The final document of October’s synod of bishops on the Amazon has finally received an official English translation (here). Among its themes and proposals stands out its emphasis on caring for creation (ecology). News coverage of the synod was dominated by the side-show of “Pachamama” (which WPI covered more thoroughly than any other site, thanks to Dr. Pedro Gabriel, e.g., “Our Lady of the Amazon: Solving the Contradictions,” “Pachamama — the missing piece of the puzzle,” and “Who is Pachamama anyway?“). This was unfortunate because it distracted from the actual topic of the synod, namely the Catholic Church in Amazonia. Still, the issue of how we relate to the earth (which Pachamama represents as Mother) is important, and in that sense the “Pachamama” controversy revealed discrepant attitudes among Catholics about the earth. Is it idolatry to love and care for the earth? To help begin to answer this important and complex question, let us examine what the final document of the Amazon synod says about caring for the earth. (Pope Francis, per his own decree, has the ability to elevate this document to an authoritative, magisterial text of the Catholic Church, though he has not yet done so.)
The bishops treat our obligation to care for the earth from two directions, which I will call the theological and the social. The first is that the earth was created by God, it is his creation. As such, it deserves to be cared for, and God has appointed the human race to this task. The second is that, as our common home, damage to the earth also hurts human beings, especially the poor. Therefore, preventing ecological destruction is necessary to protect our fellow human beings.
The theological dimension
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gen 2:15)
The synod takes the issue of caring for God’s creation seriously, as is shown by its call for an “ecological conversion,” which is even the title of chapter IV. This expression has caused heartburn in the pope’s critics. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said: “We must absolutely reject expressions such as ‘ecological conversion.’ There is only conversion to the Lord, and as a consequence, there is also the good of nature” (interview “Sinodo Amazzonia, un pretesto per cambiare la Chiesa“). This is the fundamental logic used by those Christians who see ecology as heresy, apostasy, idolatry, and/or paganism. It goes like this: we are commanded to serve God, not the creature. Earth is a creature. Therefore, it is wrong to serve, love, or honor the earth. We should not be converting ecologically, according to Card. Müller; we should be converting to God alone.
This logic is, however, a straw-man argument. The ecological conversion called for by the bishops is not like the conversion to God; it has nothing to do with worshiping the earth. It is about serving the earth, not in the sense of worship, but in the sense of service of neighbor. St. Paul says, “Through love be servants of one another” (Gal 5:13). Far from setting us in opposition to God, the ecological conversion is rooted in God. Chapter IV begins: “Our planet is a gift from God” (65), and the following paragraph begins: “God has given us the earth as a gift and as a task” (66). Card. Müller is correct that the goodness of nature is predicated upon God’s goodness as its creator. The synod itself says this clearly and emphatically; he therefore errs in condemning ecological conversion as though it were contrary to this. It is because we love and obey God that we must also turn in loving service toward the earth, just as we do to our neighbor. No one who loves their neighbor is ever accused of worshiping them in place of God. Quite the contrary, the Bible lays down love of neighbor as the only criterion by which we can be sure that we love God. “For the one who does not love their brother whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Perhaps we should also say that the one who does not love the earth, which is God’s gift, cannot love God.
Perhaps critics like Card. Müller wish to quibble about the use of the word conversion, but it seems appropriate when one considers the human race’s history of exploiting the earth. When a sin has been long tolerated and normalized, but then the light of divine grace shines upon it, revealing its evil, we must turn away from it. To use the ordinary language of Christian discourse, we convert. The term “ecological conversion” can be thought of in two ways here: we turn toward the earth, recognizing our previous neglect and indifference (just as we might turn toward our injured sister whom we had wronged), or, we turn toward God, recogizing our ecological sins. Perhaps the latter would be more amenable to Card. Müller. Either way, there is no hint of idolatry.
