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The Integrity of Creation and Catholic Social Teaching

(Keynote Address)

By Fr Roland Lesseps, SJ

1. Introduction

I THINK WE WOULD ALL AGREE that Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has been human centered, anthropocentric. For example, the third AFCAST principle states that your activities are guided by the belief ‘that the Social Teachings should underpin development and pastoral activities which are based on concepts of social justice and human dignity’.

The very title of our gathering here today indicates, however, that you see something is lacking in your guiding principles. We might also agree, then, that there is need to expand our vision to include other creatures in our concern, to search for the rightful place of humans among all the other members of the total earth community and to adopt an attitude of deep respect for all creatures on earth. A significant movement in that direction was already taken by Pope John Paul II in 1987 in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Social Concern of the Church). In paragraph 34 he proposes that the beings of the natural world also demand our respect, and near the end of the encyclical he calls us all to take part in a campaign ‘in order to secure development in peace, in order to safeguard nature itself and the world around us’. Later, in his 1990 World Day of Peace message entitled ‘Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation’, the Pope develops at length the theme of respect for nature.

However, even from the narrow, anthropocentric view we can easily see that we must change our human family’s interaction with the other creatures on earth, that we must change drastically and radically, simply because there is a fundamental link between us and the earth and because the way we are now proceeding is already damaging the lives of millions and millions of humans. Pope John Paul put it this way in his 1990 World Day of Peace message: ‘Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause … If an appreciation of the value of the human person and of human life is lacking, we will also lose interest in others and in the earth itself.’

The basic reason for this link between us and the earth is, of course, that our human family is a member of the single, integral earth community. ‘We cannot have a healthy human community on a sickened, disintegrated, toxic planet.’[1] We are not living inside a glass dome, as in some science fiction stories, isolated from the rest of the earth. Rather, we are totally dependent on the earth and interact with it in many, varied ways. There are limits to what the earth can give, and there are limits to what the earth can take. The earth is not infinite.
It is crucial that we recognize that human well-being must be attained in harmony with our whole, single earth community. Since we are an integral part of this created order, ‘we must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system which is precisely the cosmos’.[2]

Several investigators have produced a way to clearly and powerfully illustrate the impossibility of our continuing to live on earth in the way we have been doing over the last century. Their ecological footprint measures how much biologically productive land and water area a population (an individual, a city, a country, or all of human family) requires for the resources it consumes and for the absorption of its waste, using prevailing technology. This area produces our food, wood and fibre, absorbs the carbon dioxide emitted by fuels we burn, and supports our buildings, roads, airports and playgrounds.

In 1999 there were about 1.9 hectares per person, but the ecological footprint of all humanity was 2.3 hectares per person. This ‘ecological overshoot’ began in the 1980s, and since then the natural capital – those assets on which current and future human generations depend – has been steadily declining.

These calculations are made without reserving any land for the other 10 million species with whom we share this planet. It is very difficult to determine how much biologically productive area we should reserve for the other species. Some ecologists propose that we reserve at least 10% and others at least 25%. Leaving some space for other species will, of course, make the ecological overshoot even larger, because it will reduce the amount of bioproductive area available for human use. Kofi Annan recognizes the importance of biodiversity (all the variety of life on earth). For example, in his message on World Food Day in 2004 he wrote: ‘Biodiversity provides the plant, animal and microbial genetic resources for food production and agricultural productivity. It provides essential ecosystem services such as fertilizing the soil, recycling nutrients, regulating pests and disease, controlling erosion and pollinating many of our crops and trees … The unprecedented loss of biodiversity over the past century should thus raise the loudest of alarms.’

Our human family is not now, and has not been for almost twenty years, living sustainably on earth. Our consumption and waste-production patterns exceed the capacity of the earth to create new resources, absorb waste, and maintain a stable climate. The ability of our earth to support future life is declining. We are robbing from the future generations to support our current lifestyle.

So that others may simply live and increase their consumption of natural resources, we who are contributing so much to ecological overshoot must begin to live more simply, putting significantly lower demands upon the earth’s biological resources. Realize that, in the familiar statement ‘Live more simply so that others may simply live’, the significant word ‘others’ should include future generations of humans and of the millions of other living creatures on earth.

If those of us whose ecological footprint is above 1.8 hectares do not walk more lightly on the earth, consuming less and wasting less, there is no way in which the poor will be able to have their just share of the earth’s limited resources, and there is no hope for the survival of the rich diversity of living creatures on God’s beautiful earth.

