The Key to Ecological Conversion – Fr Eamonn Conway

The Encyclical Laudato Si’, published in 2015, and Querida Amazonia, the Post-Synodal Exhortation published in February of this year, tap readily into the increasing awareness that young people have of the enormity of the ecological crisis that we now face.

Querida Amazonia (‘Dear Amazon’), following the 2019 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the PanAmazonian Region, has been described as a love-letter from the Pope to the Amazon peoples. The Amazon tropical rain forest is not only a region of immense natural beauty; it also provides a fifth of the world’s oxygen. While the Synod was taking place in Rome, vast regions of the Amazon were burning because of fires started maliciously. Cattle ranchers, acting illegally and eager to expand their grazing lands, have destroyed almost a fifth of the forest in the past fifty years. The result is the irrevocable destruction not only of a region of unique natural beauty but also of the way of life of indigenous peoples, bringing a whole array of social problems, from sexual exploitation to alcoholism to family breakdown.

In recent years, missionaries have been at the vanguard of efforts to protect the Amazon. It wasn’t always so. During the Synod last October, prayers of reparation were offered ‘for the mistakes made as a Church and as humanity; especially through the abuses of colonization, the systematic violence to human rights and the ethnocide carried out on so many peoples throughout the continent.’

Teaching on Ecology since Vatican II
The Church’s teaching on ecology has come a long way. Yet its ‘coming of age’ didn’t begin with Pope Francis. According to Donal Dorr, the 1971 World Synod of Bishops first ‘linked an ‘option for the poor’ with an ‘option for the earth’ – though it did not use these terms.’1 Pope John Paul II referred to the ecological crisis several times during his 26-year pontificate. His 1990 ‘Message for the World Day of Peace’ was a decisive step forward for the Catholic Church, in which he not only drew attention to issues like the depletion of the ozone layer, urbanisation, deforestation, the use of chemicals and their effects on the environment, but he also called for Catholics to respond by adopting a simplicity of lifestyle in their everyday lives. He also highlighted the need for a resolution of the ecological crisis at international and inter-governmental level, a call we would hear reiterated by Pope Francis 25 years later, in Laudato Si’.

Dorr is critical of the way in which John Paul II tended to see ‘the value of the rest of the natural world almost exclusively in terms of its value for humans,’ rather than presenting the earth as possessing a dignity and value in and of itself. At the same time, he acknowledges that John Paul II paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI’s later emphasis on the earth as a precious gift. John Paul II was also the first pope to speak of the need for an ‘ecological conversion,’ which he did in a General Audience in 2001.

In turn, Pope Benedict XVI set the stage for all the major issues that Pope Francis subsequently unfolds in Laudato Si’. In Caritas in Veritate (2009) he writes that ‘the environment is God’s gift to everyone and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes.’

All aspects of ecology are integrally linked
It is no coincidence that at key points in Laudato Si’ and Querida Amazonia, Francis relies upon his immediate predecessor. In Laudato Si’ Francis develops Benedict XVI’s position that the ecology of nature must include human ecology: ‘the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth.’ It follows, he says, that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’ (Laudato Si’ 6). In Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis writes,

In the Amazon region, one better understands the words of Benedict XVI when he said that, ‘alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology which in turn demands a ‘social’ ecology. All this means that humanity… must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology’ ( 41).

This paragraph presents the distinctive insight of the Church in addressing the ecological crisis: that all aspects of ecology, the ecology of the natural world, human ecology and social ecology are integral. They stand or fall together.

Young people, ecology and the ‘God bit’
My experience of teaching Laudato Si’ to third-level students, especially future primary school teachers, is that they will readily endorse certain aspects of the Encyclical. For instance, they find the weight of science that lies behind Laudato Si’ compelling and are not surprised to hear that it has been widely acclaimed as an incontrovertible analysis of the ecological crisis. They also very much welcome the focus on our current duty to protect the planet for future generations.

They recognise, too, that we in the West are living at the expense of those in the global South. They are open to reflecting on their own complicity in environmental degradation because of their consumer habits, and take seriously the need to be personally more responsible. They endorse wholeheartedly the critique of governments and the demand for a global political solution to the ecological crisis.

Student teachers are happy to develop lesson plans for the pupils they teach that communicate the above aspects of Laudato Si’. However, they struggle with what we might call the ‘God bit.’ I put this specific challenge to them: in my lessons, am I reflecting sufficiently the distinctively Christian basis for caring for the earth and the poor of the earth? Could an atheist environmentalist, for instance, teach what I am teaching?

It has become clear to me that, in many cases, the reason they struggle with this is because of a lack of development of their own personal faith.

A personal relationship with God as Creator
It is welcome that students learn so much from Laudato Si’. Furthermore, we can and should see God’s grace at work in people who care passionately for the environment but do not recognise or accept that there is any faith dimension to what they do. There is a danger, however, that as Catholic pastors and educators we would settle merely for establishing common ground with others concerned about the ecological crisis.

Young people today suffer immensely because of the false ‘doctrine’ of autonomy. Their culture teaches them that they are free to be or to do anything they wish as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. This is considered the only absolute moral principle. Life is understood fundamentally as self-invention. How life begins, how life ends, marriage, sexual and gender identity, can all be redefined and manipulated. Yet if human and social ecology can be manipulated, at will, to personal and selfish ends, why not nature as a whole, including our planet?

Older generations, who felt oppressed by a constricting and over-bearing moral code when they were growing up, might welcome and even envy the apparent autonomy of today’s youth. Yet increasingly, we are aware of the precarious state of so many young people’s mental health, and how in too many cases their sense of self-worth has no foundation other than the number of ‘likes’ they get on social media. We need to ask ourselves why ‘industries’ that engage in resilience-training, well-being and mindfulness are burgeoning. They are trying to fix something that’s not working.

The key to ecological conversion
Pope Francis has repeatedly taught that ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’ (Laudato Si’ 6), and that there are ‘rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator’ (Laudato Si’ 71) that must be recovered and respected.This passage is particularly important:

The acceptance of our body as a gift from God is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept your body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognise myself in an encounter with someone who is different’ (Laudato Si’ 155).

The task of evangelisation is to help young people realise that their personal happiness is dependent upon them accepting the rhythms inscribed in nature by its – and their – Creator. When students realise this, and I have had occasional such light-bulb moments in class, there is an almost audible sigh of relief as they realise that life is a gift, that self-worth is inherent and that they have inviolable God-given dignity. So, life becomes a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, which is also acceptance and surrender to the mystery of God, rather than the more fragile and risky project of self-invention.

This recognition and insight is key to ecological conversion, because acceptance of one’s own dependence leads to recognition of the interdependence of all creatures, and the need and desire to care for our fellow creatures and our common home.

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Fr Eamonn Conway is head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick

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