Few things can get you ridiculed faster in Oregon than expressing a lack of enthusiasm for recycling. It might be less problematic to announce a fondness for whale hunts on the weekend. In the Pacific Northwest, where rates of church attendance are some of the lowest in the country, Oregonians seem to revere recycling as a kind of secular sacrament. From state agencies to private universities, the evidence is everywhere.
The other day, I was researching Catholic universities for our daughter. I was particularly interested in learning about a particular Pacific Northwest university online. When I happened across its Facebook page, though, I was struck with the fervor and enthusiasm expressed for all things environmental. The students were particularly excited over the recent university decision to ban plastic water bottles. Now, I understand something of the environmental issues surrounding the use of plastic bottles, but it strikes me as somewhat disturbing for an institution of higher Catholic learning to be so pleased with itself while making no apparent mention on its online pages of the fight against the tragedy of abortion or even of bringing the message of Christ and His Church to the many lost souls within the Seattle and King County areas. The reader may legitimately question whether those areas really are within the university’s mission, but I think this touches on a significant concern.
This begins to illustrate the hidden dangers and misplaced priorities found within the Green Movement for Catholics as well as Christians of other traditions. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with recycling in and of itself, the Green Movement has a way of demanding always more of one’s activism, energy, and time. It also contributes to the meaningless busyness of our daily lives. Like a constant background noise, our busyness and online endeavors can make it hard to simply find time for quiet reflection and prayer. It’s simply a matter of priorities and focus. Is God being placed first? After all, there’s a difference between stewardship of creation, as Saint Francis recognized and the Church has always supported, and the idolatry of creation, ignoring the fingerprint of God upon it and praising it for itself alone. There’s also a disturbing Orwellian dimension to the recycling mantra; the government and media know what’s best for you, so do what you’re told–or else. Are words like recycling, sustainable, renewable, and greenhouse the real “Newspeak?”
The more ardent supporters of the Green Movement hold a belief that the human race is something like a virus invading and damaging its host: our planet. While this view may be entertaining within a science fiction novel, it can prove dangerous in real life. For one thing, its adherents fail to recognize the obvious: they themselves are as much a part of the planet as any animal or plant. It’s also ironic, given that they tend to hold atheistic or agnostic spiritual views, that they claim to know what’s best for the world. That is, if there is no God or transcendent meaning within the universe, from what wellspring is their moral authority drawn? As a relative of mine pointed out, “if meaningless motions of particles explain my actions, then whether I create a strip-mine, or a garden, or protect a wilderness, these actions are all morally equal, and equally natural.” Their perspective also leads to a distorted view of creation and our place within it. In particular, it encourages the destruction of the unborn in favor of the environment.
We’ve all probably heard the estimated “carbon footprint” or the highly questionable monetary costs associated with raising children. Remember Paul Ehrlich’s misguided ramblings in the Population Bomb from 1968? Paul’s fans are apparently alive and well in Australia. An article appearing in a December 2007 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, for instance, proposed a hefty carbon tax for the parents of newborns. There were, of course, financial incentives for those choosing contraceptive measures. For many of the Green Movement, a child seems worth less than a pile of ash.
A particularly good piece of common ground in this discussion, however, can be found in the way we choose to treat other living beings. As Deacon Keith Fournier wisely observed in his June 2010 article concerning environmentalism, which appeared in Catholic Online, there is nothing new about being “green” for Catholics. Responsible stewardship, when correctly understood, is a duty clearly conveyed to us in both the Old and New Testaments. This is especially true concerning the treatment of animals. Who can forget Balaam’s reproachful donkey in the book of Numbers, for example? As a children’s writer who employs animal characters and as a person with a love of animals, the call to treat them with kindness rings particularly strong. As Saint Francis reminds us, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
If we are to become good stewards of creation, honoring creation because it is such a profound gift of our Creator, we should care about the complexities exposed within this debate. A good place to begin to enhance our understanding is the letter written by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on New Year’s Day 2010 on the occasion of the Celebration of the World Day of Peace. Below are some of our Holy Father’s concluding observations from “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.”
…If the Church’s magisterium expresses grave misgivings about notions of the environment inspired by ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things. In the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the “dignity” of all living creatures, such notions end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms. The Church, for her part, is concerned that the question be approached in a balanced way, with respect for the “grammar” which the Creator has inscribed in his handiwork by giving man the role of a steward and administrator with responsibility over creation, a role which man must certainly not abuse, but also one which he may not abdicate.
As we read in 1 Corinthians 10:31, this matter really comes down to “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” If our heart and mind are directed to Him, we will become the workers and stewards He created us to be, striving for a balance between the environmental concerns and God. If the environmental message du jour quietly replaces the words of Christ in our churches or homes, we are called to act decisively, tearing down these modern idols like Moses destroyed the gold calf raised by the Israelites in the desert. Reflecting quietly upon the beauty and majesty of nature points to a Creator who clearly cares deeply for us. We should endeavor, then, to offer thanks to Him as we strive to be good stewards of all the life He has created.
Karl Erickson is the author of Tristan’s Travels, a new children’s book published by Rafka Press. Although he considers himself primarily a children’s writer, his articles have appeared in America, The National Catholic Weekly, Catholic Answers’ This Rock, Church Music Association of America’s Musica Sacra, Catholicmom.com, Episcopal Church News, Seattle Pacific University’s Response, TiberRiver Catholic Book Reviews, and even as a special feature writer in an issue of the Portland Tribune. He is currently working on a new piece of fiction for older audiences. Karl is also one of the founding members of the Catholic Writers’ Guild, a new association of Catholic writers and artists engaged in trying to make a difference for God and bring creative renewal to Catholic literature.
Copyright 2010 Karl Erickson