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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Celebrating the sainted

As the Church looks forward this weekend by embracing its past, you and I are called to reflect while we celebrate.

The canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II connects the lives of two popes who, in their service to the Church, reminded us of our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ: to sanctify the world by going into ita task we can only achieve when strengthened by the grace of God.

This is the message of the modern popes—particularly Paul VI and Benedict XVI, and especially Pope Francis. But it is John Paul II and John XXIII that we acknowledge this Sunday of Divine Mercy, and so those of us who seek to enter the world to protect it should pay particular attention to what all this means.

John Paul the Great (Environmentalist)

Imagine what Karol Wojtyla witnessed during World War II and what he saw in Communist regimes in the years after. Imagine the filth poured upon so many remnants of Eden—the filth of war and atheistic, industrialized madness. For a man with a soul like Karol Wojtyla’s, this must have made painfully clear the damage that humanity can do when we shun the grace and the Gospel of God.

And so when he was elevated to Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II did something that made perfect sense. He included ecology into the great teaching document of a pope, an encyclical. He wrote of ecology in his first encyclical, in fact. And he spoke of the topic rather profoundly. (Paul VI had also expressed grace displeasure at what disordered consumption can do to creation. But John Paul II elevated the topic well into the heavens.)

Written in 1979—a year after his election—John Paul II’s first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, “Redeemer of Man,” offers a sweeping introduction to the Person around whom all history is centered. In particular, early in the encyclical the Holy Father calls attention to the Incarnation in light of the Book of Genesis, especially as seen through Saint Paul’s language that creation is groaning. The pontiff makes a particularly striking jump to modern forms of this groaning—to sin’s conquest of a good creation that, now fallen, requires redemption:
Does not the previously unknown immense progress—which has taken place especially in the course of this century—in the field of man’s dominion over the world itself reveal to a previously unknown degree that manifold subjection “to futility”? It is enough to recall certain phenomena, such as the threat of pollution of the natural environment in areas of rapid industrialization, or the armed conflicts continually breaking out over and over again, or the prospectives of self-destruction through the use of atomic, hydrogen, neutron and similar weapons, or the lack of respect for the life of the unborn. The world of the new age, the world of space flights, the world of the previously unattained conquests of science and technology—is it not also the world “groaning in travail” that “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God”? (Redemptor Hominis, 8)
Later in Redemptor Hominis, we again see the interweaving of both a damaged ecology and a damaged person, which is a theme that will be continued by John Paul II’s predecessors: 
This state of menace for man from what he produces shows itself in various directions and various degrees of intensity. We seem to be increasingly aware of the fact that the exploitation of the earth, the planet on which we are living, demands rational and honest planning. At the same time, exploitation of the earth not only for industrial but also for military purposes and the uncontrolled development of technology outside the framework of a long-range authentically humanistic plan often bring with them a threat to man’s natural environment, alienate him in his relations with nature and remove him from nature. Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master” and “guardian”, and not as a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer”.  (Redemptor Hominis, 15)
After Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II continued to weave ecology into his encyclicals and into other forums. We find the natural environment in his second and third encyclicals, Dives in Misericordia, “Rich in Mercy,” (1980), and Laborem Exercens, “Engaging in Labor,”(1981), issued for the ninetieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. He again discusses ecology in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis “Solicitude of Social Reality,”(1987), issued on the twentieth anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, as well as in Redemptoris Missio, “Mission of Redemption,” (1990). And then on May 1, 1991, John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus, “The One-Hundredth Year,” to call attention to the centenary of Rerum Novarum. In it, we read that  
[e]qually worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. 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. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him. (Centesimus Annus, 37, emphasis original.)
There is of course much, much more. His 1990 message for the World Day of Peace, for instance, states his ecological thoughts most clearly outside of his encyclicals. It is a highly accessible and brief text that leaves no ambiguity about the Catholic approach the natural environment. 
The complexity of the ecological question is evident to all. There are, however, certain underlying principles, which, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and the specific competence of those involved, can direct research towards adequate and lasting solutions. These principles are essential to the building of a peaceful society; no peaceful society can afford to neglect either respect for life or the fact that there is an integrity to creation. (1990 World Day of Peace Message, 7).
Or, as Pope John XXIII put it, “[t]he world will never be the dwellingplace of peace, till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every man, till every man preserves in himself the order ordained by God to be preserved.” (Pacem in Terris, 165).

