All creatures great and small
Let’s quit giving ourselves permission to wreak havoc on God’s good earth. We’re not the only ones in whom God delights.
All Creation is Groaning.” So begins the title of a lecture that Anne Clifford is to deliver as holder of the 2007-08 Tuohy Chair in Interreligious Studies at John Carroll University. Although the phrase comes from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:22), Clifford would likely insist that creation is indeed groaning, and not just metaphorically: Consider global warming, she says, as well as pollution, species facing extinction, even the rusted hulks of abandoned steel mills dotting the city of Pittsburgh, where she has taught at Duquesne University since 1988.
Sister Anne M. Clifford, C.S.J.
Clifford has several great allies in her quest to bring the force of Catholic thought to bear on the issue of how we treat the earth. One is the Genesis story (what a shame, she says, that Catholics hear it at a Sunday Mass only once a year during the Easter Vigil). Another is Catholic teaching on the common good, which ought not be limited to humans, she claims, but should take into account all living things. And a third is the Catholic understanding of the sacramentality of nature: We find God “not only through the book of God’s Word, but also from the book of God’s created works.”
Why is the environment a religious issue in the first place?
In most religions the natural world is prominently featured. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, treat creation in similar texts and incorporate elements of the natural world in their religious symbolism and prayers.
For us Christians, our Old Testament begins with the Hebrew Bible’s Genesis creation accounts. But in the New Testament we also have the wonderful hymn from Colossians (1:9-23) where Jesus is spoken of as the firstborn of all creation in whom were created all things in heaven and on earth. Then in John’s gospel (1:1-5) you have all creatures coming to be created through Jesus. Both New Testament texts harken back to the Old Testament and Proverbs 8:22-30. But perhaps the most important reason that ecology is a Christian issue is that the Divine Word is made flesh in earth’s very elements.
What is it about this particular time that makes it more critical for Christians to be involved?
Christian belief in a Creator means we have to be concerned about global warming, a looming disaster that’s already affecting our planet, especially Asia, where roughly 4 billion people—or about 60 percent of the world’s population—live.
China is now creating more pollution, especially greenhouse gas emissions, than the United States. That wasn’t supposed to happen yet, but its economy is booming. Right now people in China’s northwest have plenty of fresh water because the glaciers are melting. In 20 to 25 years those glaciers will be gone, and the parts of China that are benefiting from all that drinkable water will likely have none.
Global warming is the major cause for the terrible drought in Australia. The indigenous people there are especially suffering because their wells are going dry. Weather extremes in Bangladesh are pounding its coastal regions. India is having terrible pollution problems, and it’s affecting not only their air but also their water.
Many would be curious to know why you see protecting the environment as a women’s issue.
The poor of the world, who are the most affected by problems in the environment, are often women who head single-parent households. So many issues that have to do with putting food on the table have to do with women. Violating the earth, therefore, is violence directed toward women and their children. Ecofeminists have drawn attention to this connection for some time.
There are women in India who, in order to get water and to forage for food, now must trek long distances instead of the few hundred yards they walked in the past. Africa lost many of its trees because people cut them down for firewood. Wangari Maathai, who received the Nobel Prize in 2004, worked with women’s groups in Kenya and throughout Africa to plant more than 20 million trees to replace those that had been cut down, improving both the environment and women’s quality of life.
Ecofeminism also looks at our sense of the sacred, which needs to be broadened beyond the image of a male, distant God removed from ecological concerns. We suffer the poverty of not bringing forward more feminine imagery for God, including the divine Sophia-Wisdom.
Although I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian if I did not accept God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is a mystery that exceeds all names. In biblical wisdom texts we find images of God as a female Creator-Spirit.
Do we Catholics have a collective blank spot when it comes to linking our belief in God with how we treat the earth?
I think we do have a blank spot. There are some exceptions: Pope John Paul II drew attention to the environment in a World Day of Peace message back in 1989; the U.S. bishops published a pastoral letter, “Renewing the Earth,” in the early 1990s. And more recently the International Theological Commission published “Communion and Stewardship.” But the person in the pew is not hearing anything about ecology as a commitment to creation at Sunday liturgies.
A major contributing reason is the choice of readings for Sunday Mass. The first Genesis story, describing the seven days of creation, is read only on Holy Saturday, and a selection from Genesis 2 and 3, the second creation story, is read on the first Sunday of Lent, with a clear emphasis on the sin of Adam and Eve. At neither time would it be appropriate for the homilist to challenge the common notion that earth was made for human use.
Are you saying that our view is too human-centered?
Yes, and there are historical reasons for this. Beginning in the first six centuries of the church, humans were given center stage because we possess rationality and thus were believed to be the only creatures who could possibly image God.
But even in the Middle Ages, Christians gave attention to a broader cosmological richness. Thomas Aquinas wrote of nature, describing the various days of creation as God adorning the world with beauty. Therefore we can come to discover God through the sacramentality of the beauty and the goodness of creation.
Later, however, when it came to the battles between science and religion, religion virtually abandoned nature to scientists and became more concerned with personal salvation. That’s still pretty much the emphasis. Creation, which in people’s minds means nonhuman nature, became simply the stage upon which human salvation is worked out.
In effect we say, “We will use the earth for what we need to sustain our human life so that we can travel our personal spiritual journey to God.” This is an oversimplification of course, but you get the idea.
In this country movements for so-called creation science and intelligent design have sidetracked us from looking at how theology and science can work together for the good of all of creation. We fuss about debating the literal interpretation of the Genesis story; we have Christians saying that evolution is a dangerous idea and that Darwin promoted atheism.
Darwin, however, when he wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859, said clearly that there was nothing in his book that conflicted with belief in a Creator, who could use the dynamics of evolution to create life.
