly be counted among those problems that are the result of "structures of sin".25
To exemplify this, let us consider the rampant destruction of forests. In the first place, such destruction could be considered an ecological problem. Forestlands are being recklessly destroyed, depriving the earth of a means of balancing the output of carbon dioxide, to put it at its very simplest. When we probe deeper, however, and ask why the forests are being cut down, the matter becomes much more complex. There is not one answer to the question but several, among which the clearing of new lands to raise cash crops for exportation to pay back foreign debt, the extension of mineral and fossil fuel mining, the exhaustion of arable land through poor farming methods and so forth. Considering only these three rapid examples, we can see, among other:
An approach to economic development that has resulted in excessive foreign debt on the part of several Third World countries;
An industrial development that seeks to obtain raw materials at the lowest possible cost;
Excessive energy consumption;
Poor land and agricultural policies.
Many other examples could be given. It is clear, however, that in such cases, efforts to alleviate environmental stress are not sufficient -- however necessary they may be. Rather, the underlying problems of social and economic development must also be addressed. In the question of the destruction of forests, we are also faced at times with the violation of human rights as in the case of the forced displacement of indigenous peoples or the destruction of land that they have long held sacred.
To take very briefly one other example: that of the pollution of water, land, and air. Here it is often a matter of chemical and other toxic wastes, of industrial by-products, of the poor management of energy sources, of lack of adequate safety standards which have resulted in such disasters as Bhopal, Basel, and Chernobyl. Probing deeper, we could cite both a consumer mentality and ideological materialism. This of the ecological disasters in Eastern Europe, the extent of which is only now becoming apparent.
Once again, environmental problems are directly linked to other serious crises that are ultimately rooted in a lack of solidarity which, according to Pope John Paul II:
Is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are really responsible for all.26
Solidarity entails the serious obligation -- a moral obligation -- to work for the common good. This has direct practical consequences as regards the promotion of a sound environment. Let us take, for example, the problem of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that contribute to climate change. These are used in many spray cans as a propellant. However, to stop using spray cans or to change the propellant is not enough to solve the problem. CFCs are also used in refrigeration -- industrial as well as domestic -- and in lubricants and plastics. If we are to seek a solution to even this one specific problem, we are faced with a double challenge: one of personal conversion and change of lifestyle and one of social change. As difficult as it may be, we are called to precisely that.
We live in a highly pluralistic world where no common moral vision of society exists. This makes agreement on what measures are to be taken to protect the environment more difficult. International consensus is, however, growing regarding certain social values. They are progressively being given juridical expression in international agreements. Such accords remain fragile, however, precisely because of the lack of this deeper moral consensus. Their implementation therefore often depends on political will, in turn subject to the pressure of powerful opposing forces.
Often it is the very self-interest of States that is forcing them to seek common solutions to problems that transcend national boundaries such as water and air pollution. Such collaboration is, however, only the first step towards the necessary solidarity in intent. Even when scientific disagreement still exists, the need to work together is evident whenever it is a question of the possibility of irreversible damage to the environment or risk to the well-being of others. The means used in seeking a solution may, and indeed must, vary according to circumstances, but all such means call for both personal change and structural modifications. To move progressively towards this is a moral obligation.
A second value directly related to the environment is that of the universal destination of created goods. This calls for a fair sharing of the goods of this earth among all peoples, according to the criterion of justice tempered with charity. This presents no less a challenge than solidarity. In the words of John Paul II:
It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess good, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness -- both individual and collective -- are contrary to the order of creation, an order that is characterized by mutual interdependence.27
It is superfluous to comment on these words or even to attempt to draw out their practical consequences. God created all things for the good of all. The above words, an expression of this truth, need rather to be contemplated until they become clear enough to each one of us -- in the very depth of our being -- to compel us to act comprehensively.
John Paul II has spoken of the "evolution of the conscience of the Church".28 This is indeed true of the Church's awareness of and response to the ecological challenge. Just as today we are able to read Scripture with fresh eyes as a result of our growing consciousness of the wholeness of creation, so likewise we are able to go back over recent papal and conciliar statements and find in them a well-developed social teaching regarding environmental questions. However, much of this teaching has passed unperceived to date. The reasons for this are many, among which our having far too often considered ecological concerns marginal to the serious challenges of justice and peace.
