What makes for Catholic environmentalism?

By Father Bud Grant
Fr. Grant

If you teach long enough you earn the joy of seeing students become friends and friends becoming teachers.

The other day I got a phone call from a former student, one of my best friends, an ecologist working to save the remnants of the Loess Hills prairie ecosystem, and my instructor in the ways of the hills.  His challenge was blunt:  What makes for a uniquely Catholic environmentalism?  I’ll try to answer that in concentric rings, starting with what we share in common:

… With all people of good will, we believe that we are part of nature, that we have the power to influence the rest of nature and that, thus, we ought to care for it.

…With those who share a religious spirituality we know that we are part of something far more magnificent than our mere individual interests and desires, and that somehow nature is itself also transcendent.


… With the Jewish community we share the conviction derived from the Hebrew Bible that nature is God’s creation. It belongs to God, not us. We are merely stewards and should be good stewards, leaving it better than it was when we found it.

… In common with other Christian denominations we embrace an incarnational environmental ethic: Jesus is fully divine AND fully human, so the whole created order is elevated, ennobled, even sanctified. If God is made flesh, then matter matters.

… Our own uniquely Catholic twist on the incarnation is illustrated by our devotion, not just to the cross of Christ, but to the crucified Christ. By insisting on this graphic illustration of the scandal and absurdity of the death of God we are uncomfortably nudged to embrace the ethical imperative of suffering for the common good.

… Theologically, Catholics appeal to the wisdom and authority of Thomas Aquinas who teaches us three crucial and pivotal points.  First, Creation is “good” simply by being what it is. It is intrinsically valuable, quite apart from its usefulness. Its integrity ought to be saved. Secondly, humans are morally good because, endowed with reason, we can anticipate the consequences of our actions — so we ought to make good choices. This yokes us with the ethical responsibility of caring for the most vulnerable including future generations; creation ought not to be exhausted in the service of a few against the common good of all. Finally, people of faith, hope and love are impelled by that triple-grace to render ourselves in sacrificial service of God manifested in Creation.

…This distinctly Thomistic approach has been reinforced through a century-plus codex of magisterial teachings from popes, bishops’ conferences, and prophetic bishops. These so-called Social Encyclicals have taken an ever more “green” tint, giving us, in Benedict XVI, an explicit emphasis on ecological issues. “The natural environment,” he says in Caritas in Veritate, “is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth the criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation” (48).

… Finally, and definitively, we Catholics embrace a sacramental ethic. The Eucharist, specifically, sets us apart. What makes the Eucharist an ecological sacrament is that the simplest earthly material goods of broken bread (yes, it must be broken) and poured out wine (yes, it must be poured out) are transformed into the very broken and poured out body and blood of Christ. This is to both expand and concentrate the incarnational ethics.  If the Eucharist is holy, then all of Creation is holy: into it is drawn all of creation. This is a celebration, both solemn and joyful, engendering both fear and hope, of the transformation of all of Creation into the body and blood of Christ.

(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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