Legend has it that J. R. R. Tolkien wept over the environmental loss that England endured at the hands of industrialization. That the creator of the Ents should be so moved is not surprising to me, as Bradley Birzer points out in “J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” because the man loved trees, and felt as strongly over their destruction as some people felt over the abuse of animals. To gain a deeper understanding of his sentiments, simply go back and re-read Lord of the Rings, and listen to the words that he puts into Treebeard’s mouth.
Today, if you stand up for the environment over and against unrestrained capitalism, you’ll be labeled a liberal, a tree-hugger, a nature-worshipper, an eco-terrorist, and any number of other hip-pocket ad hominems. You don’t care at this point that I find this disturbing, nonetheless, I do. Why so? Because I find it ironic that many of the people who are unafraid to stand up for the unborn or those on death row display no small timidity when it comes to standing up for the environment. Maybe they don’t even know that their faith requires it.
I want you to consider that something might be out of place in Catholic circles today, and that you and I may have gotten this thing wrong. To set the stage, please bear with me as I quote a few of Pope Francis’ comments about the environment for your consideration:
- “We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to both the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.”
- “Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.”
- “An economic system centered on the god of money also needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.
- “There is a need to break with the logic of mere consumption and promote forms of agricultural and industrial production that respect the order of creation and satisfy the basic human needs of all. These attitudes, sustained by a renewed awareness of the interdependence of all the inhabitants of the earth, will contribute to eliminating the numerous causes of ecological disasters as well as guaranteeing the ability to respond quickly when such disasters strike peoples and territories.”
Pretty weighty stuff, yes? Do you think he’s off base? Was he only speaking as a private theologian? Are we obligated to pay him any attention on the matter? Before you answer, consider this: I tricked you.
The first quote is from Pope St. John Paul II, circa 1990. The second is from Pope Benedict XVI, circa 2007. The third is in fact from Pope Francis, circa 2014. The fourth and final one, however, is from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, paragraph 486.
Here is the final one, that might perhaps grab our attention:
- Insofar as it is part of the Church’s moral teaching, the Church’s social doctrine has the same dignity and authority as her moral teaching. It is authentic Magisterium, which obligates the faithful to adhere to it. The doctrinal weight of the different teachings and the assent required are determined by the nature of the particular teachings, by their level of independence from contingent and variable elements, and by the frequency with which they are invoked.
I liked Benedict XVI more than I like Francis, from a personal perspective, but we are Catholic and the Pope is our Pope. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church laid out the arguments for environmental involvement long before Francis penned Laudato Si. Pope Benedict was actually the most vocal about the problem, and was called “the green Pope” long before Francis was presented to the world. But Wojtyla, Ratzinger, Bergoglio…all of their words have fallen on deaf ears because they weren’t saying what we wanted to hear. The Pope is not our puppet, and I’m sorry that we haven’t gotten the message, but we are as bound to accept the Church’s social doctrine as we are to accept her moral and spiritual doctrine. It is all magisterium.
What has been the consequence of the lack of a strong Catholic presence concerning human caused global warming (there it is!) and environmental devastation? As great as if Catholics had never been involved in or interested in the pro-life movement. As great as if Catholics had never stood praying during a Death-Row vigil. Instead, some of us actively subvert the work that others are doing. Aligning themselves with partisan politicians at cross-purposes with the Faith. Acting as if we were not all called to solidarity with the poor, who are the most adversely affected by the environmental devastation caused by our consumption, our pollution, and our destruction. There is a void, a senseless void, within the environmental movement because Catholics have been peculiarly absent, or actively hostile to it. Nobody with a strong voice is there to counter the Malthusians. Nobody with the wisdom of two thousand years of experience with dynasty change and seemingly “event horizon” level disasters has been visible at Rio or Paris. It is ridiculous.
They took down the trees and replaced them with belching smokestacks. And Tolkien wept. He understood that there are only three relationships we can have as human beings. With God, with each other, and with nature. Sometimes we are pretty good at the first and second. Time will tell about the third.