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Elizabeth A. JohnsonApril 16, 2001

At the start of this third millennium, a new awareness of the magnificence and uniqueness of Earth as one intertwined community of life is growing among people everywhere. The image of our planet seen from space, a blue marble swirled around with white clouds, promotes realization of how fragile but tough life is. So too scientific study of the origins of the cosmos, the solar system and then the surprising uprising of life under conditions that are just right fosters insight into the wonder of life in this one little place. Gorgeous videos on public television about little-known species and the working of ecosystems, along with national wildlife conservation efforts, teaching units in schools, naturalistic zoos and an abundance of photo books bring the beauty of the world before millions of eyes and boost a sense of how interrelated all species of life truly are.

At the same time, however, the present moment is marked by a strange paradox: the more we gaze in wonder at Earth, the more we realize that human actions are ravaging and depleting the natural world. Two major engines of destruction are overconsumption and overpopulation. Every year, the 20 percent of Earth’s people in the rich nations use 75 percent of the world’s resources and produce 80 percent of the world’s waste. An example: Chicago, with 3 million people, consumes as much raw material in a year as Bangladesh, with 97 million people. Such overconsumption is driven by an economy that must constantly grow in order to be viable, one whose greatest goal is a bottom line in the black. It does not factor in the ecological cost.

Simultaneously, human numbers multiply exponentially. In 1950 the world numbered two billion people. On Oct. 12, 1999, the announcement was made that we now number six billion; current projections envision that by the year 2030 there will be ten billion persons on the planet. Earth’s human population will have multiplied five times during the average lifetime of someone born in 1950. To translate these statistics into a vivid image: another Mexico City is added every 60 days; another Brazil is added every year.

The capacity of the planet to carry life is being exhausted by these human habits. Not only is our species gobbling up resources faster than Earth’s ability to replenish itself, but our practices are causing damage to the very systems that sustain life itself: holes in the ozone layer, polluted air and rain, clear-cut forests, drained wetlands, denuded soils, fouled rivers and lakes, polluted patches of ocean. Appallingly, this widespread destruction of habitats has as its flip side the death of creatures that thrive in these ecosystems. By a conservative estimate, in the last quarter of the 20th century, 20 percent of all living species have become extinct. When these creatures, these magnificent plants and animals, large and small, go extinct, they never come back again. We are killing birth itself, wiping out the future of fellow creatures who took millions of years to evolve. We live in a time of a great dying off caused by human hands.

On the one hand, we gaze in wonder at the world; on the other hand, we are wasting the world. This is a sign of our times and should be filled with meaning for people of faith. But the odd thing is that, with some notable exceptions, many religious people and church business as a whole go on ignoring the plight of the earth.

Respect for Life Extends to Earth

Much food for thought and action can be gleaned by rereading Pope John Paul II’s message for New Year’s Day 1990 entitled Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation. Faced with widespread destruction of the environment, the pope wrote, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to plunder the earth as we have in the past. Making this despoiling very concrete, the message reels off a list of the ways humans have ravaged the earth. What is the root cause for this behavior? In a word, lack of respect for life. Our disrespect is also due to placing economic profit for a few ahead of the common good of all peoples on the earth, to ignoring the interconnection of all processes and to ignoring the well-being of future generations (the earth is our common heritage).

In order to grow in due respect for nature, the pope continued, we need a morally coherent worldview. For Christians, such a worldview is grounded in religious convictions drawn from revelation. These beliefs include the story of creation, sin and redemption; they also draw on incarnation, Eucharist and hope of future glory. God created this beloved world very good (Gen. 1:31) and delivered it into the care of human beings. As they turn their back on God’s plan through sinning, they create disorder to the point where all creation is groaning in travail (Rom. 8:22). The great act of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is intended not just for humanity but for the whole cosmos, for God reconciled all things, whether on earth or in the heavens, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20). The view that the earth bears religious importance is also rooted in the rich biblical themes of incarnation (the Word becomes flesh, and so the divine joins with the matter of this world), Eucharist (sharing through bread and wine in the body and blood of Christ) and hope centered in Christ, the firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15) that in the future the cosmos will enjoy fullness of new life in the glory of God. In view of this faith, Christians must inevitably conclude that the ecological crisis is a moral problem.

To address this, the pope proposes a series of righteous actions: be converted from a consumerist lifestyle, address poverty, avoid war and its devastating ecological effects, promote education in ecological responsibility starting with the family and appreciate the beauty of nature, which tells of the glory of God. All of these lead to peace within the human heart and between nations. Grounding these steps is a stunning principle: Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation. This extends also, I suggest, provides a doorway through which Catholics conversant with the church’s stance of respect for life can be led to see the critical import of the ecological crisis. Pragmatically, humans will survive together with other creatures on this planet or not at all. Religiously, respect for life cannot be divided; not only human life but the whole living Earth is God’s beloved creation, deserving of care.

Three Responses

Carrying forward this program of extending respect for life to all creation, a growing body of theological literature calls upon Christians to develop the virtue of earth-keeping. The U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C., provides videos like The Earth is the Lord’s, books like And God Saw That It Was Good, parish kits like Let the Earth Bless the Lord: God’s Creation and Our Responsibility and grants to individuals, parishes, dioceses and regions to develop earthkeeping projects. Our response can take at least three forms: contemplative, ascetic and prophetic.

The contemplative response gazes on the world with eyes of love rather than with an arrogant, utilitarian stare. It learns to appreciate the astonishing beauty of nature, to take delight in its intricate and powerful workings and to stand in awe of the never-ending mystery of life and death played out in the predator-prey relationship. Nothing is too large (the farthest galaxies), nothing too small to escape our wonder. Recall the comment of the scientist Louis Agassiz: I spent the summer traveling; I got half-way across my back yard. Within the context of faith, the contemplative gaze renders the world sacramental. Sacramental theology has always taught that simple earthy thingsbread, wine, water, oil, the embodied sexual relationship of marriagecan be bearers of divine grace. We now realize that this is so because the earth, with all its creatures, is the primordial sacrament, the medium of God’s gracious presence and blessing. It is charged with the grandeur of God, in the prescient words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. More than just a stage for our human drama of sin and redemption, it is a marvelous creature in its own right, still evolving, loved by God for itself, of which we humans are a part. Therefore it bears intrinsic, not just instrumental, value. A great project lies ahead: drawing on the earth-loving resources of Scripture to design and frequently use liturgies, personal and communal prayers and meditations that would empower the whole church to see the natural world as God does, with a loving and appreciative eye.

The ascetic response practices discipline in using the things of Earth. The true purpose of asceticism has always been to make persons fully alive to the movement of grace in their lives. It does so by sacrificial acts of doing or abstaining that remove what blocks sensitivity to the presence of the Spirit. Traditional forms of asceticism have come upon hard days because of their alliance with a philosophical dualism that prized spirit at the expense of matter. In this framework, matter tends to entrap spirit within itself, and so spirit needs to control matter in order to ascend to a higher realm. Salvation is understood precisely as escape from this realm of bodiliness with its messiness and change in order to come to rest in the realm of light. For centuries a major path of spirituality was marked Flee the world. To be holy one must reject the world, deny the body and its sexual needs, dismiss feelings (which don’t count) and seek union with God apart from the earth.

In light of Earth as God’s beloved creation now being ravaged, however, there are whole new ways to engage in traditional ascetic practices such as fasting, retreats and almsgiving. We can fast from shopping, contribute money and time to ecological works, endure the inconvenience of running an ecologically sensitive household and conduct business with an eye to the green bottom line as well as the red or black. We do these things not to make ourselves suffer and not because we’re anti-body, but so that we can become alert to how enslaved we are by the marketplace and its effect on the planet. Our economy is structured to make us overconsume, with dire effects upon the earth. This is such a deep structural power that we are barely conscious of itas if it were one of the principalities and powers ruling the world. An Earth-sensuous asceticism that is part of an Earth-affirming spirituality is one response that sets us on the path of Earth-keeping virtue. It enables us to live more simply, with greater reverence for the earth and its creatures, out of religious conviction.

