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.
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.”