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Friday, April 20, 2012

Learning from Earth Day on a Sunday in Easter

April 2012.

Note: This column developed out of the April 11th post, below.

Ecology, some say, has no place in Christian theology or practice. It encourages the worship of nature and it minimizes the role of humanity within that natural order.

These and other complaints have merit and must be heard—especially with Earth Day, April 22, coinciding this year with a Sunday.

In the midst of my work to explore Catholic ecological thought—and for all my delight in sharing and unpacking the eco-statements of the Holy Father and our bishops—I understand that without a firm foundation in orthodoxy, Catholic ecologists can stray into pantheism, paganism, and other “isms” that are at odds with Christian revelation.

I also know the dangers of entering into sometimes hostile territory when Catholics work with those of other faiths or no faith at all. At one recent interfaith meeting, the keynote speaker made two seriously flawed statements that did not sit well with me or other Catholics in the audience. His understanding of Christian history and theology was misguided and his words hurt the intent of interfaith dialogue.

Yes, the insertion of Catholic thought into secular ecological communities isn’t always an easy mix. As the Cross reminds us, the world and revelation are very often at odds—but that doesn’t mean that we don’t enter the world and preach the Gospel.

In fact, during the Easter Season—especially this very Sunday, which aligns this year with the eco-celebration of Earth Day—the Gospel readings are the Resurrection accounts, and they have much to tell us (and the world) about the Christian view of creation.

In Sunday’s gospel, the glorified Christ appears in the humdrum human world, offers peace to his amazed followers, shows them his wounds, and joins them for a meal of baked fish. His risen body is substantial and yet at a whim it can come and go and move through matter and, yes, eat. Two millennia before Albert Einstein exploded our understanding of physics with the mathematical relationship between energy and matter, the Risen Christ demonstrated this relation to his bewildered disciples—and he incorporated within it will, intellect and love.

For Catholic ecologists, these accounts testify to the goodness of creation as revealed in the first chapter of Genesis. Given the importance of the post-Resurrection human body—and the very proclamation of Resurrection!—early Catholics were loath to accept a belief that ran deep in pagan antiquity: that the human body was a prison from which we must escape. Instead, the early church battled to defend the goodness of all creation—of both spirit and matter, of both soul and body.

But this battle was never fully won. Modern-day pagans still see death as freedom from an inherently evil material world. And some of our well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ remain unwilling to embrace the notion that creation is a great good that cannot be poisoned or ignored without distorting core Christian theological principles.

Now more than ever we see the implications of dismissing the material world. For instance, modern science is showing us that our own human bodies are increasingly becoming infested with toxins—chemicals that we make, misuse and improperly dispose. Such chemicals, like mercury, even end up in the fish that we eat—a particularly troubling reality for pregnant women. It would seem that there is a direct link between a cultural disdain for Christianity’s Incarnation—as well as the meaning of Catholicism’s sacramental underpinnings—and the damage we’re inflicting to ourselves and our children, born and unborn, through invisible forms of chemical warfare.

Let us pray, then, that throughout the Easter Season, all Christians will reflect on the Resurrection accounts and see the great good of creation that sustains us all. Let us acknowledge that, even with all the potential dangers, we must fear not and engage our neighbors (and ourselves) in ecological discussions, founding them always on the Good News of Jesus Christ. After all, it only makes sense that we seek to sustain the ecosystems that sustain us if we wish to truly and fully proclaim Resurrection!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Nature and Resurrection: "Have you anything here to eat?"

While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them,"Peace be with you." But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, "Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have." And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them. (Luke 24:36-43)

This is a curious Gospel passage. Having broken the barrier of death, Christ appears in the humdrum human world and eats a piece of fish with his friends. His body—now glorified—is substantial, and yet at a whim it can come and go and move through matter and, yes, eat. Two millennia before Albert Einstein exploded our understanding of physics with the mathematical relationship between energy and matter, the Risen Christ demonstrated this relation to his amazed disciples—and He incorporated within it will, intellect, and love.

To be sure, the inner light of the Resurrection accounts still astonishes. These accounts are alive—and fittingly so—with a mystery that human reckoning is slowly unpacking and embracing, especially as we explore the physics and metaphysics of reality.

