Why Catholics should care that wilderness preserves in Utah are shrinking

The Indian Creek area of Bears Ears National Monument (iStock/Adventure_Photo)The Indian Creek area of Bears Ears National Monument (iStock/Adventure_Photo)

The Trump administration’s attempt to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah by millions of acres has been almost lost amid other news from Washington. President Trump wants to shrink Bears Ears National Monument, a collection of red rock canyons including sites considered sacred by Native Americans, by 85 percent, and another monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, by about half (leaving them at about 220,000 and one million acres, respectively). This decision, now facing a number of legal challenges, is part of a larger change in the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. The Trump administration has been deregulating mineral and gas extraction and cutting budgets for federal conservation efforts, and it is undertaking the largest reduction in federally protected lands in U.S. history. For Catholics, these are matters of great concern.

There is a sense among too many Christians that this passing world and the “lower parts of creation” are insignificant, or that God’s grant to Adam of dominion over nature was a grant of exploitation. But concern for the environment was not introduced by Pope Francis. It is the church’s consistent teaching, and Francis’ predecessors also wrote with passion about the need to conserve our natural inheritance. St. John Paul II said that Christianity never rejects nature but seeks God in it. In becoming the bread of life, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would add, God united himself to our earth in order to bring all of creation to redemption and divinization.

Advertisement

There is a sense among too many Christians that God’s grant to Adam of dominion over nature was a grant of exploitation.

As the writer and farmer Wendell Berry has put it, since the things of nature exist with God’s presence in them, “we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate.” The idea that, as St. Paul says, “the things of God are clearly seen in creation,” is another reason for Christians to care about what happens to our parks and nature preserves.

Pope Francis has noted that for many people the beauty of nature is the starting place for an encounter with God. Today, when other occasions for such an encounter may be harder to find, the “still, small voice” can still be heard in quiet woods and on mountain heights. John Muir, the great American naturalist, had it right when he wrote that “every man needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and to pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” In addition to being a place of encounter with God, these lands are places for encounter with one another, family and neighbors.

Setting aside certain stretches of land as above the use of the market, as outside the realm of profit and gain, is a sign that our nation still believes in the idea of sacredness. The church is always obliged to defend useless things, or things that appear useless to society. This is why it seeks to defend the poor, the severely disabled, those with intellectual impairments, the unborn and the sick. Catholics believe that things can have value apart from their usefulness to us—things can have value simply in virtue of being made by God and being a present object of divine delight. Preserving these wilderness areas is a reminder to ourselves, and a statement to our community, that we have not given in to the world of mere appetites, of getting and spending, but still hold on to this idea of the sacred.

Preserving these wilderness areas is a reminder that we have not given in to the world of mere appetites, but still hold on to the idea of the sacred.

“I like big things,” Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech in 1886 in Dakota Territory. “Big forests and mountains...big factories, steamboats, everything else.” But if we have all the big things in the world and it makes us corrupt, greedy and vain, he went on, then none of it matters. Roosevelt thought it was legitimate to use the land for drilling, mining and logging, but he also saw that these activities must have limits. Economic activity cannot come at the cost of permanently damaging the health of the land that we share with our neighbors and that our descendents rely on us to keep whole.

As Pope Francis has pointed out, the most wasteful forms of industry disproportionately harm the poorest of the world. A Catholic ought to respond to the policies of the current administration by saying that our land—this land that is a gift and expression of God’s love—is worth preserving.

St. John Paul II, as a part of his effort to call the faithful to an “ecological conversion,” proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi the patron of those who work for the conservation of the environment. An American Catholic might take Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk as another who could remind us, as Francis did, of our brotherhood with all people and all creation, and encourage us to take to heart the words of Benedict XVI: “Protecting the natural environment in order to build a world of peace is a duty incumbent upon each and all.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

For Catholics, these are matters of great concern.

You got to be kidding! Not that we shouldn't be concerned with the environment but being Catholic has no special role in that. This is just another political argument.

The Bears Ear monument was created by Obama on the way out the door in December 2016. The Grand Staircase was created by Clinton in 1996.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 4 days ago

J Cosgrove - What difference does it make who established the national monuments? The article is about preserving wilderness and sacred spaces. Who established them is irrelevant information.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 1 day ago

I was pointing out these are recent and sweeping. Not the overturn of a long established and well accepted act. In the case of Bears Ears done at the very last minute. They were also established contrary to the laws speciations.

Catherine Myers
1 week 4 days ago

i would concur with you... it has less to do with the people and more to do with the actions taken. Are they for or against the preservation of the environment. Associate at Tree Care and Maintenance Organization

Tim Donovan
3 weeks ago

I agree that preserving nature is important. As each one of us is created in the image.and likewise of God, we must preserve creation for the good of our descendants. These include the most vulnerable of human beings: the Sick (I live in a nursing home /rehabilitation center and know many seriously ill and very elderly people), the unborn, and the severely disabled (I'm a retired Special Education teacher who taught students with brain damage and who were also physically disabled and/or had behavior disorders). I don't have any children, but I do care about the future for my neighbors in the nursing home, my family, my friends, and my dear nieces and nephew. President Roosevelt was right that while it's necessary to an extent to use the goods of the environment for our own needs, that we must not sacrifice our natural environment in the name of greed. Finally, as an imperfect Catholic who wishes to receive the Eucharist worthily, I agree with Pope -emeritus Benedict XVI that "in becoming the Bread of Life...God united Himself to our earth in order to bring all of creation to redemption..."

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 4 days ago

I am glad to see preservation of wilderness presented as a matter of concern to the Catholic Church. The preservation of wilderness, protection for clean air and water, protection for endangered species, and prevention of climate change are all under attack by the current administration. These attacks are sinful in their destructiveness and it is good to see the issue of wilderness discussed in a religious context.

Mike Theman
2 weeks 2 days ago

There are about 2 billion acres of land in the contiguous states. That's 2,000 million acres.
66 million acres - about 3% - in the US are considered "developed lands." Sorry, no, I don't care that the US is making use of another small fraction of its land and resources.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.

On this week's episode, we talk with Lieutenant Governor of Washington State, Cyrus Habib.
Olga SeguraMay 25, 2018