What’s the alternative view to humans as the center and creation being just a stage for human activity?
The “deep ecology” view is that all life forms are interconnected, interdependent, harmonious, and virtually stable in their distinct ecosystems. My problem with that is that it presents a a romanticized sense of ecology that ignores the evolutionary element of natural selection and the struggle for existence. When romanticized and overly idealized, this view can be easily dismissed. A romanticized notion does not help.
Also ecofeminists, especially religious ones, tend not to pay much attention to the economic elements of ecology. Many focus almost exclusively on reconceiving God and the human person. That’s needed, but more recently I’ve been trying to focus on economic sustainability in an ever-evolving world. Sustainability is a critical concern when we have almost 6.2 billion people. I admit with regret that I do not know global economics well enough.
Catholic theology says that faith and reason should walk hand in hand. While floating off on some romanticized eco-spiritualism may provide comfort to people in their personal psychological, emotional, or spiritual lives, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the changes that need to happen. As the economy becomes increasingly globalized, we have to find a way to transform sociopolitical systems for the benefit of life on Earth.
I really think ecology needs to focus on Catholic teaching on the common good, for example.
You’re saying the common good has to go beyond people?
What would that look like?
We can’t be so cavalier about making choices that are destroying habitats for plants and animals. We have parts of cities that are empty, certainly in Pittsburgh where I teach. Yet we expand our housing farther and farther out into the country and then we wonder why we have deer tearing up our gardens. Why do we even let the ground in those areas be zoned in that way, especially when people are building houses they can’t afford?
The progress of the housing industry has become a major barometer of whether we have a healthy economy. Why aren’t we saying that our economy should be measured on how well we’re doing with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and recycling?
Some people claim that other species are equivalent to the human species. Do you agree?
Since God made all the species, they must have intrinsic value, but I think species egalitarianism is yet another example of romanticism. If you or I were faced with a choice between saving a particular whale (that is, a member of an endangered species) and saving a human infant on a boat that the whale was threatening, a decision in favor of the baby is obviously warranted. What is not warranted is the destruction of the whale species for economic gain.
We have to address large-scale human survival issues with the promotion of the common good in mind. To sustain human life, for example, we need protein. What kind and how much we consume is important. It is a fact that to get one pound of edible grain-fed beef, we must feed the cattle at least 10 pounds of grain. Grain-fed beef has much more fat and requires antibiotics to keep it healthy.
So instead you choose chicken, which takes fewer resources to produce. But there are problems with chicken consumption, too. There’s terrible cruelty in how chickens are handled. Obviously cattle and chickens as well as humans would benefit from turning to plant sources for protein.
There is a biblical warrant for this in Genesis 1. Humans are told that they and other animals can eat green plants and their seeds. Nowhere in that account are human beings told they can use animals for food (1:29-30).
Are you optimistic that a different interpretation will ever catch on?
Yes and no. Many of my students seem to think that the earth is there for human use, that Jesus came to save humans, and that nonhuman creatures are very secondary to us. Yet others want to envision humans as “stewards” of the earth. This is more positive but open to the possibility that as stewards we will assume that it is up to us to decide which species are really worth saving, as if we ought to be in control. This is not the best approach.
I don’t want to think of a world without songbirds, for example, simply because their value to us is not apparent. Early conservationist Aldo Leopold said that God must have really appreciated the beauty of the songbirds or else God wouldn’t have made them. Yet we’re doing things that are destroying their habitats. We need biodiversity.
I’m with Thomas Aquinas: All the various plants and animals, even if their beauty is not apparent to us, still are adorning the earth. There’s a certain sacramentality about it all.
Have we missed the sacramentality of nature?
I think so. Nature as sacramental is one of the beauties of Catholicism, and it’s shared with other religions, too, indigenous religions in particular. We can experience divine revelation not only through the book of God’s Word, but also from the book of God’s created works.
Yet you think the stewardship approach does not work?
It’s still putting humans in control. I just read a piece by a biologist about stewardship and replanting trees in areas of Scotland. Government officials chose fast-growing trees from Norway that could be harvested sooner than native species. The trouble is that native birds and insects cannot thrive in this environment. Also many of the trees are dying—so much for misguided stewardship.
We think we’re being good stewards, but in some instances we are harming fragile habitats.
What’s a theological approach that we can use today?
I call it “creaturely kinship,” a recognition that all of earth’s species share the same elements of our planet. The difference is that we humans have a very developed consciousness that we presume animals don’t have, although we do know that animals communicate in different ways.
In terms of our common survival, there’s a solidarity between humans and the rest of earth’s species. Recognition of that solidarity also lends itself to expanding our notion of the common good beyond simply a concern for human survival.
More than 40 years ago, the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes urged us to apply the gospel to “signs of the times.” Global warming is a sign of our time that begs for a moral response informed by our faith.
Do you think people are beginning to develop an awareness?
They are. Many people are trying to make ecologically oriented choices. For example, I see more people taking reusable canvas bags when they go grocery shopping. That one step can also have ramifications for other actions in our lives. I have friends who say that before they get in the car, they think how many errands they can consolidate into one trip.
My own awareness was heightened during a recent trip to Ireland. I found that very few plastic bags were given when purchasing something. If you buy an item and it’s raining, as it often is, shopkeepers will say, “I suggest that you put it under your coat to protect it from the rain.” Plastic bags are not routinely given because they are harmful to the environment. I think that’s a really wise policy. (See sidebar)
The official name for our species is homo sapiens sapiens. The word sapiens, of course, refers to wisdom. So the technical name for our species is “wise twice-over.” Acquiring more knowledge in our “information age,” however, has not made us ecologically wise. Surely a source for the ecological wisdom and resolve we need now is the rich Catholic tradition of the sacramentality of creation, which reminds us of God’s sustaining presence in all creatures.