This is not the place to detail this teaching. It dates principally from the time of Pope Paul VI. Significant references can be found in his Populorum Progressio29 and Octogesima Adveniens30 while his Message to the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Environment represents a major contribution, many aspects of which are still remarkably valid. Similarly, the Vatican II documents Lumen Gentium31 and Gaudium et Spes32 offer important doctrinal and theological contributions.
It would be impossible to consider all of John Paul II's references to environmental concerns. His 1990 World Day of Peace Message, devoted entirely to the relation between care for the environment and peace, is a landmark document. A few of the many concrete questions it addresses are:
The alienation of the human person from the natural environment and from the work of his or her hands and mind, resulting in technology almost turning against the person;
The irrational and dishonest exploitation of the earth for the benefit of a few;
The risks of unbridled technological development when divorced from a concomitant moral development;
The tremendous risks of genetic engineering and biotechnology, as well as the hopes that they can offer;
Exorbitant energy consumption and the problem of energy sources.
John Paul II's teaching is not, however, problem-oriented. It is rooted in hope and in faith in the human person's capacity to change. It asks us to see nature with new eye's, to watch over the earth with respectful gratitude, not to act with violence against the animal kingdom, to seek harmonization between nature and human settlements. This teaching still remains to be exploited. It would provide a rich foundation for that sound ecological education which the 1990 World Day of Peace Message calls for.33
If, as Catholics, we find ourselves increasingly asked to respond to the ecological challenges of today as part of our Christian identity, we know that we cannot do so alone. The problems touch all of humanity and the very earth itself. Our first partners in addressing them are certainly Christians from other traditions.
For years, Catholics have participated in ecumenical initiatives and movements promoting one or another ecological concern. Increasingly, however, the churches, precisely because of the imperatives of our common faith, are joining together in working for the promotion of a sound environment. Such efforts at collaboration are countless and often remain unknown outside of a limited local circle. Recently, however, there have been several major international ecumenical undertakings that cannot be ignored.
For Europeans, certainly the 1989 meeting in Basel, Switzerland on Peace with Justice for All of Creation marked a high point in ecumenical collaboration in this field. The Assembly was jointly prepared over a three-year period through the joint efforts of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe and the Conference of European Churches, the latter grouping of Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant churches. Both bodies are pan-European. Seven hundred delegates, half of whom were Catholic, met for a week; environmental concerns were a priority. An ecumenical follow-up and the implementation of the decisions taken are now in progress on the European, national, diocesan and, indeed, parochial level.
Likewise in 1989, a regional meeting of the Pacific Council of Churches, of which the Catholic Church is a member, was held under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to discuss the specific environmental concerns of island peoples: rising sea levels, the relationship between land and indigenous peoples. While the environmental concerns of this vast region are common, their expression is geographically differentiated.
In March 1990, a World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, organized by the World Council of Churches, was held in Seoul, Korea. The Convocation did not live up to the expectations of many that it would mobilize churches across the world to work for the integrity of creation. This was perhaps an overly ambitious hope. The Convocation did, however, bring people from across the world together and drew attention to the seriousness of the challenges the world faces today as well as the intimate links between injustice, lack of peace, and environmental degradation. While the Convocation did not provide for any organic follow-up, one thing is clear. A vast field for collaboration among the churches and indeed among all peoples of good will remains.
In the differentiated and complex field of the environment, it is difficult to reach conceptual agreement of the precise nature of the problem or the solution. When approaching the question from a religious perspective, it is also far too easy to get caught up in particular conceptual approaches that can end up by closing groups in on their own concerns and cutting off the possibility of working credibly with others. Some examples of this difficulty are:
Putting the human person on the same level as the rest of creation, thereby actually reducing the responsibility of the person for his or her actions as regards the whole of creation;
A refusal to recognize that much of progress is good, that all is not bad in industrialization and in modern technology;
A certain "Garden of Eden" mentality that refuses all modern developments, rejecting them as evil;
A glorification of the goodness of nature that more or less romantically overlooks its harshness;
A demonization of the First World and a refusal to consider that the Third World might have some part of responsibility for environmental degradation thereby blocking the needed common efforts;
A type of new paganism, fostering a form of nature worship.
