Our oldest son’s two favorite buildings in Rome are St. Peter’s Basilica (naturally) and The Basilica of Santa Maria dei Martiri—St. Mary of the Martyrs—which today is more popularly known by another name—and in the mind of our soon-to-be four year-old, we haven’t properly spent an afternoon in the Eternal City without a visit to each. We avoided Piazza San Pietro on April 22, as we do most Wednesdays when there’s a general audience (not a fan of crowds), and opted instead for lunch at our favorite pizzeria, followed by the obligatory stop inside the Basilica of Santa Maria dei Martiri. This past Wednesday was of course, Earth Day, which the Pope recalled during the audience, exhorting the faithful to “see creation through the eyes of the Creator.”
It goes without saying that much of if not most of what has come to be called the “environmental movement” has been a disaster. One reason Catholics may be reluctant to take up their duty to be good stewards of creation may have something to do with the seemingly never-ending and tiresomely failed doomsday predictions prominent environmentalists are fond of making. There are other problematic and downright disturbing elements to the environmental movement. The first Earth Day celebration was held in 1970 in Philadelphia and co-organized by Ira Einhorn, who is currently serving a life sentence for killing and composting his girlfriend. That’s right, he composted her. You can’t say Einhorn didn’t walk the talk, although he also packed her body in the trunk with styrofoam and air-fresheners…tsk, tsk…hardly environmentally friendly materials.
Or take the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEM), which actually advocates contraception and sterilization to slowly eradicate the human race, thereby leaving the planet to…do something…on its own, unappreciated by rational creatures. Their motto is “May we live long and die out.” Inspiring, isn’t it? Their position is odd, to say the least, since it paradoxically seeks to save creation by eradicating one part of creation from creation, namely man. Man may be the only part of creation responsible for the exploitation of creation…but he is also the only part capable of cultivating and appreciating the natural world. C.S. Lewis offers a beautiful reflection on this reality. In Letters to Malcolm, he wrote,
“but for our body one whole realm of God’s glory—all that we receive through the senses—would go unpraised. For the beasts can’t appreciate it and the angels are, I suppose, pure intelligences…have they retinas or palates? I fancy the ‘beauties of nature’ are a secret God has shared with us alone. That may be one of the reasons why we were made…”
Merely sensitive creatures can’t appreciate creation (lacking reason) and angels can’t appreciate it because they cannot experience it (lacking external senses). Physical creation is a secret God has shared with us alone, who can both experience it through our corporality and appreciate it through our reason. Trying to understand the natural world apart from man will only result in confusion.
It is especially problematic that environmentalism today operates from the extremes of an outright pantheism on the one hand to a strident misanthropic materialism on the other. Both are anti-human and therefore empty as authentic approaches to ecology. No authentic approach to ecology or even to society can move forward unless it is grounded in the human family. Man must be at the center of creation even for creation to make sense, not only because he is a part of the created world, but because he is the only part with reason and therefore the only part with moral agency. It’s fitting then that in his remarks in the April 22 general audience, the Holy Father didn’t speak about the environment in isolation, but began with the family. The Pope continued his catechesis on the family by recalling that the first family, as the “culmination of creation” was placed in the Garden with the command to “care and cultivate” the Garden, but then he continued to expound on the complementarity of man and woman and the necessity of the difference between the sexes. Just as we cannot consider creation apart from man, nor can we consider man apart from woman and vice versa. No man lives in isolation, he is made for the other.
We would have heard Papa Francesco say all this had we remained among the throngs in St. Peter’s square…but we were on our way to our son’s second favorite building in Rome. Most people today know the Basilica of St. Mary of the Martyrs as the Pantheon. Originally constructed in the 2nd century, possibly in honor of all the gods (from the Greek “pan-theon”), the pagan temple was “baptized” in the 7th century and has been a Christian church ever since. A number of Rome’s ancient churches, in fact, replaced or were built upon pagan temples, such as Santa Maria Sopra Minerva—literally “St. Mary’s over [the temple of] Minerva”—Basilica di San Clemente, and Santi Cosma e Damiano, to name a few.
The interior space beneath the dome of the Basilica would fit a near perfect sphere—a good image of our world and also of modern pagan Gaia-worship…what’s inside is worshipped. But the dome of the Basilica (don’t call it the Pantheon) has an interesting feature; an oculus, or opening in the ceiling, meaning that when it rains, it rains in the Basilica. Our son is fascinated with the oculus in the ceiling of Santa Maria dei Martiri (don’t call it the Pantheon), exclaiming with wonder every time he stands inside and gazes up, “I can see the sky! I can see out!” Of course he could see the sky outside, but being in that Basilica and looking up through the oculus for some reason helps him to see it anew. And of course he should see it anew from inside the Basilica, because Jesus Christ makes everything new.
We should see creation anew, not in order to worship it or place it among the false gods of the Pantheon, but that we might look out through the oculus beyond its ceiling, so to speak, and marvel at what it really is—a gift from the One True God, Who holds all creation together (Colossians 1:16-17).
So I propose we claim “Earth Day” as a Christian day of thanks to the Creator, stripping it of its anti-human materialism and superstition, just as the earliest Christians built over and sanctified the ancient pagan temples, turning them from places of empty idol worship to temples of praise to God. Devotees of the new paganism will already have their ears open and will be ripe for evangelization. The ground will be fertile, so next year on Earth Creation Day, try the following to plant seeds of truth that will take root and claim the day for the Creator:
1. Don’t call it “Earth” Day—call it “Creation” day.
2. Don’t refer to the “environment” (far too vague)—refer to “creation”.
3. Stop talking about “environmental” this or that—talk about “ecology”.
4. Read the theological goldmine Pope Benedict XVI left in this area.
5. Read Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology, which will no doubt be out by this time next year.
6. Take seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us.
7. Enjoy my second favorite poem, “Pied Beauty”, from Gerard Manly Hopkins:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: