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Concern for the Earth is Incarnational, Not Paganistic

January 7, 2010

It is a typical accusation made by some on the internet that modern concern for the earth and its environment is paganism. I do not understand how any Catholic can hold this position, when leaders of the Church, including Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II have said we need to be good stewards of the earth and take care of it. Thinking it is a good to be taken care of does not make it an idol. If it did, what does that make of God?  “God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:10).

The concern for “paganism” and fear of “paganism” doesn’t look like a Catholic concern, but a Protestant one (and not one of all Protestants, but fundamentalists). Catholics have a long tradition of looking to pagans and learning from them, and not discounting their views just because they are pagan. Isn’t this a reason why many Protestants criticize Catholics? Isn’t it the claim that we are really pagans?

The question shouldn’t be “is this pagan?” Even if it were, it would not necessarily mean it is exclusively pagan, nor that it is a bad practice. The question should be whether or not the concern is a valid Christian concern. Care of the earth certainly is. God has made it our responsibility (Gen 1:26 -28). Creation is good; we are given rule over it in order to preserve that goodness.

And for the Christian, it really isn’t paganism at all which has led to our concern for the earth; rather, it is the incarnation. God became man and took on the matter of the earth, not just to save humanity, but to save all creation. He has given us the task to continue his work while we are here on this earth. (Rom 8:22-25). It is the denial of this which is the problem, for that denial implies an underlying Gnosticism.

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13 Comments
  1. Pilgrim permalink
    January 7, 2010 1:28 pm

    You might be interested in Cardinal George’s “The Difference God makes.” In the first couple chapters, he explains that we are connected to all of creation and so have a duty to care for it. He likens this idea to St Francis’ “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”
    Isn’t it also a matter of priority? I have to remind myself that caring for the earth God gave us is still an important duty. I get quite turned off when so many environmentalists are into saving the earth (and the whales etc.) and are still for a woman’s “right” to choose to kill her own child, whose immortal soul’s worth is beyond even the created world.
    Anyway, back to my original point, Card. George explains your point beautifully and clearly.

    • January 7, 2010 1:32 pm

      Pilgrim

      Obviously, there are issues of degree. I agree with that. But I also find the medieval worldview is much more in tune with the earth and its needs than the modern world (and I think Descartes has a major role in that).

      I have pointed out many times on VN that one of the problems which many environmentalists do not want to examine is the spiritual crisis which has caused the environmental crisis we have today. Sin I think has a major role to play, and what we suffer I think is often in consequence of our communal sin. But I would also say that concern for the earth, for animals, for the environment, if properly understood, can be and should be used to even more explain concern for humanity and why we should be pro-life.

  2. Chris permalink
    January 7, 2010 1:31 pm

    I think that many Catholics could benefit from an explanation of the idea of panentheism as formulated by Orthodox theologians like Sergius Bulgakov.

    • January 7, 2010 1:37 pm

      Chris

      Solovyov, Bulgakov, Florensky, Frank, Clement, Evdokimov — AGREED 100%.

  3. David Nickol permalink
    January 7, 2010 2:35 pm

    I am not sure of the practical wisdom of trying to meld the environment movement and the pro-life (anti-abortion) movement. The former tends to be left of center and the latter tends to be right of center.

    Also, the idea that every life is precious applies to human beings in a way it does not apply to the environment. Nature is sometimes brutal, and a true environmentalist must respect that. Good ecology is a matter of maintaining a balance, not preserving as many plants and animals as possible. For example, it is not wise to suppress all forest fires. When I was young, nature shows on television did not show predators attacking and killing prey (especially cute, cuddly prey). Now, there seem to be two approaches on nature show. In the first one, the predator attacks, and the prey manages to escape “this time.” In the second, the predator kills the prey while you sit there covering your eyes. I always find myself thinking, “Why doesn’t the camera crew do something?” But that is really just sentimentality. The predator-prey relationship is a perfectly natural one, and interfering with it when it is in balance is the opposite of environmentalism.

    • January 7, 2010 2:39 pm

      David,

      I think the book, Why Animal Suffering Matters helps put the foundation for why someone like myself could find links between the two (plus, if one is merely pro-life for humanity, trying to create a world in which the human can survive without suffering is necessary, and that alone should provide reason to be an environmentalist).