But there are other stumbling blocks -- perhaps the most serious of all -- indifference, a trivializing of environmental problems, or a ridiculing of those engaged in promoting environmentally sound habits and practices.
So much remains to probe, to test, to explore in a field as vast and relatively new as that of the environment. It is clear that concern for its protection is one of the most pressing signs of our times, one which we cannot afford to ignore.
What might all of this mean concretely? It is difficult to answer such a question. It certainly should lead to a renewed effort on the part of Christians to seek to understand God's will for creation, sure that his purpose is a loving one in which we are called to cooperate. Secondly, we are perhaps being called in a new way to contemplate the wonders of God's creation, be it in nature or in the marvelous ingenuity of the human mind, and to praise God with heart and tongue for these gifts. And thirdly, we must face the challenge of conversion, seeking in prayer the courage to change not only our own attitude and way of life but also to commit ourselves to social change. This is actually a very sobering task, given the powers that face those who call into question the present order.
In his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, John Paul II calls for an education in ecological responsibility. This implies, in the first place, self-education "not rooted in mere sentiment or empty wishes".34 Such education should lead us to choices, to particular commitments. This education can be formal or informal. It should also be part of our catechetical programs and our educational approach in Catholic schools on all levels. Above all, we must be alive with the conviction that we can do something. Hope is the hallmark of the Christian. May what seem to be a simple slogan, now become an efficacious prayer: Peace with God -- Peace with All of Creation.
-- From the book Care for Creation: Human Activity and the Environment by Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Copyright © 2000 Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM is a leading Roman Catholic champion of the environment and disarmament. Sister Marjoire was born in New York and completed her religious and professional studies in France. After her doctoral studies at the University of Paris (Sorbonne), she remained in Paris as director of the Junior Year Abroad Program of Marymount College, Tarrytown, New York. She then served her own religious congregation as secretary general for a twelve-year mandate before returning to the United States, where she became the secretary general of the World Conference on Religion and Peace / USA. At the same time, she was asked to be a member of the Observer Delegation of the Holy See at United Nations Headquarters where she followed disarmament questions. Named a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace by Pope Paul VI in 1977, she continued in this capacity, under Pope John Paul II, until 1986 when she was asked to join the permanent secretariat of this same Council. Her responsibilities within the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace included both environmental questions and those related to peace and disarmament until 1986, when she was asked to join the permanent secretariat of this same Council, where her responsibilities included disarmament and the environment. She continues her research and studies on these same questions.
"To commit oneself to the promotion of a sound and healthy environment for all is to follow God’s plan for creation, a plan entrusted to us from the beginning."
Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM
3 Cf. John Paul II, Peace with God - Peace with All of Creation, in particular Sections I and II.
4 Gen 1, 26
5 Gen 1,27
6 Gen 1,28
7 Gen 2,15
8 Wis 9, 104. Cf. inter alia Ps 8, 6: Ps 104, 14.
9 Gen 1,31
10 Gen 3,17
11 Gen 4, 10-11
12 Gen 8,17. Cf. Gen 1,28
13 Gen 9, 1-2. Cf. Gen 1,28 where the words "subdue" and "dominion" are used. There is a notable difference however. In the Noachic account, the beasts, the birds, all that creeps on the earth and the fish will fear and dread Noah and his sons.
14 Gen 9,15
15 Cf. among other Rm 8, 16-17; Gal 4,7.
16 Eph 1,9-10
17 Rm 8, 20-21
18 Col 1,19-20
19 Cf. Heb 12,24
20 Heb 4,15; 1 Pet 2,22
21 Lk 22, 20. Cf. Mt 26,28: 1 Cor 11,25.
22 Rev 21,1-2
23 Peter 3,13
24 Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 30 December 1987. Cf. particularly No. 37.
25 SRS, No. 36
26 SRS, NO. 38. Cf. in this regard Phil 2,4.
27 1990 WDP, No. 8.
28 Address to the Tribunal of the Rota, 17 February, 1979.
29 Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 26 March 1967, No. 22, 25, 28 et al.
30 Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, 14 May 1971, No. 21.
31 Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 21 November 1964, No. 36
32 GS, 34-35, 57.
33 1990 WDP, No. 13.
34 1990 WDP, No. 13.
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