This close link between humans and the earth is especially true for the poor. The poor and the powerless suffer the most from environmental degradation. Even though all human beings, the wealthy as well as the poor, suffer from environmental deterioration, it is the poor who are most affected by deforestation, soil erosion, pollution of rivers and city streets. This is true in a special way for the rural poor, whose lives are so intimately tied to the natural resources on the land and in the water of their environment. If streams run dry, the wealthy can have boreholes dug or water brought in by trucks, but the poor cannot. Therefore any good programme of social justice should be environmentally sound. If in any social justice programme we isolate people from the earth and pretend we are working for the poor while ignoring what is happening to their lifesupport systems (i.e. to the soil, water, air, plants and animals), we delude ourselves and them. So the fundamental option for the poor in CST must guide us in evaluating any programme or policy for its effect on the poor and the environment.

THEOLOGICAL PRINCIPLES that help us enlarge our vision beyond the human community to include all of creation

A fundamental theological principle to guide us in our relation with the other creatures in our earth community is that all of God’s creatures have intrinsic value, in and of themselves. Nature is not just useful to us humans but is valued and loved in itself, for itself, by God in Christ. One scriptural basis for this appreciation of all creatures is in Genesis 1: ‘God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ This is an amazing statement, points out Sallie McFague:

God does not say that creation is good for human beings or even, more surprising, good for me, for God, but just good, in fact very good. God is saying that nature is good in itself – not just good for something or someone but just plain good. It is like a parent saying to a child, ‘I love you just the way you are’, or lovers saying to each other, ‘I love you because you are you’. God’s pronouncement here is an aesthetic one: appreciation of something outside oneself, in itself, for itself. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis leaves no doubt that the goodness of creation is its message: it is repeated seven times in the space of 31 verses. How have we missed this?[3]

We must shift away from the old, anthropocentric view of creation to an appreciation of creatures as valuable in themselves and loved by God. We who are made in God’s image ought to reflect God’s attitude toward nature: appreciation.

Another theological affirmation about creation is that it is sacred. Why? God dwells in all creation, and all creatures participate in the Divine Goodness. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, wrote the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins.[4]

St Thomas Aquinas put it this way: ‘God brought things into being in order that the divine goodness might be communicated to creatures … The whole universe together participates in divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better, than any single creature whatever.’[5] God labours in all creatures, continually calling them out of chaos and nothingness.

A third theological principle about creation is already hinted at by St Thomas in the quote above. God reveals Godself to us in all the creatures of the universe. Meister Eckhart expressed it this way: ‘Every creature is a word of God and a book about God.’ To eliminate any species is to destroy a mode of divine presence and communication with us, and so to deprive our spiritual lives. The rate of extinction of species of organisms on earth due to human activity is accelerating. Estimates of the current rate of extinction range from 20,000 to 100,000 per year. We are essentially telling God we do not want to hear what God has to tell us about Himself in these creatures.

A final theological principle that helps guide us in our relation with the other creatures in our earth community is that as followers of Jesus we are to imitate him, to walk his path. Jesus lived a very simple life. He did not put heavy demands at all upon the earth. It is impossible to imagine Jesus dashing about Palestine in a fancy chariot pulled by four horses or living in a luxurious palace. In his preaching Jesus denounced the greed which is at the root of our justice and ecology crises. What would Jesus say about our present models of development? Has not ‘development’ of the modern type with its pursuit of growth-oriented economies led to social injustice and environmental devastation? Pope John Paul, in his 1990 World Day of Peace message, said that ‘simplicity, moderation, and discipline … must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.’ Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: ‘The earth has more than enough to supply the needs of all, but not enough to satisfy the greed of all.’

The challenge now for CST is to incorporate these theological principles into its thought so that CST may awaken the Christian community to the evil of our powerful attack on the community of life: thinning the ozone layer, ‘poisoning the air, water, and soil, altering the climate, denuding forests, destroying wetlands, and driving thousands of species to extinction … Can CST enlarge its parameters beyond the human community to incorporate all of creation as its core concern?’[6] Can CST expand its vision to include the dignity of every creature? Can it see that the poor include whole ecosystems like the rainforests struggling to survive against the human onslaught arising from our technological power and greed?[7]


[1] Thomas Berry, ‘Teilhard in the ecological age’, Teilhard Studies (1982), No. 7; reprinted in A. Fabel and D. St. John (eds.), Teilhard in the 21st Century, Orbis, 2003, pp. 57–73. 2 Pope John
[2] Pope John Paul II, The Social Concern of the Church, #34, 1987.
[3] Sallie McFague Super, Natural Christians (Fortress Press, 1997), p. 165.
[4] Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’, 1877.
[5] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Part I, Question 47, Art 1).
[6] Jane Blewett, 1996, in Clamor for Justice, 2002. Available from: NETWORK, 801 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Suite 460, Washington, DC 20003-2167, USA. Web site: http://www.networklobby.org.
[7] One good example of the care with which we must examine any new human endeavour for its effect on the poor and its harmony with CST expanded to include the whole earth community is the current debate on using genetically engineered organisms in agriculture. On this topic, two handouts were distributed during the meeting. both of these are available on the JCTR web site: http://www.jctr.org.zm.