  4. January 7, 2010 8:13 pm

    Henry,

    A decent explanation of why global warming/climate change cannot be considered pagan.

    But shouldn’t we be cautious until we have more evidence to take action on?

    God gave creation to man to do what he wants, granted we need to be caretakers, but not at the expense of some of the more drastic initiatives that are being floated around. Such as a one-child policy and age-limits on how long we can live.

  5. January 7, 2010 8:24 pm

    Two thumbs up for panentheism.

  6. Eric Brown permalink
    January 8, 2010 12:48 am

    Well, if only some Catholics would cease repeating the talking point of Manichee dualist-like evangelical Protestants and actually bothered to reach the social doctrine of the Church, we’d be a lot better off than we are now.

  7. January 8, 2010 2:05 am

    Utilitarianism’s disrespect for deeper meaning is the common opposite of both environmentalism and pro-life. There’s much more to respect for life than merely preserving whatever manifestation happens to be visible in a “left,” “center” or “right” perspective at the moment.

  8. Brian permalink
    January 8, 2010 8:20 am

    “Also, the idea that every life is precious applies to human beings in a way it does not apply to the environment. Nature is sometimes brutal, and a true environmentalist must respect that. Good ecology is a matter of maintaining a balance, not preserving as many plants and animals as possible.”

    It seems there is a deeper connection between being pro life and environmentalism. That is, human life will only flourish if it exists in relative harmony with the environment. Or to put in differently, by protecting the “balance” of nature we actually serve to protect human life and dignity.
    It has been to the detriment of the environmental movement so far that many arguments have not focused on the personalist dimension of our relationship with the environment.

  9. David Nickol permalink
    January 8, 2010 9:29 am

    Brian,

    I don’t disagree with you. What I said was, “I am not sure of the practical wisdom of trying to meld the environment movement and the pro-life (anti-abortion) movement.” They are both largely political movements, and adherents of one tend not to be adherents of the other. As I read the Declaration on Procured Abortion, it seems to me to require a merging of measures that are supported largely by the right (laws against abortion) with measures that are supported largely by the left:

    On the contrary, it is the task of law to pursue a reform of society and of conditions of life in all milieux, starting with the most deprived, so that always and everywhere it may be possible to give every child coming into this world a welcome worthy of a person. . . . a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honorable and possible alternative to abortion.

    Even calls for finding “common ground” between left and right are greeted with extreme skepticism or outright hostility on this issue, so attempts to achieve a true meeting of minds seem impossible to me unless we can get beyond an ideological liberal-conservative split. Even setting national politics aside, there is a liberal-conservative split in Catholicism.

    Also, there is the very tough question about balancing human needs against environmental needs. If you saw 60 Minutes this past Sunday, there was a good example – farmers versus an endangered species:

    “You know, I’ve got a wife and kids,” he said. “The thought of bankruptcy is something…I don’t think I could deal with that.”

    But he doesn’t blame his troubles on the drought. He blames the environmentalists who sued under the Endangered Species Act to protect a tiny little fish, the Delta smelt, that was being killed off by California’s main water pumps.

    A federal judge ordered that the pumps be turned down, and Allen’s taps almost ran dry.

    “When you can put the needs of a two-inch fish above me and my family and that thing could potentially bankrupt me, I got a serious problem with that,” Allen told Stahl.

    I don’t pretend to know how important the Delta smelt is, but I do know that when it comes to protecting the environment, some people will be required to make sacrifices for the common good that seem unfair.

  10. Brian permalink
    January 8, 2010 4:49 pm

    David,

    I agree with you that it would be hard if not impossible to meld the two movements as they exist today. I’m thinking of how we can form Catholics (and others) to move in and out of various movements without picking up the extra left/ right baggage associated with them. How we do that is a good question.

    And yes, nature does not always look favorably on man. Sometimes it really is man vs. wild. But it is unescapable that man depends the health of the environment for his survival and well being. It would be nice to see the terms of the discussion, say on deforestation, shift more to how it tends to harm human person and community.

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