John XXII, Offering the Gospel to a New Age

Some might ask if John XXIII should be ranked among the Green Popes. After all, if John Paul II is the pope that first placed ecology profoundly within Catholic thought, does that mean his predecessors said nothing of consequence on the matter?


We must remember that even without direct mention of ecological terminology—which in the early 1960s was not yet part of the vernacular of secular or Catholic moral theology—it was nevertheless the inspired activity of John XXIII that provided an opening from which future popes could encounter the globalization of sin.

It was John XXIII that could and did orient the Church away from the smoldering ruins of World War II and toward the coming of a new century—an age that brought much promise but that also fostered giddy and false hopes in unaided human progress.

As pope and pastor, John XXIII surveyed the world and recognized that the Church must engage this conviction in secular progress. As is always her mission, this engagement was intended to position the Church to be with the world when things went sour.

And so John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, among other efforts to offer grace to human history. While the subject of the Council is of course too great to even offer a brief review here, one point should be made: even if the vision of John XXIII was often clouded in practice by too much optimism of too many within the Church (as Joseph Ratzinger would later suggest), given what we now know of the (often ecological) damage done when human activity is stripped of God, the Church had no choice but to follow close by those blinded by the notion of human-induced utopia. The People of God had to consider how to be in the new world, but not of it.

Consider, if you will, the words of John XXIII in what I find to be one of his most poignant and prophetic encyclicals—Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”). 
It has been claimed that in an era of scientific and technical triumphs such as ours man can well afford to rely on his own powers, and construct a very good civilization without God. But the truth is that these very advances in science and technology frequently involve the whole human race in such difficulties as can only be solved in the light of a sincere faith in God, the Creator and Ruler of man and his world. (Mater et Magistra, 209).
Sound familiar? It should, because these words are foundational to those that would follow from Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now, Pope Francis. They are also the thoughts of his predecessors.

Moreover, these are the words spoken by the son of farmers (yes, John XXIII parents worked the land). No wonder he understood so well the value of technology and human labor. And it is similarly no wonder that he could offer cautionary words about failing to follow the laws and cycles of nature—ones that are as true today as they were in May, 1961.

Onward and upward

Because this celebratory post is already quite long, we will pause here with the promise of more—much more—to come. For now, let us join the universal Church is celebrating two men who heeded the Spirit’s call to the priesthood, and then followed it even further. These men continue to teach and inspire us to bring the Gospel into a world stumbling with pride and darkened by sin.

As John XXIII put it, 
[w]e most earnestly beg all Our sons the world over, clergy and laity, to be deeply conscious of the dignity, the nobility, which is theirs through being grafted on to Christ as shoots on a vine: "I am the vine; you the branches.'' They are thus called to a share in His own divine life; and since they are united in mind and spirit with the divine Redeemer even when they are engaged in the affairs of the world, their work becomes a continuation of His work, penetrated with redemptive power. "He that abideth in men, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit." (Mater et Magister, 259.)
So now let us go and bear fruit—that is, after we celebrate. 

A young Karol Wojtyla

Photo credits: Banner image of John XXIII from Flicker/Manhhai (with permission). Banner image of John Paul II from Flickter/Dennis Jarvis (with permission). Banner image of Earth: Istock.  All others public domain. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day and orthodoxy with B16

Image from Catholic World Report

Short but sweet:

My Earth Day post is news of my review in Catholic World Report of The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology (CUA Press, 2014). 
It’s a joy to happen upon an old friend, to again hear his style of speaking and his way of engaging the world. When the old friend is Benedict XVI, however, things quickly move beyond the sentimental. So it goes with The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology(The Catholic University of America Press, 2014), a helpful compilation of Benedict XVI’s many, many statements about preserving life on earth.
Given that discussions of ecology polarize a great many along worldly ideological fault lines, one of the benefits of The Garden of God lies in remembering how Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, normalized the topic and maintained it within Catholic orthodoxy. Like no other, he taught us how the Christian creed speaks to an array of social and physical sciences that are concerned with relationships, life, and shared futures.
The timing of this book is particularly good. Of late, environmental scientists are escalating their individual warnings. And the month of April finds a great many Earth Day celebrations taking place across the globe. With the help of The Garden of God, Catholics can better engage the ecological movement by discerning what we share with other environmental advocates and what we don’t. ...
Read the entire review at Catholic World Report

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The silence—and newness—of Easter

We'll keep this brief. 

