The Call to Catholic Environmental Stewardship


“Praise be to you, my Lord, through all your creatures” – St. Francis

Whether as a student in environmental studies or a lay Catholic trying to navigate the current social climate, there are some days that I just look at the colossus of environmentalism and doubt where to start. From the extremely political messages running through much of the global environmental discussions to the New Age trends in environmental advocacy, this field is thick with potential land mines for faithful Catholics. Thankfully, as Catholics we are not alone when striving to navigate the difficult and messy questions surrounding environmentalism. We have a shepherd and a Church, and our current shepherd has given us a great guide to Catholic environmentalism: Laudato Si. The message of Laudato Si can be examined in two parts.

Reframing Our Mindset: Changing Culture

To begin with, we have to reframe how we understand the human relationship to the environment, in order to change the environmental actions we consider acceptable. This reframing first of all requires addressing anthropocentrism. When God gave Adam dominion over the birds of the air, beasts of the land, and fish of the sea, does that mean we are able to act selfishly, wantonly and destructively? Or is proper anthropocentrism a responsibility of stewardship towards the earth above which God has given us governance? Pope Francis answers very clearly, “An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship”. (LS 116 emphasis mine) An anthropocentrism of stewardship recognizes that it is exactly because humans are the highest beings on earth that we have the responsibility to take proper care of the world which we have been given. Humans have the capacity to consciously follow God, to understand His world, and thus we can be responsible for our actions towards the earth. And we are responsible; that is the meaning of the Scripture concerning dominion over the earth.

However, this proper understanding of the relationship between humans and nature goes beyond just preventing us from destroying the earth. There is a key connection between the human-human relationship and the human-nature relationship; without a proper understanding of the first, we shall not have a proper understanding of the second. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, when he declares that the conquest of nature becomes the conquest of some men over other men. Pope Francis recognizes this connection as well. He argues that a lack of respect for nature is a lack of respect for the God who created it. In other words, we put ourselves in the place of God, which is putting ourselves above humanity as well as above nature. If we cannot respect other humans, who are the same species, can it really be expected that we would respect the animals and plants that are different and less conscious than us? Thus Francis asserts: “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” (LS 117)

So far, therefore, we see that Pope Francis has outlined a proper inter-personal attitude and a proper supra-personal attitude as two pieces of the foundation for a Catholic environmental mindset. There is a third pillar: the intra-personal attitude. We must have, within us, a proper attitude of wonder. “[T]he relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked. By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behavior”, Francis tells us. (LS 215) If we are self-centered, we shall never look beyond ourselves to other people or to the environment. An appreciation of beauty and an aesthetic of wonder open us up to view and understand the world for which we are called to care.

In summary, the first step in caring for God’s creation is ensuring that we have a correct and Catholic mindset in all our relationships. Charitable human-human relationships precede responsible human-nature relationships, both of which depend on a inner attitude of wonder at God and all which He has created. If we focus on these three relationships, we shall have a strong foundation upon which to build the moral practices of environmental stewardship.

Practicing Morality: Implementing Natural Law

Notice that I ended the last sentence with a comment on moral practices. This is a key element of having a Catholic environmentalism. This environmentalism is not about experiencing a deep relationship with the earth or defending the rights of plants and animals, or even about fixing past environmental destruction. Rather, it is mainly concerned with acting morally in all that we do, including those actions which involve non-human elements. Morality is not just an inter-personal concept. Our morality must permeate through everything that we do, because we are humans with an immortal soul and free will. Environmentalism recognizes that we have moral obligations in relation to the world we in which we live.

So how do we implement this morality? This leads to the second part of Laudato Si. Overall, we can find a broad guide in the natural law, which is the natural order we can discern beyond the physical laws of empirical science. Pope Francis says, “It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality.” (LS 199) This is why we had to begin with an understanding of the connection between humans, human nature, and the natural world: it leads us to see the spiritual elements that weave through the nature of reality. Francis states, “Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment.” (LS 155) This means, that we must act in accord with the natural moral law in order to be good environmentalists. Francis explicitly makes this claim, “Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.” (LS 211)

Awesome! Let’s go be virtuous! It’s a good idea, but still rather vague for actual implementation of our Catholic moral environmentalism. So let’s go on. The practice of virtue begins with a conversion; a conversion from domination and selfishness to gratitude and communion. Pope Francis emphasizes both of these virtues: first, “a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works” and second, “a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion”. (LS 220) The virtue of gratitude is key in the practice of stewardship, keeping us from assuming that the world is ours to treat as wish. And communion is essential maintaining the relationships emphasized in the first part of this post.

In fact, practicing these two virtues relate directly to the first two relationships I outlined before. Gratitude keeps us from the pride of improper human-nature relationships and encourages love of the beautiful world God has given us. Communion, similarly, cements our human-human relationships, increasing our love and care for each other. Now you’re looking for the virtue of the intra-personal pillar of an environmental mindset, right? Don’t fear, Francis provides an example of an appropriate virtue to practice here as well, namely, inner peace. This also comes from a conversion: a conversion from the confusion of sin to the gentle peace of living according to God’s will.

In the end, therefore, we find that Catholic environmentalism begins and ends in the love of God. We begin by falling in love with God. We convert to living in a state of grace, including loving the people we interact with and the world which God made. As we care for and fall in love with God’s world, our wonder at His creation leads us to fall in love with Him all over again. Catholic environmentalism is not so much a particular mission and crusade for us to pursue as it is just a lifestyle in harmony with the life of love and virtue to which we are universally called. Let us go forth, then, my friends, into God’s world living deeply and fully the love of our Creator.




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