For Catholic ecologists, the Resurrection accounts testify to the very beginning of revelation—to the goodness of creation as shown to us in the first chapter of Genesis. Indeed, given the clear importance of the post-Resurrection human body—and the very proclamation of Resurrection!—early Catholics were loath to accept dualistic tendencies that ran deep in pagan antiquity. After all, why would the evangelists record such peculiar and consistent details? To the common notion that the material world was inherently evil—that it was something from which to escape—the early Church said No!

But this battle was never fully won. Today, we find a similar debate, and not just among modern-day pagans. Some of our well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ are unwilling to embrace the notion that creation is a great good that cannot be poisoned or dismissed without distorting core Christian theological principles.

Indeed, now more than ever we see the implications of dismissing the material world. As modern science is showing us, our own human bodies are increasingly becoming infested with toxins—chemicals that we make, misuse, and improperly dispose. Such chemicals, like mercury, even end up in the fish that we eat. It would seem that there is a direct link between a cultural disdain for Christianity’s Incarnation and the damage we’re inflicting to ourselves and our children through invisible forms of chemical warfare that comes with life in the modern world.

Let us pray that over the next weeks of the Easter Season, all Christians will reflect on the resurrection narratives and see the great good of creation that sustains us all, and that we must sustain if we want to truly and fully proclaim Resurrection!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter's Vigil: Many flames divided, yet never dimmed

We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. (Rom. 6:9)

Unlike Easter Sunday Masses and services, the Easter Vigil—the most important moment in the Christian calendar—begins in the dark.

At the onset of tonight’s Vigil, one of the catechumens—a father in his thirties—turned and looked behind him. From his front pew, he surveyed faces lit by the glow of hundreds of solitary candles that were being extended to kindle others. He had been an individual separated by shadow; now he was united by a flame that, while divided, was far from dim.

The glorious truth about this moment—this communion of souls aglow as God is praised in the singing of the ancient Exsultet—is that each of us at the Easter Vigil is entirely different in our gender, age, size, health, backgrounds, skills, sufferings, and joys. And none of us know if that new Paschal Candle will be the one lit for our funeral this coming year. But in that moment of light, that happy moment, we are unified by those solitary, uniform flames.

And if some of the candles went out—if a poison or a lack of oxygen extinguished flames in one corner of the church—you’d notice.

Ecosystems are much like a parish family standing in the dark holding candles while gazing at the elevated Paschal Candle. They’re a unique collection of living organisms that illuminate each other—and that need God, the source of all life. If organisms go extinct, you’d notice—well, maybe you or I wouldn’t notice right away if an odd species in some far corner of creation died off. But in time we would—especially if the rates of extinction were to accelerate.

As I gazed at the candlelit church tonight, I thought briefly of recent news of global extinctions. This thought reminded me that our need for Christ is as real as ever because humanity’s reach has exploded with our technologies and our appetites.
Flicker: Lawrence Lew OP

We should be clear on this: Species are being extinguished and there are many reasons why. Some are natural. Some aren’t. For instance, a demand for rhino tusks has that species in danger. Sometimes invasive organisms, brought from one ecosystem to another by the migrations of man, are the cause. Sometimes toxins stress—or destroy—particular species, and crucial ones, like the bees that make the wax for our Paschal Candles.

And then there’s climate change.

Alterations in how the planet distributes thermal energy and moisture impact how plants and animals move, feed, interact, and reproduce. Recent studies not only show how this may be happeningfor instance, because of extreme weatherbut also that we may be underestimating the mechanisms and speed of extinctions because of climate change.

Death, it may seem, is winning. But there have been other times when death appeared equally, if not more, victorious.

Easter is a good time to consider all this because the Resurrection is the authoritative victory of life over sin and death. Thus, if we wish to truly take part in the Paschal mystery—that is, if we truly wish to protect the light of those around us, and our own—then we must not only educate ourselves about ecological matters, but we must have the courage to act swiftly, decisively, and without fear. After all, of what should a people who proclaim He Is Risen! be fearful?

Moreover, the good news of Easter is that the victory is already won. We must merely participate in it, as did our early brothers and sisters in Christ.