The prophetic response moves us to action on behalf of justice for Earth. If the earth is indeed creation, a sacrament of the glory of God with its own intrinsic value, then for Christians ongoing destruction of earth bears the marks of deep sinfulness. Realizing this, we experience a moral imperative to act in favor of care, protection and restoration. Indeed, one stringent criterion must now measure the morality of our actions: whether or not these contribute to a sustainable earth community. A moral universe limited to the human community no longer serves the future of life.

Resisting the culture of death not only among humankind but also among otherkind requires a real conversion from the anthropocentric focus of the last five centuries. (My research seems to indicate that the loss of the natural world as a theological and moral issue dates to the Reformation, when everything boiled down to issues of how we are saved. Fights always make one lose perspective). Here is where the fundamental principle of extension enunciated by John Paul II bears critical fruit: Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends to the rest of creation. If nature is the new poor, then the Christian mandate of option for the poor and oppressed now includes the natural world. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then the range of neighbors now includes the whale, the monarch butterfly, the local lakethe entire community of life. If the common good requires solidarity with all who suffer, then our compassion extends to suffering human beings and other species caught in patterns of extinction. Save the rain forest becomes a concrete moral application of the commandment Thou shalt not kill.

This in turn requires us to realize the deep connections between social injustice and ecological devastation. Ravaging of people and of the land go hand in hand. To be deeply true, prophetic action must not get caught in the trap of pitting social justice issues against issues of ecological health, but must include commitment to ecological wholeness within the struggle for a more just social order. We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege. A vision of justice as cosmic justice is the only adequate option. The practical aim is to establish and protect healthy ecosystems where all living creatures can flourish. The moral goal is to ensure vibrant life in community for all.

The U.N. Environment Programme’s Interfaith Partnership publishes a resource book, Earth and Faith, and there is an excellent interfaith forum on religion and ecology at www.environment.harvard.edu/religion.

To Life

A flourishing humanity on a thriving earth in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God: such is the theological vision needed in this critical age of Earth’s distress. This moment of crisis calls for a spirituality and ethics that will empower us to live in the web of life as sustainers rather than destroyers of the world. Ignoring this need keeps religious persons locked in ultimately irrelevant concerns while the irreversible drama of life or death is being played out on the planet. But being converted to the earth sets our personal lives and church community off on a great adventure. Instead of living as thoughtless or greedy exploiters of the earth, we become sisters and brothers, friends and lovers, mothers and fathers, priests and prophets, co-creators and children of the earth that as God’s beloved creation gives us life. Only then can we join in praying the Sanctus with integrity: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna! No more monumental challenge faces those who are led by the Spirit of God, Lord and Giver of Life, at the start of the third millennium.

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17 years 4 months ago
Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., has rightly and persuasively alerted us to the plight of the earth and the urgency of taking remedial action to correct it (4/16). She goes too far, however, when she states, “‘Save the rainforest’ becomes a concrete moral application of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

For centuries Catholic philosophy and theology placed a qualitative barrier between mankind and the rest of creation. This is exemplified in the “Principle and Foundation” of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: “All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill the end for which he is created.” Darwin changed this way of thinking forever when he discovered natural selection and showed us that mankind is a product of biological evolution and an integral part of nature. Some of Darwin’s followers, however, have carried this to the extreme. Some have gone so far as to say that man is having his day now but will eventually become extinct and be replaced by some other species. Others used paleontological evidence to depict man to be by nature a predatory, weapon-wielding killer-ape and used this to explain why the world is in such a mess. Over the years this approach has unfortunately seeped into the environmental movement, even though calmer minds have shown that the evidence had been misinterpreted and that human society, with its rules of behavior, suppresses or at least controls any predatory impulses.

“Thou shalt not kill” is a rule that refers only to our treatment of other human beings. Throughout our history we have hunted wild beasts, domesticated plants and animals, and irreversibly changed some rainforests and other environments, and we shall continue to do so. We could not have evolved nor can we survive without killing. We can and do kill members of other living species, but we should not do this indiscriminately or destructively. It is here that we are morally bound. Julian Huxley said it best more than 50 years ago when he wrote, “By means of his conscious reason and its chief offspring, science, man has the power of substituting less dilatory, less wasteful and less cruel methods of progressive change than those of natural selection, which alone are available to lower organisms.” The time for us to begin using this power is long overdue.

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