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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.


  1. Excellent Bill! Very insightful. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks for the kudos. I'm glad you liked it. There is certainly much work ahead in engaging the eco-world. But for now, all the best for a Blessed Holy Week! Bill P.

  2. "Religions, governments, and institutions are faced by many different situations; but on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity all of them can take on some tasks, some part of the shared effort... It is not our desire to evade controversy about the environment, for we trust in the capacity of human reason and the path of dialogue to reach agreement. We commit ourselves to respect the views of all who disagree with us, seeking solutions through open exchange, without resorting to oppression and domination." ~ Blessed Pope John Paul II, Declaration on the Environment

  3. Replies
    1. Good question. I made the meeting sound universally known. It was a small meeting for my job. But this small conversation is one that can be heard in many forums. Thanks for the close eye.


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