By that I mean, when the first disciples of Christ witnessed the Resurrection, they reoriented everything about who they were. They re-interpreted their scriptures and re-thought the nature of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they changed the day of the Sabbath and abandoned ancient temple sacrifices for the sacrifice of bread and wine at the command of the Christ.

They re-wrote the book of their lives, and so must we.

Indeed, we must do so because we are commanded to love God and our neighbors—and extinction is an affront to the Creator and it is a danger to humans—individually, culturally, and globally.

That dad who was entering the Church tonight in baptism—the one who was admiring the beauty of so many souls holding their candles before them—told me a story after Mass about fishing for his daughter’s dental retainer in a restaurant garbage dumpster in the rain on a cold night. His young girl was distraught at losing the retainer in a discarded napkin, and he did what a good father does—he entered the darkness and reclaimed the good that was lost.

What this dad did, God the Father has done for us. In Christ, God sent His Son to enter sin and death so to reclaim our lost goodness, that is, to reorient our human condition towards life.

Now it’s up to us to respond.

If we are truly an Easter people, then we must value all life, because all life is part of the tapestry of the cosmos and it is not ours to extinguish. We are to be a people that transmit, sustain, and encourage life, not destroy it. We must be a people that lives so that others—here, now, and in the future—may live. And to do that, we need to protect viable ecosystems.

From the Christian context, we must ensure that no corner of creation is without the life of Christ—the true life that cannot be dimmed, the life that gathers, that heals, and that offers ever more life until the end of the ages.

Indeed, we must pay heed to the Holy Father, who in his homily for this year's  Easter Vigil said this:
The great hymn of the Exsultet, which the deacon sings at the beginning of the Easter liturgy, points us quite gently towards a further aspect. It reminds us that this object, the candle, has its origin in the work of bees. So the whole of creation plays its part. In the candle, creation becomes a bearer of light. But in the mind of the Fathers, the candle also in some sense contains a silent reference to the Church. The cooperation of the living community of believers in the Church in some way resembles the activity of bees. It builds up the community of light. So the candle serves as a summons to us to become involved in the community of the Church, whose raison d’ĂȘtre is to let the light of Christ shine upon the world.
Let us pray to the Lord at this time that he may grant us to experience the joy of his light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of his light, and that through the Church, Christ’s radiant face may enter our world. Amen.
Truly, Easter is a time for all creation. It is a time to protect ecosystems by truly orienting our lives, our appetites, our economies, and our cultures to these ancient, true words:
Exult! Let them exult! The hosts of heaven, exult,
let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud
our mighty King’s triumph! 

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday: What we do with truth

If they persecuted me, 
they will also persecute you. (Jn. 15:20)

The end of Holy Thursday provides a dramatic image: watching my pastor, deacon, and the alter servers extinguish candles and dismantle the sanctuary. Within moments after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the main focus of the church is bare and dark, with the central tabernacle open, empty, and cold. But in a side shrine (normally the home of the Blessed Mother) is the Eucharist, reposed among flowers and bathed by candlelight until midnight.

The world with and without Christ are thus on display: a living shrine and a normally robust sanctuary now made bare by deicide.

I thought of this being with Christ or being without Christ while driving home earlier this week after taking part in a panel discussion on the environment. It was held at the interfaith center of a business university here in Rhode Island. The coordinator knew of my Catholic ecology writings and asked if I could speak about faith, even if I was initially invited to speak only as an environmental regulator.

The interfaith center’s auditorium—sun drenched from a glass wall overlooking flowering trees—was about one-third full. My co-panelists were two professors, a lawyer and renewable energy advocate, and a local business owner who has quite the vocation for running businesses green.

I did my best to discuss issues of ecology, pollution, and overconsumption from a Christian perspective—that is, with an acknowledgement of a broken anthropology and dangerous worldviews that seek one’s own ends rather than the common good. I blended faith and reason, selflessness and science, as well as theology and twenty-three years of experience in government regulation. But the audience, students and professors alike, didn’t seem interested—and if they were, I didn’t pick up on it. There were no questions for me, and no apparent interest (at a business school!) in my suggestion that harsh regulation typically is not the sole answer to mankind’s many problems.

