Thursday, June 18

An Introduction to the Care for Creation and Franciscan Ecotheology

"Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past... [A] new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge... The ecological crisis is a moral issue."[1]

The ecological crisis is one of the challenges confronting humanity in our increasingly globalized world. In Catholic Social Thought we speak of the Care for Creation, which comes out of a developed ecotheology. If part of the responsibility of humanity is caring for creation, it follows that there is a call for action rooted in eco-spirituality. Thus, the following exploration is geared toward a Franciscan eco-spirituality, and will cover ecological issues from a theological, historical, social and scientific perspective. By using the Hebrew Bible, St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, Blessed John Duns Scotus, St. Bonaventure and others as the theological groundwork for this discussion, we can determine what actions have been taken and can be taken to promote this Care for Creation. Viewing creation as a sacrament, examining the spirituality of creation itself, Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon and similar theological concepts will be utilized to help elucidate a backdrop for the proper Catholic response to the growing ecological issues facing us today.

By examining what the Church calls the “signs of the times,” we may examine the relationship between justice and ecology to reach an ethical treatment of the environment. This is rooted in the principles of respect for all life, the common good on a global scale, the relationship to the option for the poor, population growth and a number of other concerns and considerations. As Rachel Carson, famous marine biologist and conservationist once said, "In nature nothing exists alone."[2] If, as Carson argues, we are part of a larger web of life, then it is our call as human beings to act out of love and relationship to creation as a whole, uphold environmental justice - which links ecology with social justice - and to work with our world, Sister Mother Earth, to come to a deeper care of and respect for the place we call home.

The State of the World
“I work as a secretary in... the Amazon area of Brazil. When I step out of my apartment in the morning, I step into a thick haze of smoke. My doctor tells me that I have a serious respiratory infection from breathing all this bad air. The papers tell us that the rainforest is burning this year as it never did before... in some places even the lakes are on fire. We have had the worst drought in twenty-five years, and this has caused many trees to dry out and be vulnerable to fire... the government continues to pay people to slash and burn their land, cut down the tropical trees, and use the land for farming. The farmers soon find out that the soil lasts only several years, and then they have nothing. But we never seem to learn.” - Selena Casara[3]

Casar’s story is one of many pieces of anecdotal evidence that demonstrate the clear need for a more mindful and active ecological movement. Bearing Casar’s story in mind, consider some of the following statistics: in the last fifty years, we have consumed more resources than in all of history.[4] How we produce, consume and dispose of our products and food creates 42% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.[5] About 100 billion pieces of junk mail are deliver in the U.S. every year, which makes over 51 million metric tons of greenhouses gases.[6] Ten years ago, over 144 billion drinking containers were landfilled, incinerated or littered in the U.S., which is about 2 out of every 3 containers sold - this number has only increased.[7] Over half of our world’s tropical forests are gone,[8] 75% of marine fisheries are overfished to capacity,[9] and over 2 million people die each year due to air pollution.[10] These startling statistics should alert us to the need for change.

Consider a few other anecdotal evidences. In West Flores, Indonesia, a mining company promised the unsuspecting people that they would become more prosperous.[11] One Franciscan friar noted that since the 1980s, “mountains have been flattened, forests crushed and manganese mined to make money, but the life of the local people stays the same, and has even worsened... people have lost their land... the mining industry impoverishes people, instead of providing well-being and prosperity.”[12] In another case in 1999, air quality injustice abounded in Westley, California. There were 7 million used tires improperly and illegally stored in hills which caught on fire after being struck by lightning.[13] The fumes released poisonous chemicals into the air, but authorities claimed the fire was impossible to extinguish and intended to let it burn out over the course of a year.[14] But community grassroots action forced authorities to extinguish the blaze. Although the fire was put out after 34 days, the damage was done - communities nearby suffered horrendously from the toxic air, and cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases happened as a result.[15]

Indicators of environmental degradation are abundant, but there appears to be a growing understanding that we all share one atmosphere, and that the actions of one nation effect all nations. This is when it moves from social sin to planetary sin. We need structures that overcome both structures of sin and personal sin - even by inaction, we become complicit, and by many of our actions, we still propagate environmental issues. In her book Life Abundant, Sally McFague argues that we have become the emergence of the Homo oeconomicus, the consumer who lives amid material splendor and the producer who bends the Earth to virtually unrestrained human purpose.[16] St. Francis would suggest that we should aim to become the Homo universalis - man who had united in himself the whole of reality, as he endeavored to. Thus, in an effort to prevent this planetary sin - a new “land ethic” is called for.

Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic
Cultivating a Land Ethic
Born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, Aldo Leopold was a forester, scientist, teacher and observer who is responsible for the “land ethic.”[17] At the start of his career, he shot a wolf, and saw a “fierce, green fire” in its eyes. The passing of this wolf later came to symbolize the mountain and its community of life - he began to see the connection between conservation and the health of the land. Leopold developed ideas of ecological restoration - helping to rebuild forests, prairies and such that were destroyed when the Europeans came.[18] To Leopold, land was more than soil - it included water, wildlife and humans - it was a community of relational systems. He argued that we cannot solve any conservation problem if we do not address human relationships and the relationship of people to the land.[19] The science of ecology helped him to bring us back to why community is important, but for the community to be concerned about the environment, it must begin with the individual. This is where Catholic Social Thought comes in - and ecothology.

Catholic Social Thought and a Biblical View of Creation
Throughout history, people experienced God on mountaintops, in deserts, alongside waterfalls, flowing springs, storms and earthquakes.[20] Some, such as the Native Americans, have developed an eco-spirituality, while other traditions have held an exaggerated anthropocentrism. This focus on the human person was noticed by the infamous Lynn White, in a 1966 lecture at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. White held that Christians are largely responsible for the ecological crisis as they took God’s command to have dominion over creation as a command to dominate. However, he later stated that “since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.”[21] As a result, White proposed St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology, and suggested that moving forward, Christians take a more Franciscan approach to creation.[22]

Consider a brief selection of texts that reveal a Biblical view of creation. In Genesis, God commands animals to be fruitful and multiply, along with Adam and Noah (Genesis 1:22, 8:17), domesticated animals are to observe the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14), and animals must refrain from murder (Genesis 9:7).[23] The Israelites were told not to “destroy its trees by putting an ax to them... do not cut them down” (Deuteronomy 20:19). Further, a number of anthropomorphic passages speak of nature. In the Psalms, hills and valleys shout for joy (65:13-14), floods clap their hands, the whole earth worships and signs to God (66:1-4, 89:6). In 1st Chronicles 16:23-33, the fields exult and the trees of the woods sing for joy.[24]

In Isaiah 55:12, we read that the “Trees shall clap their hands...”. Daniel 3:74-81 says, “Let the earth bless the Lord... Mountains and hills... everything growing from the earth... you springs... seas and rivers... you dolphins and all water creatures... All you birds of the air... All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever!” Also noteworthy is the book of Job, in which we see God manifested through the natural world in his questions to Job. In these, God places the questions in a more cosmic sense than anthropocentric sense. Job demonstrates the struggle between human-centered interests and cosmocentric realities. Yet throughout the Hebrew Bible one can find examples of God’s concern for the whole of the non-human creation. The story of Noah is a case in point: Noah was perhaps the first conservationist.[25] In Jonah 4, God specifically mentioned both the humans and the animals in Nineveh to the prophet. This is tied into CST concepts of the common good. For example, Adam and Eve are told to cultivate and till the garden of Eden. Adam participates in God’s creation - which also essentially means developing private property and ownership. If we have private property, it means that we can ensure that we have goods to care for our family. CST would uphold the teaching that all of creation has rights: the right to be what God intended it to be. In CST, “nature is not... [something] to exploit at will or a museum piece to be preserved at all costs. We are not gods, but stewards of the earth.”[26]

Franciscan Theology of Creation: Contemplating our Crucified Earth
“We must respond to the conviction that the Incarnation... commits us to the interrelated Word made flesh, to the biological community of Earth.”[27]

In 1979, Pope John Paul II named St. Francis the patron saint of ecology because he “recognized the importance of his God-centered life for our modern age.”[28] The root of  the word ecology, eco-, comes from the Greek oikos, which means “house”; ecology means “study of the house.”[29] When St. Francis started his ministry he heard, “go, rebuild by house,” which became much larger for him - it became, “Go, rebuild my oikos; as you see, it is all being destroyed.”[30] This became an directive to care for God’s creation. As aforementioned, many Westerners have their deeply rooted thinking in philosophies that value the individual over the communal. The Enlightenment worldview held that humans were lords over the earth, so Europeans felt they needed to “civilize” the wild world, and “tame it.” But St. Francis realized, centuries before the “Enlightenment,” that the world is our oikos.[31]

