Pope Francis on the Environment: Part Four

III. THE MYSTERY OF THE UNIVERSE

76. “Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.”

Both the political left and right tend toward the error of seeing nature as a system to be controlled, in one way or another. They err by not taking into account the will and plan of God and the universal call to love one another.

77. ” ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made’ (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice.”

Here the holy Pontiff contradicts the claims of science and secular society, which ignore or deny the role of God in creating and guiding nature. Moreover, the human race was created by the decision of God, out of love; we are not the result of chance events, nor merely the result of natural principles.

78. “A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.”

79. “Faith allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding.”

80. “Yet God, who wishes to work with us and who counts on our cooperation, can also bring good out of the evil we have done.” We have caused much harm in the world, to society and nature. But we can repair and renew the world by our cooperation with God and with one another.

81. I’ll quote this paragraph in its entirety:

“Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a ‘Thou’ who addresses himself to another ‘thou’. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object.”

Pope Francis speaks of evolution as a theory, which can be accepted by believers. We can accept a process of evolution, even one applying to human beings. But evolution can never suffice to explain humanity. God chose to create us, out of love. Our ability to reason abstractly, our free will, and our ability to love as God loves makes us personal beings, who transcend mere physics and biology. And this implies direct intervention by God in creating humanity.

So Pope Francis says “Yes” to evolution as legitimate scientific theory, even as scientific truth. But then he says “No” to the idea that evolution was wholly responsible for the creation of modern humans. His position on evolution agrees with my position, explained at length in my book: Adam and Eve versus Evolution.

Many Catholics accept the theory of evolution without reservation, and so they cannot explain the teaching of the Church on Adam, Eve, and original sin. A disturbingly large number of Catholics completely reject the theory of evolution, and global warming, and other ideas in science. They adhere to an overly-literal understanding of Biblical teaching. They attempt to live by faith without reason. The correct position, in my view, is a middle ground, where we accept as much of science as is not in conflict with our faith, but we place faith above reason. Then reason has the important role to help us understand and explain the truths of faith. We should not go to either extreme: faith without reason, or reason without faith.

82. “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society.”

83. “Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.”

IV. THE MESSAGE OF EACH CREATURE IN THE HARMONY OF CREATION

84. “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”

85. “This contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us, since for the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice’.[inner quote from Pope Saint John Paul II]”

86. “The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God.”

87. “When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them.”

88. After saying many good things about creation, the holy Pontiff adds a stern and cautionary limit to this praise: “This is not to forget that there is an infinite distance between God and the things of this world, which do not possess his fullness. Otherwise, we would not be doing the creatures themselves any good either, for we would be failing to acknowledge their right and proper place. We would end up unduly demanding of them something which they, in their smallness, cannot give us.”

V. A UNIVERSAL COMMUNION

89. “as part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.”

90. And here is yet another rebuke from Pope Francis to the political left on the environment:

“This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us. At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure.”

Some on the left, who promote environment causes very enthusiastically, have fallen into the error of exalting nature above humanity, idolizing the environment, as if it were a god to be served by us. This misguided zeal tends to deny the preeminence of humanity within nature, resulting in neglect of human person in need. Such persons end up being an obstacle, at times, to the development needed to cause nature to serve our needs. For example, sometimes land must be converted to agricultural use and artificial fertilizers must be used, so as to produce enough food to feed the hungry.

91. “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”

This paragraph sharply criticizes the political left for ignoring injustice toward fellow human persons, showing concern only for the environment. The Pontiff mentions poverty and human trafficking, then he indicates the sins of euthanasia and abortion (“undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted”).

92. “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity’.[CCC 2418]”

VI. THE COMMON DESTINATION OF GOODS

93. “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching….” Pope Francis goes on to quote Pope Saint John Paul II at length on this topic. We each have a right to private property, and yet we have a responsibility to use our property for the good of all.

I will add a point not often mentioned on this subject. The poor have a right to own private property. If they cannot find or be given work to earn property, they should be given land and the resources needed to work the land. The ultimate goal of the common destination of all goods is not to give the poor what they need to survive, but to lift them out of poverty.

94. “The rich and the poor have equal dignity….”

95. “If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all.”

I’m going to mildly disagree with the way the holy Pontiff phrases this point. He emphasizes that we should help others with our private property; true and good. But implicit in “the good of all” is our own good. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, not love our neighbors to the exclusion and harm of ourselves. So private property can be used for private purposes. But we are obligated to make the love of neighbor the focus of our lives, not selfishness, and not even an ordered love of self.

VII. THE GAZE OF JESUS

96. “In talking with his disciples, Jesus would invite them to recognize the paternal relationship God has with all his creatures.”

97. “The Lord was able to invite others to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world because he himself was in constant touch with nature, lending it an attention full of fondness and wonder.”

98. “Jesus lived in full harmony with creation, and others were amazed: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt 8:27). His appearance was not that of an ascetic set apart from the world, nor of an enemy to the pleasant things of life…. He was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter and the things of the world. Such unhealthy dualisms, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel.”

I will add that Jesus also approved of the asceticism of John the Baptist: “For John came neither eating nor drinking…. The Son of man came eating and drinking…. But wisdom is justified by her sons.” (Lk 11:18-19).

99. “From the beginning of the world, but particularly through the incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy.”

100. “This leads us to direct our gaze to the end of time, when the Son will deliver all things to the Father, so that ‘God may be everything to everyone’ (1 Cor 15:28).”

— More on the topic in future posts —

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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