Clearly, I wasn’t persecuted at this eco-discussion. But I couldn’t help but think of Christ’s warning to his followers: It’s not going to be easy to teach my ways. There is a vast population that has no interest in placing Christ within daily affairs—no matter how dire the events of the day.

Ecologists of all stripes know something of cynical, unhearing audiences—people who disregard abundant scientific consensus on matters like climate change, tumbling levels of biodiversity, the effects of mercury, or the dangers of toxins from pesticides and other chemicals in our waters. Such truths are difficult to hear, to internalize, because they require a choice between a comfortable status quo and a new way of life. And so we humans often tacitly choose death—death to truth, death of creation, death to civilizations by over-consumption or man-made changes to planetary climate, or death to our bodies by poison. All because we’re not up for a challenge

Christ’s Gospel challenges us similarly and infinitely more so. His truth offers us a different way of living—one that can soften hearts and thus, not surprisingly, answer many ecological ills in the process, and so much more. But we often turn from this truth, hide from it, or, in myriad ways, crucify it.

As a Catholic ecologist, I find discussions about policy and science to be dead if they don’t include the life of Christ. Such conversations are like tabernacles without the Eucharist reposed within: They appear substantial but they hold no living, tangible, transformative truth.

This Good Friday, then, let Catholic ecologists, and all my Christian brothers and sisters, resolve to always bring the living waters of Christ to all that we do—either quietly or overtly—so that the world can see what happens when we try to kill God.

As Psalm 51, from this morning’s Office, reminds us,
Indeed, you love truth in the heart;
in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.
And let us remember that this petition can be answered because of today, because of Christ’s Holy Cross, which has redeemed our fallen, dying world. ‎Indeed, in the words of Fr. John Neuhaus: "Here, through the Cross, we have come home, home to the truth about ourselves, home to the truth about what God has done about what we have done. And now we know, or begin to know, why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Thursday: This rich gift, this fruit of the earth

Gethsemane and Church of All Nations, Jerusalem
God of all consolation, you chose and sent your Son to heal the world. Graciously listen to our prayer of faith: Send the power of your Holy Spirit, the Consoler, into this precious oil, this soothing ointment, this rich gift, this fruit of the earth.

Bless this oil and sanctify it for our use. Make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it; heal them in body, in soul, and in spirit, and deliver them from every affliction.

As my bishop prepared the Oil of the Sick at my diocese’s annual Chrism Mass, I paid special attention to these words. A few weeks ago, my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Healing of body, soul, and spirit are now in the forefront of my mind as I watch my mom fight this degenerative illness. She, like the human race and, indeed, the cosmos, suffer from the effects of sin, and so we would all be prudent to embrace God’s offer of Grace.

In particular, when I heard the words “fruit of the earth” during the blessing of the sacramental oils, I was struck with the similarity between those prayers and the prayers for the preparations of the gifts at Mass. They, too, speak of the goodness of the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands, all for the divinely ordained assistance of making God’s Grace—his healing—intelligible to human understanding.

The Eucharist is the prime example of this. As noted in a recent post, the earthly, ecological connections with the Eucharist are something that Benedict XVI has commented on with great depth. For instance:
The justified concern about threats to the environment present in so many parts of the world is reinforced by Christian hope, which commits us to working responsibly for the protection of creation. The relationship between the Eucharist and the cosmos helps us to see the unity of God's plan and to grasp the profound relationship between creation and the "new creation" inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ, the new Adam.  
Lastly, and relatedly, when watching a hundred or so of my diocese’s priests stand at the Chrism Mass and renew their vows, I couldn’t help but smile with joy at the beauty of God’s plan. He dares uses the imperfect creation and sinful creatures to share in the salvation of the cosmos and of souls.

The more one considers all this, the more one sees that the Triduum takes on special meaning for Catholic ecologists.

Beginning with Holy Thursday—with the institution of the priesthood, the Mass, and the Eucharist—these next few days show clearly how salvation history is rooted in the very world that, in the beginning, God created “very good” and ordered. Thus, our relation with the world—and, by extension, with the planet’s ecosystems—mingles with divine relation, which makes for a potent means of participating in the drama of our own salvation. 
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as  of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (Jn. 1:14)
As we pause these next days to join our lives with the mysteries of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord, let us remember the cosmic implications of these events. And let us never forget that if God wishes to use fruit of the earth and our fellow humans to assist in the offering of His grace, we have a special role in ensuring the integrity of the very ecosystems that keep the earth teeming with fruit, with life, and especially with the human family.