The past six months have been busy ones for me, especially with taking care of my mom, who is now recovering from surgery (with things now looking good). The focus on her and a myriad of other obligations have keep me from posting for periods on this blog.

But with Easter comes renewal, and new beginnings, and new life. And during the Triduum, God has certainly been inspiring me with ideas of what this blog needs to offer in the coming months. So stay tuned.

I'd like to share one insight now about moments of silence during the past three days. That is, the silence of Holy Thursday and being with our Lord as he waits in the Garden of Gethsemane. The silence of Good Friday, when priests lay prostrate before the Cross. And the silence of Holy Saturday, as the words waits with eager expectation.

And now, the silence of the early Easter hours, when we prepare for Easter Mass or when we are basking in the joy of the Easter Vigil (or both).

God speaks to us in silence—this is a perennial understanding for people of faith. And God certainly spoke definitively in the silence of the tomb.

Similarly, God speaks to us when our creative efforts grow silent, when He asks us to pause, regroup, focus elsewhere, and wait for His time to be the time to continue.

And so it goes with Catholic Ecology. 

I thank God this Easter for this ministry and I offer Him these posts to help us all cooperate with His grace. And grace is, as my pastor reflected after this evening's vigil, unstoppable. 

So stay tuned as things get busy over the next few months, and beyond. From the Vatican's conference in May on sustainability to a few other surprises, there will be a significant amount of Catholic ecological engagement ahead. And I will get as much of it as possible in these posts. 

And so for today, my wishes for a blessed Easter to you and all your loved ones. May the truth and joy of the Risen Lord bring you much peace, health, and new life in the year ahead.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A climate toolkit for African youth

Allen Ottaro (far right) with colleagues.

Allen Ottaro of Kenya emailed with a happy update. Allen is a good friend and the executive director of Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (or “CYNESA”). Until December, he was the national coordinator of MAGiS Kenya. His email was about events that are resulting in a model educational program for Jesuit schools in Africa.

Events began last fall when Allen and colleagues met with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which offered funding for the initiative. The Alliance must have liked the program’s goal, which “is to enhance the knowledge, skills and engagement of young people in Jesuit institutions in Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, with respect to climate change, in the context of Catholic Social Teaching and the Ignatian Spirituality.”

Allen says that Jesuit schools were a natural fit given his previous work with the MAGiS program and existing relationships with the order.

Four pilot high schools have been chosen, said Allen. They are St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School in Nairobi, Loyola High School and St. Peter Claver High School in Tanzania, and St. Peter’s Kubatana High School in Zimbabwe. If additional funding can be found, the project could involve more Jesuit schools and youth centers in Central and West Africa.

Last month, Allen and his colleagues at CYNESA participated in special workshops with science teachers from the pilot schools. The gatherings also included Jesuits from the Hekima College School of Theology in Nairobi and representatives of other environmental organizations to speak about climate change in their communities and how it connects to the Catholic faith.

“The goal was to determine the kind of toolkit and resources that would be useful for young people,” Allen said. “Our next step now is to do some kind of basic surveys, to collect information from the students and get a feel of how they experience climate change and what kind of resources they need to run activities.”

The educational program’s first phase is expected to run until November. This will include forums on climate change in the pilot schools. The next phase will involve using the draft toolkit in tandem with environmental clubs in the pilot schools to see where there are gaps before completing a final version.

As things now stand, these are the project’s targeted objectives: 
  • A three-day preparatory workshop for all the key Jesuits and CYNESA team members in lead positions or whose institutions will be involved in the project. The workshop will help participants understand the context of climate change issues in the countries of the pilot schools and how Jesuits (and young people under their care) can offer a faith-based response. 
  • Two climate change youth forums aiming at educating and building the capacity of some 210 young people. 
  • The trained youth will then be offered extensive assistance to integrate the knowledge, skills, and values that will be necessary in climate change initiatives, as well as to reach out to their peers and faith communities. 
“I think it will evolve as we move along and learn new things so I am quite excited,” said Allen. “Although I am a bit nervous about the funding aspect,” he adds, noting upcoming meetings that may open opportunities to continue and expand the program.

Please say a prayer for Allen and his partners! We look forward to more news and updates, and we certainly hope that funding doesn’t hamper this quite important work.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Bishop’s Reflection: A forerunner to a Francis encyclical?

Photo from
His Excellency Bishop Dominique Rey of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, penned a pastoral letter that could very well be the forerunner of a papal encyclical on ecology.

