Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Essays on a Catholic Approach to Ecology in the Modern Age

The Glory of the Cosmos - A Catholic Approach to the Natural World, edited by Thomas Storck, Arouca Press.

I am pleased to bring to your attention a recently published collection of essays by Catholics, drawing on modern Thomistis thought, as part of the contemporary conversation on the impact of man on the environment. The writers bring theology and philosophy to their descriptions of man and society, in order the consider the impact of each on Creation. In so doing, they discuss a wide range of subjects, including, for example, the liturgy, economics, mathematics and cosmology, and agriculture. It includes two contributions from my colleague here at the New Liturgical Movement, Dr Peter Kwasniewski, and one by myself.

Mankind is perhaps unique amongst living creatures in having the power to destroy the environment. He is also uniquely privileged in his capacity, inspired by grace, to work in harmony with the rest of the natural world so as to raise it up to something higher and even more beautiful and complete than an untouched wilderness.

There is a pretty broad consensus, I would say, that for all the benefits that they bring, modern industry and technology also have a detrimental effect on the environment. There is disagreement, however, on why that is so, the degree of the problem, and how to solve it.

Some are alarmed because they believe that the environmental impact will be so great that there will be a massive loss to human life, great poverty, and a bleak world in which many species of plant and animal will be eradicated altogether. Furthermore, what drives mankind to do this, many would say, is greed and short-sightedness, engendered to a large degree by capitalism and by pride, which results in an unconstrained drive for mastery over creation without regard for the consequences.

This view is not a given by any means, and there is much legitimate disagreement, amongst Catholics and non-Catholics alike, on the extent of the damage that these institutions of modernity are causing, and on the cause. I, for one, am not nearly so negative about the general effect of technology and industry, and so I am not so pessimistic about the future of the environment as some. Furthermore, I do not blame capitalism for those problems. Rather, I consider myself extremely lucky to have been born in this time and place, and see the free economy as part of the solution, not the problem. Nevertheless, I do believe that things could be improved and we have a duty to be good stewards.

Amongst those who believe that we are heading for an environmental precipice, some have resorted to a form of radical environmentalism in search of solutions. They are neo-pagans who invert the hierarchy of being and make Nature their god. They do not consider man to be part of nature, but rather to be parasitical upon it, and thus look upon him to be an imposter whose very presence on the surface of the globe poses a threat to it. Simply by drawing breath and exhaling again, for example, he is contributing to the problem, as they see it. Their solution to the ‘problem of mankind’, therefore, is to limit the impact of human activity by reducing the number of active human beings. Thus population control through the tools of contraception and abortion becomes their goal, along with the undermining of energy-consuming wealth creation by limiting the scope of capitalism. This is, in my opinion, anti-human, and those that suffer the most by this approach will be the poor.

In the face of this, Catholics are bound to offer an alternative to such anti-human goals. Regardless of whether or not we agree on the extent or cause of the problems, we can focus on life-affirming solutions rooted in the Faith, to provide an alternative to the culture of death.

In these essays, each writer in his or her own way considers how Catholicism can guide us in a quest to be good stewards who work in harmony with nature to the benefit of both man, rich and poor alike, and his environment, and to the greater glory of God.

If there is one common thread that runs through each proposal, it is that we do not seek to constrain man’s activity but rather, to empower it, redirect it and elevate it by focusing on our ultimate end. To the degree that we can convince people that such human activity builds up the world around us, it occurs to me, the more that we can say, contrary to the opinion of the secular neo-pagan, that population growth is desirable, the better. And in the process, we might have formulated a convincing argument to counter the push for the use of contraception and for abortion too. 

The paradigm of a perfect harmony of the spiritual and material realms, which ought to govern our approach to all human activity ecology, is incarnated in the person of Christ whom we encounter most profoundly in the liturgy. It is through worship - most especially the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours that the pattern of harmony that we must grasp if we are to find the path of our pilgrimage will be impressed upon our souls. So while not all authors refer to the liturgy directly, as Catholics we can see all discussion rooted in the Faith, depends upon the Catholic view of the liturgy at some level for its validity.
An essay that deals with the liturgy most directly and which therefore I would like to bring to the attention of NLM readers is: Chapter 4, Christopher Shannon’s Nature and Culture in Catholic Environmentalism - Romano Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como. Shannon states here:
I think one of the most important points of contact is Guardini’s insistence that liturgy is the expression of a communal, rather than individual, reverence for God.  

Structured as it is according to the hours of the day and the days of the year, the liturgy is the most ecological of cultural practices. It instills an awareness of and submission to the natural rhythms of life that in the long run will do more to save the environment than any orchestrated media spectacle. 

Though I would like to hold up liturgy as an authentically Catholic ecological practice, I realize it presents certain dangers. In Guardini’s time as in our own, there is always the romantic temptation to turn to liturgy, as to nature, as a retreat from the harsh realities of the modern world. I would like to conclude with a few words of caution from Guardini Himself:  

We must not oppose what is new and try to preserve a beautiful world that is inevitably perishing. Nor should we try to build a new world of the creative imagination that will show none of the damage of what is actually evolving. Rather, we must transform what is coming to be. But we can do this only if we honestly say yes to it and yet with incorruptible hearts remain aware of all that is destructive and nonhuman in it. Our age has been given to us as the soil on which to stand and the task to master. (80-81) 
Putting aside my own contribution (the value of which I am not in a position to assess) I would say that this book should be read by any who are seeking alternatives to radical environmentalism, what Shannon calls ‘a new kind of nature worship often tied to old philosophies and world views rooted in non-Western cultures be they native American or Asian’. It is by no means the last word on the subject - I suggest that the thoughts of those with a more sympathetic view of capitalism and the industrial age should be sought as well, for example - but it is, nevertheless, I believe an important and interesting contribution to a topic which is on the minds of so many people today.

(Link to book at the publisher's page.)

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