Francis rejected this top-down way of looking at the world and came into contact with many people “farmers, craftsmen, artists, bakers - people who worked with their hands and valued the material things of the earth.”[32] This helped Francis to develop a sort of proto-ecotheology. Now, although largely hagiographical in content, we have an abundance of stories where St. Francis interacts with animals and nature. The early biographer Thomas of Celano writes: “That the bees not perish of hunger in the icy winter, he [Francis] commands that honey and the finest wine should be set out for them. He calls all animals by a fraternal name, although, among all kinds of beasts, he especially loves the meek... Even for worms he had a warm love, since he had read this text about the Savior: I am a worm and not a man. That is why he used to pick them up from the road and put them in a safe place so that they would not be crushed by the footsteps of passerby... Wherever he found an abundance of flowers, he used to preach to them and invite them to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.”[33]

Statue of Francis (at San Damiano, Assisi, Italy)
Elsewhere we read that, “He used to tell the brother who took care of the garden... to leave a piece of ground in the garden that would produce wild plants that... would produce ‘Brother Flowers.’”[34] Consider also the story of Francis preaching to the birds: “After the birds had listened so reverently to the Word of God, he began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to them before. From that day on, he carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to love the Creator, because daily, invoking the name of the Savior, [and] he observed their obedience in his own experience.”[35]

After his encounter with the birds, he “woke up” and recognized that they were his brothers and sisters as well.[36] But perhaps the highlight and showcase of Francis and his eco-spirituality was his Canticle of the Creatures, which reworks images from Psalm 148 and Daniel 3:57-88. The Canticle sings of creation as a familial, interdependent system,[37] as St. Francis did not seek dominion over creation, but to be a brother to creation. Although the Canticle never mentions Jesus Christ by name, the entire hymn is filled with the Cosmic Christ - the connectedness and familiar nature of God’s creation. On another note, St. Clare is often given the sort end of the stick or is not acknowledged by ecologists. But St. Clare and the Poor Ladies demonstrated a humility and a respect for the Other, whether the Other was a person, a tree, or a wasp - all made and loved by God.[38] In fact, during Clare’s canonization proceedings, Sister Angeluccia testified that Clare told them to “praise God when they saw beautiful trees, flowers and bushes; and likewise, always to praise Him for and in all things when they saw all people and creatures.”[39]

Blessed John Duns Scotus, Franciscan friar and 14th century theologian, developed the concept of “thisness” (haeccitas), which involves the uniqueness of being. In an ecotheological sense, each tree is each unique - and therefore by being most truly itself, glorifies God. A Chinese proverb speaks of a man who asked a tree how it glorified God - in turn, the tree blossomed beautifully. It simply did by the uniqueness of its being. This is an extremely important ecotheological concept, as it necessitates the protection of the inherent worth of each being in creation - human and non-human. Also in the Franciscan tradition is St. Bonaventure, 13th century Franciscan theologian, for whom creation was a theophany of God - a manifestation of God’s grace.[40] In other words, the created world is essentially a sacrament of God. In his writings, St. Bonaventure spoke of the Cosmic Christ and the Book of Creation. We were given written revelation, but God still speaks through the Book of Creation - which should also be “read,” appreciated and taken care of.[41]

Shallow Ecology, Deep Ecology, and Anti-Environmentalism
Deep ecology is a radical environmental philosophy that developed in 1984 by Arne Naess and George Sessions to ask deeper questions about the environmental crisis.[42] At its core, deep ecology is really about ecocentrism, and not anthropocentrism.[43] Most of the Western world is familiar with shallow ecology, a more anthropocentric point of view. It weighs the value of creation in terms of its usefulness for human needs, whereas deep ecology recognizes no right other than vital needs for humans to use creation.[44] However, there are some within the deep ecology movement - particularly in the Wise Use group - that have moved from the radical to the extreme. In his book entitled Ecology Wars, Arnold writes: "Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement. We're mad as hell. We're not going to take it anymore. We're dead serious - we're going to destroy them. Environmentalism is the new paganism. Trees are worshiped and humans sacrificed at its' altar. It is evil. And we intend to destroy it. No one was aware that environmentalism was a problem until we came along."[45]

Not all Wise Use individuals are militant, but there are a number who promote violence against environmentalists. Activist Jess Quinn has said, "when the hour strikes, there will be public [environmental] officials dead in the streets.”[46] In Burns, Oregon, one environmentalist was told he was going to be killed, and his wife and children received threatening calls at their home.[47] While doing research for his book The War Against the Greens: The Wise-Use Movement, the New Right, and Anti-Environmental Violence, David Helvarg received threatening letters and telephone calls from Wise Use activists.[48] In fact, the Wise Use Agenda - their manifesto - is officially aimed at such things as the “Immediate oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.... Development of national parks under the direction of private firms with expertise in people-moving, such as Walt Disney... Civil penalties against anyone who legally challenges economic action or development on federal lands,”[49] and so forth.