Have you read it? I was given a copy for an upcoming review of another eco-publication (about a certain pontiff—more on that later). Having read Bishop Rey’s letter, I can’t keep silent. And anyone who reads it won’t either—or at least they shouldn’t.

The 2012 letter Peut-on etre Catho et Ecolo? Lettre sur l' ecologie ("Can One Be Catholic and Green? A Letter on Ecology") was re-published in 2013 by the Acton Institute as Catholicism, Ecology, and the Environment: A Bishop’s Reflection. No matter what title you give it, it lays a formidable and rather complete foundation for the Catholic engagement of ecology.

Let me restate that: The letter lays a formidable and rather complete foundation for the Catholic engagement of ecology. 

(On a personal note, a book that I have been developing on the Catholic perspective of ecology now seems unnecessary. Who needs my take on the subject when it is so very well examined by a successor to the apostles?)

Here are some of the letter’s highlights. (And if you have others after reading it, share them in the comments below.)

On the Christian need to engage ecological issues
We can only regret that Christians do not participate more actively in [ecological] questions by bringing the specific insights of the gospel into the discussion. Christians cannot let themselves be indifferent; confronted with the threat of irreversible deterioration of creation, they will not be able to escape a serious examination of conscience.
The environment is a field to which the social doctrine of the Church, whose first principle is the centrality and the dignity of the human person, has been applied extensively.

 On human life 
One of the causes of the current human ecological disorder is the widespread anti-life mentality that has spawned one of the greatest genocides in all of history. It would be vain to insist on one hand we would for the respect of the environment while on the other hand we would not respect the right to life.

Sin and ecological destruction 
We are faced with a moral crises: that is to say a crisis of human choice and human action. Hence, the root of the problem resides in man’s heart rather than in strictly economic or industrial concerns.
The ecological crisis is born in the heart of man and is only the outside extension of this internal tragedy.

Hope in the Eucharist 
In the Eucharist, we find the possibility of a renewed understanding of the created world. The Eucharist allows us to uncover the basis of an integral human ecology; here we find the antidote to radical individualism and collectivism. The Eucharist allows us to find Jesus’ face in every person, most especially the poorest. It also enables us to welcome in creation a gift from God and to thank him continuously for it.
There is of course much more. This includes a recognition of the place of ecology in New Evangelization; an important critique of progressive thought (especially as it is seen through representatives like Jacques Yves Cousteau, who suggested that to save the world we must "eliminate" 350,000 people a day); and a wonderful overview of the place of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as a means to holiness—which is another way of saying a means to tending well the created world that nurtures human life.

The letter is also quite aware that Bl. John Paul II and (especially) Benedict XVI (whom he quotes extensively) has much to teach us about the ecological problems that we face and the divine assistance that we are offered.

If you’re not familiar with Bishop Rey’s pastoral letter on ecology, please do not let these excerpts be your only encounter with it. Read it for yourself. Share it in abundance. Contemplate it and pray over it. It is a wonderful text—and a vital one.

In fact, I’d wager that sometime in the near future you may find that it resonates profoundly with an eco-encyclical administered by the current Bishop of Rome.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Noah and the Pope’s prayers

Vatican City, 31 March 2014 (VIS) – Pope Francis' universal prayer intention for April is: “That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.”

I just returned from seeing the film Noah. I also just read the news of Pope Francis’s general prayer intentions for April. The protection of creation is a fitting intention for a month when many people around the world celebrate Earth Day.

Given all the controversy among Christians over Noah and its whimsical take on the Book of Genesis, the pope’s eco-intentions will certainly be compared to what many people are complaining about in the film.

Have you seen Noah? I wasn’t going to but given what everyone has been saying about an eco-centric plot I decided to spend an evening at the movies.

There’s much about Noah I’d like to deconstruct, criticize, correct, or praise, but for the purpose of this blog I’ll stick to its faith-based eco-messaging, which is a big part of the film.

(I will, however, point you in the direction of two reviews worth noting: Barbara Nicolosi's piece, which trashes the film (and its rock people) at Patheos, and Steven D. Greydanus’s analysis in Catholic World Report, which looks at Noah’s redeeming qualities.)

God vs. the Creator?

A great deal of criticism has been aimed at the filmmakers’ choice to refer to God solely as “the Creator.” But in a way this choice may make sense. Noah and everyone around him had not been exposed to very much of God’s revelation. They would know nothing of what their descendants knew after the Noahide Covenant and the events recorded subsequent to the Book of Genesis. 

