Sight Magazine – Essay: Caring for the environment has a long Catholic lineage
- JOANNE M PIERCE
On October 4, Pope Francis led dozens of religious leaders to appeal for the protection of the environment, warning that “future generations will never forgive us if we miss the opportunity to protect our common home.”
The call, which calls for net zero emissions, was released after months of meetings leading up to the UN climate conference in November in Glasgow, Scotland.
Hildegarde de Bingen did it all: music, botany, medicine, theater and theology. PHOTO: Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias / Wikimedia Commons
âThe early Christians insisted that the beauty of creation reflected the glory of God. But as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, they had to defend this view of the foundational goodness of creation. when they were challenged by another religious point of view. “
Pope has already expressed support for green policies, including his 2015 encyclical letter to the entire Catholic Church On care for our common home.
But Francis is not the first Catholic leader to emphasize concern for the planet. In fact, all the popes of the past half century – with the exception of John Paul I, who died after only a month in office – have addressed environmental issues in their official publications.
As an academic whose research focuses on the medieval church, I see many of these concerns deeply rooted in the history of the Catholic tradition.
The primitive tradition
One of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity is that the material world was created directly by God, and therefore fundamentally linked to the goodness of God.
This is clearly expressed in the creation account in the book of Genesis, a part of scripture shared by Christians and Jews. As God completes every element of the world – day, night, land, sea, etc. – He sees that “it was good”. On the sixth day, when God creates human beings in the image of God, they are given “rulership” or “rulership” over everything that lives on Earth.
The early Christians insisted that the beauty of creation reflected the glory of God. But as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, they had to defend this view of the foundational goodness of creation when challenged by another religious view.
This movement – called Gnosticism, from the Greek word meaning “knowledge” – taught that the physical world was not created directly by God, but by an inferior spiritual being, out of malice or ignorance. At best, the material world was a worthless distraction; at worst, an evil trap for human souls. The Gnostic teachers offered to teach their disciples how to free their minds from attachment to their physical body and the material world. In this way, after death, they could return to the realm of spiritual reality and reunite with the divine.
Many theologians and bishops have criticized this interpretation of their faith. Many have written long, detailed critiques of Gnostic teaching; the stake, they believed, was the salvation of souls.
The most important of these was Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived in the 2nd century AD. On October 7, 2021, Francis announced that he would declare Irenaeus âDoctor of the Churchâ, a title reserved for saints whose writings have profoundly marked the life of the Church.
In Irenaeus’s treatise Against Heresies, a passionate defense of the teaching of the Scriptures and the apostles, he declares that creation itself reveals God and the glory of God; the only superior revelation is Jesus Christ himself.
In the early Middle Ages, however, Western Christianity remained with a lingering suspicion of “the things of the world,” despite this early emphasis on the basic goodness of material creation.
St FranÃ§ois, patron of animals and ecology, famous preached to birds. PHOTO: Giotto di Bondone / Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi / Wikimedia Commons
The Benedictine tradition
In the third century, some Christians began to seek a more fully God-centered life by withdrawing from society to pray and work together in community groups. This type of monasticism swept through Western Europe during the medieval period.
The most influential of these monastic orders were the Benedictines, who balanced their lives between daily prayer services and work – which often involved farming and caring for the environment. Each monk or nun pledged to stay in the same monastery for life, unless their abbot or abbess – the responsible monk or nun – ordered them to move to another. For this reason, the Benedictines became known as âlovers of placesâ.
Today, a Benedictine saint is particularly linked to environmental concerns: Saint Hildegard of Bingen, who died in 1179 AD. This German abbess was one of the most accomplished women of the Middle Ages. An expert in herbal medicine and botany, she also wrote religious plays, composed songs and liturgical hymns, and wrote theological works and poems based on her mystical experiences. She insisted that God loved the Earth as a husband loves a woman, and espoused a kind of âgreenâ theology, called viriditas, condemning the harm that human activity could do to nature.
Hildegarde has been hailed as an unofficial patron saint of environmentalists. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared her a âdoctor of the Churchâ, like Irenaeus.
Saint Francis of Assisi, son of an Italian linen merchant, has over the centuries become renowned for his love of nature. After having been a soldier and a prisoner of war, FranÃ§ois underwent a spiritual conversion. Rejecting his father’s wealth, he chose to live a life of radical poverty and public preaching until his death in AD 1226. Residency, begging for food and accommodation.
One of FranÃ§ois’ rare documents is a poem, the Song of the Sun, who expressed in words his belief in the kinship between human beings and the rest of the natural world. Even the Sun and the Moon are called âbrotherâ and âsisterâ. And since he was lying dying, it is said that he asked to be laid down on the Bare Earth.
Legends about his preaching and his miracles circulated widely, and some involved his concern for animals, treating them with the same dignity as human beings. One story goes that he preached to the birds and convinced a vicious wolf to live in peace with the locals.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II named Saint Francis the patron saint of ecology because he “venerated nature as a wonderful gift from God”. And in 2015, Pope Francis used the first words of the Song of the Sun, Laudatio si ‘, to open its encyclical on the environment and serve as its official title.
Although often overshadowed by the idea that the material world is only a passing distraction, respect for a creation deeply loved by God has also been an important part of Catholic tradition. Contemporary environmental education is only the most recent expression.
Joanne M Pierce, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.