In a critique by Richard A. Watson’s, it is argued that deep ecology’s major problem is that it is ineffective in its anti-anthropocentric approach, as humans will only care about the environment if they see its usefulness for humans.[50] Watson writes, “There is a very good reason for thinking ecologically, and for encouraging human beings to act in such a way as to preserve a rich and balanced planetary ecology: human survival depends on it.” Moving beyond anthropocentrism has the risk of losing the majority of the population in the environmental movement, and this is where Watson feels Naess and Sessions have failed most of all.[51] Further, it seems that a good amount of violence can arise from misdirected ecological movements.

Jim Edmiston said, “We don’t need to save species, we need to build relationships with other species.”[52] We may also consider adapting the the Golden Rule: Do unto the earth as you want done unto you.[53] Now, one may read current ecological information and feel discouragement. But change begins with awareness, and the more we become aware of the world around us, the greater understanding of how we fit in and our responsibility to the environment will develop. By being aware of how we influence the environment and how the environment influences us, we can continue to develop a “land ethic”. Our increasingly globalized world continues to become, unfortunately, an increasingly apathetic and individualistic world, but this land ethic can create a mentality of care-taking, of preservation and conservation.

In 1982, the U.N. General Assembly produced the “World Charter for Nature,” which is very similar to Franciscan teaching. The document states that “Every life form is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to [human beings] and, to accord other organisms such recognition, [humans] must be guided by a moral code of action.”[54] This document is an example of progress being made on one level - the U.N. is recognizing the dignity of all life. This is also an important shift in anthropocentric thinking to a more cosmocentric - not necessarily ecocentric - view of the world. How we care for the creation around us will also dictate how creation responds to us - if we pollute creation, it will cause problems on many levels not only for humanity but for ocean life, for life in forests and jungles, and for all beings everywhere.

An ecotheology or eco-spirituality connected with reflective action can be achieved by a metanoia - a “the shifting of mind.” In her 1996 Presidential Address to the Catholic Theological Society of America in San Diego, Elizabeth A. Johnson called for this kind of shifting in thought and turning toward solving the ecological crisis. She added, “What is needed now... is yet one more turn, a fully inclusive turn to the heavens and the earth, a return to cosmology, in order to restore fullness of vision and get theology back on the track from which it fell off a few hundred years ago.”[55]

The Franciscan eco-spirituality and the CST on the ecological crisis are only small pieces of the larger view of creation. An introduction such as this cannot cover the wide range of issues and challenges at work in the ecological crisis, but we ought to be reminded that people of every nation, religious tradition, and ethnicity must work together - realistically, not idealistically - and to nurture Leopold’s “land ethic” in an effort to Care for Creation. Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem “God’s Grandeur”, suggests that man has muddied and smudged God’s creation. Therefore, we must work together to renew our Sister Mother Earth. So with the Psalmist we may pray together:

Send forth thy Spirit, Lord, and renew the face of the earth.[56]

Sources Consulted
Adler, Jonathan H. “Anti-Conservationist Incentives”. Regulation, 2008. 54-57. 

Ambrosius, Wendy. "Deep Ecology: A Debate on the Role of Humans in the Environment." University of Wisconsin La Crosse. UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research VIII, 1 Jan. 2005. Web. 3 Apr. 2015. 

Bishop, Steve. “Green theology and Deep theology: New Age or new creation?”. Themelios 16 (3) (1991): 8-14. Print. 

Boston, Timothy. “Exploring Anti-Environmentalism in the Context of Sustainability”. Los Angeles: Electronic Green Journal, 1(11), University of Tasmania. 1999. Web.

Delio O.S.F., Ilia. Keith Douglass Warner, O.F.M. and Pamela Wood. Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1999. 1st ed. Print. 

Delio O.S.F., Ilia. A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World. St. Bonaventure: Franciscan Institute, 2003. The Franciscan Heritage Series, v2. 1st ed. Print.

Driessen, Paul. Climate-Hype Exposed. Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, 2014. 

Ed. by Richard W. Miller. God, Creation and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to 

the Environmental Crisis. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010. 1st ed. Print. 

Nothwehr OSF, Dawn M. Franciscan Theology of the Environment: An Introductory Reader. Quincy: Franciscan Press Quincy University, 2002. 1st ed. Print.

