Stewards of the Environment: It's a Christian Thing

Third Day of Christmas and Feast of St Stephen, Archdeacon & First Martyr

Francis_Laudato_Square.jpgTHERE WAS much speculation as the world anticipated the release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, earlier this year. This was not surprising, as any papal encyclical will rightly capture the attention of the faithful. What was surprising was the perceptible nervousness among Christians regarding what they suspected to find in it, and the loud reactions to it after its release. The subject of environmental science is complex, and creates much debate about multi-faceted and largely theoretical scenarios, lending themselves to rhetorical errors on every side. But, for some reason, even the simple concept of “sustainability” still leaves some Christians rolling their eyes. 

The good news, for some, and I suppose also the bad news, for others, is that the Church has already taught about these questions, at least in their basic form. This encyclical had already been written, time and again, before Francis’s pen ever touched paper. Its themes are found in the very first chapters of Sacred Scripture, and have been repeated by the Church ever since. Concern for the environment is not a progressive thing. It is a Christian thing.

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The call for sustainable usage should not be seen as an unrealistic ideal. In fact, theologically speaking, simply being sustainable is not enough. Adam was charged with the task of cultivating the land. He was forbidden to exploit it, but also forbidden to merely leave it alone. To be a steward is to protect and develop; to make it better, not just prevent it from getting worse. Take the parable of the talents, for instance. The Master was displeased with the one who returned only what he had been given, after simply keeping it safe and untouched. The Master took away the little he had entrusted to the servant to give it to others who had proven more responsible. Imagine his reaction had the Master found the servant had wasted the deposit in his selfishness, or lost it in his negligence. Most of us are probably poorer stewards than this one when it comes to our own environment. What will be our recompense?

In his 1891 Encyclical, Pope Leo XIII said:

Man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason—it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in their use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use (Rerum Novarum, paragraph 6).

The Christian perspective on the environment, to be sure, is different than the secular/political liberal one. We care about the dignity of human life, first and foremost, and view our obligations to all of creation with a primary consideration for its highest point. But we also see that even though we are on the top of the proverbial food chain, there is still a chain that must be connected, and can break due to a link which is weak, as the adage goes, or which has been destroyed, polluted, or parceled out to the highest bidder, as the industrialized world has gone. The view from the top is the best one, but it can be disorienting. One who enjoys it thoughtlessly may soon lose sight of where he truly is as he gazes optimistically into the distance, and in his confidence lose sight of what is holding him up.

May I offer a suggestion as one simple way to address the complex issues surrounding the environment? Start talking more about small business and small farming. The Church has consistently advocated the importance of personal property for family life and healthy society throughout history. Not everyone can be a farmer, and quite honestly not everybody should try to be. But everyone should have the heart and head of a small farmer and a small tradesman. The farmer knows that his environment must not only remain intact and functioning according to the laws of nature, but must be improved through his own creativity, genius, and labor. His family must be able to live off his land for this and future generations. This has implications for both his family and the land. Just burying his talent is not going to cut it.

Thirty years ago, John Senior suggested that in order to restore the culture “we shall have to think about work, the kind of work by which we earn our daily bread, and especially farming as the only true basis of economic and social life” (The Restoration of Christian Culture, 220). Integrated problems require integrated solutions. Abuse of the environment is not an isolated problem; it is a lifestyle problem. Malthusian predictions and the modern obsession with limiting population, both on a global scale or just in our own bedrooms, are rooted in our lust for sexual license and the contraceptive lifestyle: self-styled and lifeless. They are not based on real problems of quantity in land and resources, but problems of quality in philosophy and morality.

Historically, it is when we have moved off our farms and cottages and into the cities that we have begun to treat both nature and people worse. The industrial revolution offers plenty of stories to give both environmentalists and human rights advocates nightmares for a lifetime. When we move from large, open spaces to small, confined ones we, of course, begin to feel like there are too many people. Crises in public welfare, health, education, and safety come with the urbanization of the populace. Are there too many people? No, they just live on top of one another, are unprepared to fend for themselves in pursuit of scarce resources around them (jobs, homes, etc.), and lack the consensus in moral norms necessary for a just society. When the rewards of our labor went from produce to dollars, we naturally felt like we couldn’t afford to feed any more hungry mouths. A poor city worker wonders how he can afford to meet the needs of another child (seen as an economic liability), while a poor farmer or tradesman trusts that the child himself will, at some point, pitch in for the needs of the whole family. Expecting a ten year old to help feed the chickens is much different than sending him to the factory for a paycheck, which, tragically, many in our country were forced to do at one point in history not all that long ago.

Do we have enough resources to support ourselves and future generations? Yes, we just have to use them responsibly. Which means we may have some real work to do. The Master, as we know, reaps where he has not sowed, and gathers where he has not winnowed (Mt. 25:26). We had best not be found empty-handed when we are called to account for our dealings.

Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and two children.

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