After all, remember where Holy Thursday ends: in a garden, with Christ, and the slumbering men who would flee him, but then, with the power of the Holy Spirit, would one day zealously proclaim to a dying world the Gospel of Glory, of Resurrection, and the radical promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth—indeed, of new community for the many.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday: Why Catholic ecologists aren’t revolutionaries

The suffering Jewish people found much to celebrate when Jesus entered Jerusalem. But in days, most rejected him. What he was coming to do, and undo, would not unfold the way they had expected. There was no earthly army eviscerating the Roman occupation forces. There was no cloud of fire purifying Jerusalem from pagan influences.

There was only this simple, curious man, Jesus, who promised a kingdom that no one could see. In the end, he was arrested, executed, and buried. His followers vanished. His miracles were forgotten. For the vast majority of his would-be disciples, life after Jesus’ crucifixion was as dismal as it had been before.

The lessons of Palm Sunday are ones that Christians must remember in all facets of our lives. Christ came to wash the feet of his followers and die on a cross. He did not come to summon armies. He came to invite, not terrorize. He came to take a road that was counterintuitive to human nature—and in doing so he would elevate our nature forever.

For Catholic ecologists, Palm Sunday teaches important lessons about the strategies needed to protect our planet, its biota, and us. Like Christ, we will be most effective not by summoning earthly forces of change, but in loving our neighbors and inviting them into a dialogue of hope—of showing our brothers and sisters what it truly means to be human. In the end, it will not be our actions of force that will save our ecosystems and our children. Rather, it will be our cooperation with God’s infinite, transformative grace.

I have the occasion of working alongside many scientists, policymakers, and academicians who insist that the only hope for environmental salvation is to dictate the minutiae of everyday life. There is an ugly strain of totalitarianism that swims deep through eco-conversations of late, and I shudder to think of what some would do if they had the power to have their way.

At a recent meeting of environmental advocates that I attended for work, one professor of eco-policy argued that strong, centralized governments were the best means to quickly achieve necessary changes within society. Another participant challenged this view by noting that China and other nations take draconian measures against entire populations to achieve their ends.

The conversation highlighted a growing societal phenomenon of late, especially among the political left: When the good cannot be achieved by education, it is sought by legislation, penalties, intimidation, and, soon, other, darker means.

Now, to be clear: My experience has been that most secular eco-crusaders are people who have the very best of intentions. They understand the environmental crises that humanity is (and will be) facing and they want to help. But without the Christian narrative—and a reliance on God’s grace—ecologists become frustrated with what many of us know to be human sin. This frustration grows, and they turn to various forms of dictatorship if they are in power or violent protests if they are not. In large part, this phenomenon is what the Holy Father wrote about when he was the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984.

Likewise, the solutions to our many earthly crises—ecological and otherwise—are rooted in a telling line from another document by the Holy Father. In his 2011 Message for World Food Day, he says this: “In fact it is a question of adopting an inner attitude of responsibility, able to inspire a different life style, with the necessary modest behavior and consumption, in order thereby: to promote the good of future generations in sustainable terms.”

In other words, you can’t legislate morality. Nor can you coerce, threaten, or beat people into changing their ways without doing great harm to their humanity. On the contrary, the changes necessary to reduce human consumption, to produce goods and energy in accordance with natural and moral laws, and to bring unity of will must come not from the tyrannical power of strong, centralized governments, but from the wisdom of Christ.

And indeed, all people know this to be true—no matter how much they may resist or deny this truth.

After the meeting I mentioned, the professor who argued for strong government dictates asked me how to best work with faith communities to bring about good ends. I was delighted to hear her ask this with sincerity, and to acknowledge that people of faith can encourage change in ways that legislation and regulation could never do.

In fact, what she was saying was what Palm Sunday is all about: If you want to save the world, don’t put your faith in earthly strategies. Put your faith in Christ—follow him and his truth, even to the Cross—and then let him, through you, quietly and with humility change human hearts and, in doing so, change the world.