This being the Feast of St. Joseph, Pope Francis used the homily of his inaugural Mass to highlight our vocation as “protectors.” Having just taken the name of Francis (after the saint of Assisi, patron of ecology) the Pope also specifically addresses our role as protectors of creation and the environment:
The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.
In our culture, talk about the environment is so saturated with political and ideological implications that it can be easy to hear only the politics and ideology. But the fact is that one of the fundamental problems facing our world is a badly distorted understanding of nature—both in the world around us and in ourselves. And while care for the environment is not a usual theme for a papal inaugural homily, by taking up this theme Pope Francis shows continuity with the teaching of his predecessors.
Here’s Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate, describing how our view of nature can become distorted:
The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.
The view Pope Benedict is condemning treats nature as though it has no intrinsic meaning. Everything is just bouncing, jiggling molecules: mere matter and energy. If that’s the case, then there is no difference between the piles of jiggling molecules we call “Stephen” or “Francis” and the jiggling piles of molecules we call “brick” or “cabbage.” It’s all interchangeable “stuff,” and we are free to make of it whatever we please. We are limited only by the laws of physics; never by morality.
Another tendency, opposed to the first, treats the natural world, not as inherently meaningless, but as the source of all goodness and harmony, and sees man as an interloper who by his actions upsets and destroys the primordial goodness of nature. This view of nature (which is pantheistic) subordinates the good of man to the good of the natural world, and often sees human interaction with nature as inherently violent.
In his usual way, Blessed John Paul II ties our understanding of the natural world back to our understanding of our own human nature—a nature that only fully makes sense in the light of the Incarnation. Here he is in Centesimus Annus:
In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day.
Creation is writ through with meaning. All creation speaks to the glory of God. Our relationship to nature, as protectors and stewards of creation, speaks to the special calling of man, who is the crown of creation. When we misunderstand creation, we misunderstand both God (who is Creator) and man (who is part of creation). Since man is the crown of creation, but also responsible before God for how he uses and cultivates the gift of the natural world, when he demeans creation and abuses it, he betrays the dignity of his vocation and harms himself and his fellow man.
The Church’s concern for the environment thus extends beyond the usual “green” issues—pollution and climate change, depleted natural resources, or endangered species—and extend also to our own human nature. When we misunderstand and abuse nature, we lie to ourselves about our own nature. The Church’s teaching on the environment is inextricably linked to the church’s teaching on human sexuality, the nature of marriage, and the sanctity of life.
In his homily today, Pope Francis enjoined us all to be, like St. Joseph, “protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature.” Our world, which often denies that such a plan exists, needs to reminded; without it there is little hope:
To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope! For believers, for us Christians, like Abraham, like Saint Joseph, the hope that we bring is set against the horizon of God, which has opened up before us in Christ. It is a hope built on the rock which is God.
Protecting creation is a noble calling and an urgent task for all of us. It is also a true work of evangelization, for when we fulfill our charge as stewards of creation, we give witness to the glory of our Creator.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.