Order of Friars Minor. Franciscans and Environmental Justice: Confronting Environmental Crisis and Social Injustice. Rome: Office for Justice, Peace and the Integrity Of Creation. 2011. Print.

USCCB. Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching A Pastoral Statement of the United States Catholic Conference. November 14, 1991.

Warner OFM, Keith. Franciscan Environmental Ethics: Imagining Creation as a Community of Care. Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 31, 1 (2011): 143-160. Print. 

Warner OFM, Keith. “Chapter 10: Poverty and Environment - Poverty and Environmental Justice in California’s Great Central Valley.” from World Poverty: Franciscan Reflections. New York: Franciscans International, 2007. 185-195. Print. 

[1] Pope John Paul II. The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility. Vatican: December 8, 1989. 1, 15.
[2] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Print.
[3] Delio O.S.F., Ilia. A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World. St. Bonaventure: Franciscan Institute, 2003. The Franciscan Heritage Series, v2. 1st ed. 1. Print.
[4] U.S. EPA. Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead. 2009.
[5] U.S. EPA. Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices. 2009.
[6] This is the equivalent emissions of more than 9.3 million cars (ForestEthics. Climate Change Enclosed: Junk Mail’s Impact on Global Warming. 2008.).
[7] Water, Water Everywhere: The growth of non-carbonated beverage containers in the United States. Container Recycling Institute, 2007.
[8] U.S. EPA. Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead. 2009.
[9] Ibid.
[10] United Nations Environment Programme. Global Environment Outlook 4: Summary for Decision Makers. 2007.
[11] Order of Friars Minor. Franciscans and Environmental Justice: Confronting Environmental Crisis and Social Injustice. Rome: Office for Justice, Peace and the Integrity Of Creation. 2011. 7-8. Print.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Warner OFM, Keith. “Chapter 10: Poverty and Environment - Poverty and Environmental Justice in California’s Great Central Valley.” from World Poverty: Franciscan Reflections. New York: Franciscans International, 2007. 190. Print. 
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Delio O.S.F., Ilia. Keith Douglass Warner, O.F.M. and Pamela Wood. Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1999. 1st ed. 175. Print.
[17] Green Fire. Aldo Leopold Foundation, 2011. DVD.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] USCCB. Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching A Pastoral Statement of the United States Catholic Conference. November 14, 1991.
[21] Care for Creation 7. 
[22] White Jr., Lynn. “The historical roots of our ecologic(al) crisis”, Science 155. 10 March 1967. (It was White’s recommendation that later led to Pope John Paul II’s declaration of Francis as patron saint of ecology).
[23] Nothwehr OSF, Dawn M. Franciscan Theology of the Environment: An Introductory Reader. Quincy: Franciscan Press Quincy University, 2002. 1st ed. 27. Print.
[24] Ibid., 28.
[25] Bishop, Steve. “Green theology and Deep theology: New Age or new creation?”. Themelios 16 (3) (1991): 9. Print. 
[26] Renewing the Earth.
[27] Care for Creation 3.
[28] Ibid., 8.
[29] Ibid., 25.
[30] Ibid., 41.
[31] From the video “The Relevance of the Franciscan Creation - Franciscan Theology of the Environment from Villanova University: Sister Dawn Noethwher presents”. Youtube. 2009.Web.
[32] Delio 6.
[33] Ibid., 13-14.
[34] “The Assisi Compilation,” 88, in Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, vol. 2, 192. Print.
[35] Thomas of Celano, “The Life of Francis” in Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, vol. 1, 234. Print.
[36] Care for Creation 68.
[37] Ibid., 67.
[38] Nothwehr 102-103.
[39] Ibid., 135.
[40] Delio 28-29. 
[41] Care for Creation 33.
[42] Bishop 11.
[43] Ambrosius, Wendy. "Deep Ecology: A Debate on the Role of Humans in the Environment." University of Wisconsin La Crosse. UWL Journal of Undergraduate Research VIII, 1 Jan. 2005. 2. Web. 3 Apr. 2015. 
[44] Ibid., 3-4. 
[45] Boston, Timothy. “Exploring Anti-Environmentalism in the Context of Sustainability”. Los Angeles: Electronic Green Journal, 1(11), University of Tasmania. 1999. 6.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Ibid..
[49] Ibid., 7. (quoting Political and Social affairs Division, Research Branch. Library of Parliament, 1992. 39).
[50] Ambrosius 4.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Care for Creation 51.
[53] Ibid., 74.
[54] Northwehr 395.
[55] Ibid., xxi.
[56] Psalm 104:30.

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