And anyway, everyone knows who the characters are speaking to when they look unapprovingly towards the heavens and plead with “the Creator.” That said, the word is spoken often and at times it does seem forced. Surely some other name—like Lord?—could have also been used.

Still, what I don’t understand is why this really, really bothers so many people. God is the Creator, is He not? And creation, its fall along with that of man's, and our redemption is the lifeblood of the Christian faith, no? So why are we concerned that (for reasons I guess at below) the filmmakers focus on the cosmic implications of the fall by stressing that God is the Creator of heaven and earth?

Who (or what) chooses evil first, man or nature?

The film presents the words of creation in Genesis 1 with stunning, scientifically accurate imagery. Adam and Eve and the happenings in Eden are presented with equally beautiful spiritual imagery.

But in a grand departure from Genesis, in the motion picture it seems as if it is the serpent that makes the first choice for evil, rather than being inherently evil. We see the serpent shed its original skin, give birth to a darker version of itself and slither over to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve follows while Adam tarries to inspect the serpent’s better skin left behind. (In Genesis, Adam is with Eve at the fatal fruit-snatching moment.) This skin, the original given to the creature by God, will become a relic used throughout the film. It becomes a sacramental presence that bestows blessings and birthrights to the sons and daughters of Adam.

All this imagery is rather subtle. But it is there. So what could this departure mean?

Without knowing it, the filmmakers shift the blame of sin from man to creation itself—which comes with odd theological, anthropological, and cosmic consequences, the kinds that Hollywood films can only nod to if they choose to acknowledge them at all.

Is the film anti-human?

I don’t understand why some critics say that this film preaches that man must be eradicated to save the planet. Yes, Russell Crowe’s character believe this—for a time. But besides him, no one else does. Still, Noah is so certain that man is the enemy of God’s work that he is ready to take extreme measures to help God, as if He needs it. In what can easily be described as embracing a culture of death, Noah will do anything to prevent human life from staining the new world, which apparently he thinks is only meant for animals.

But Noah is misreading God—not that you can blame him. The Creator is rather quiet in the film. (Perhaps Morgan Freeman wasn’t available.) Luckily, this misreading gets corrected. In the end Noah realizes what everyone else knew all along. The human race is worth saving. Our nature is fallen, not dead. It can be elevated with help from above.

And so Noah chooses life, and he chooses it again when he’s not sure if he should have done so in the first place.

So yes, Noah the character may for a time preach an anti-human ethic of “protecting creation.” But his journey of self-discovery leads him to realize that protecting creation does not mean one has to kill a pregnant woman or her children.

(Similarly, some have criticized the movie for stating that human industry is inherently evil. But any film about a family that denudes a forest to build an ark isn’t saying that man’s use of creation is always bad.)

So what is Noah all about?

Because it’s a Hollywood film, I suppose Noah’s main purpose is profit. But in fairness, the filmmakers seem to want to capture, engage, and retell for the twenty-first century the ancient tale of Noah. And certainly, even non-believers are hard pressed to wash away the lifeblood of revelation. If anything, Noah shows us that Hollywood filmmakers cannot strip inspired texts of all that God chooses to reveal in the first place.

And so for all its odd and unfortunate choices (like those fallen angels that have turned into rocky giants, which offers a rather gnostic twist, come to think of it), Noah is ultimately a film that Christians should not diminish. It tells the tale of how in the beginning God made the world and the human race good and with an inherent order. It tells how the choice of sin deprived mankind and the entire cosmos of a relation with the divine source of life, and how only God Himself can (and will) set us free from the hunter’s snare. Not bad for a night at the magaplex.

Yes, to speak to a modern audience—for which the notion of sin is too often unintelligible—the filmmakers stress a sin that most younger moviegoers will understand: environmental destruction. 

This doesn't mean that other sins aren't present. The films depicts all manner of vice and evil at odds with human dignity. Seeing this, Noah recognizes that he too is infected with the sin of his ancestors.

Ultimately, then, Noah is about sin and salvation. It is about letting God choose our paths if we are to cooperate in the restoration of His creation. It is in part about the same thing the Pope is praying for in April, “that governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.”

But here’s the catch: In order for this protection and just distribution to take place, we need to heed God’s laws of life—not our own disordered wills. And we need His help to heed those laws. Whether intended or not, this is the unmistakable message of Noah.