Returning to the topic of creation as God’s gift, this is common-sensical and biblical. Near the beginning, the final document says of the communities of the Amazon:
Let us recognize that they have taken care of their land, their waters and their forests for thousands of years, and have managed to preserve them until today so that humanity might enjoy and benefit from the free gifts of God’s creation. (14)
It is obvious that we should take care of God’s creation because if we do not, it will become damaged and we will no longer be able to use and enjoy it. It is written on the human heart, St. Paul says, what is right and what is wrong (Rom 2:16). This is our conscience. We all know, regardless of our religious upbringing, that murder, adultery, and stealing are wrong. If we do these things, our conscience convicts us inwardly (unless we have killed our conscience through repeated sin and self-justification). In the same way, when people litter, dump harmful pollutants into the water, strip-mine, or otherwise devastate nature for their own profit, they know that they sin. They destroy God’s gift for their own pleasure. This is why the synod says that Catholic catechesis should explicitly speak of “ecological sins” (82), and Pope Francis has already stated the universal catechism will be amended to add this important theme (“Pope Francis: Catechism will be updated to define ecological sins“). This is part of the ecological conversion, as the Church, whose understanding of God’s revelation develops over time (Dei Verbum 8), comes to realize that it has not done enough to combat this particular form of evil.
Those Christians who continue to speak against ecology run the unhappy risk of cooperation in sin. Every time Pope Francis has denounced ecological sin, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the mistreatment of migrants and refugees, or use of the death penalty, there is a legion of Catholics (including even some bishops and cardinals) who either criticize or try to “explain” him, by which they simply explain him away. These folks give me the impression of wanting to defend evils, which is . . . not a good look for followers of the Lord Jesus.
The social dimension
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” (Matt 25:45)
I have already proved, from the final document of the synod, that God’s people must take care of God’s gift, which is the earth. If we do not, we will not be able to use and enjoy it. Or perhaps we will enjoy it too much, luxuriating in our own pleasure and decadence, but our children and grandchildren will not. But there is an additional reason to care for creation.
The second dimension of integral ecology (and this is why it is called “integral”) is the human race itself, especially the poor. We depend upon the earth for our very survival. It produces our food, we drink its water, we live on its land, and we breathe its air. All four of these are threatened by our ecological sins. Climate change can affect agriculture and extreme weather events like hurricanes. Pollution can contaminate our drinking water, the ground in which our food grows, and even the air we breathe. In addition, rising global temperatures are significantly increasing the rate at which polar ice is melting. This causes the sea level to rise, which in turns causes coastal flooding. The sea has already risen 8 inches over the last century, and five million people in this country alone live less than four feet above sea level (source). Around the world, hundreds of millions of people could be at risk. Those who are most at risk are the poor, who cannot easily relocate. If left unchecked, climate change may lead to millions of “climate refugees.” Given that we already live in a world with a massive amount of refugees due to war, violence, and poverty, one can only shudder in horror at the prospect of radicalizing the problem due to flooding.
The synod speaks about this reality several times, such as when it defines the term “integral ecology”:
Ecology and social justice are intrinsically united (cf. Laudato Si’ 137). With integral ecology a new paradigm of justice emerges, since “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’ 49). Integral ecology thus connects the exercise of care for nature with the exercise of justice for the most impoverished and disadvantaged on earth, who are God’s preferred choice in revealed history. (65)
When the Catholic Church cares for the earth, we do not do it because we are “tree-huggers” or nature worshipers. Yes, we want to preserve God’s gift, but even more importantly we want to protect our fellow human beings (and ourselves!) who may be hurt by ecological sins. We must protect our land, natural habitats, air, and water.
The beginning of the document powerfully presents the specific sins the Catholic Church is called by God to confront in the region. It is worth quoting in full:
But the Amazon today is a wounded and deformed beauty, a place of suffering and violence. Attacks on nature have consequences for people’s lives. The pre-synodal consultations depicted this single socio-environmental crisis in terms of the following threats to life: appropriation and privatization of natural goods, such as water itself; legal logging concessions and illegal logging; predatory hunting and fishing; unsustainable mega-projects (hydroelectric and forest concessions, massive logging, monocultivation, highways, waterways, railways, and mining and oil projects); pollution caused by extractive industries and city garbage dumps; and, above all, climate change. These are real threats with serious social consequences: pollution-related diseases, drug trafficking, illegal armed groups, alcoholism, violence against women, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and smuggling, organ traffic, sex tourism, the loss of original culture and identity (language, customs and spiritual practices), criminalization and assassination of leaders and defenders of the territory. Behind all this are dominant economic and political interests, with the complicity of some government officials and some indigenous authorities. The victims are the most vulnerable: children, youth, women and our sister mother earth. (10)
Unfortunately, there is a dangerous lie, spread even by some Catholics, that climate change is a “hoax.” This lie serves the interests of wealthy actors who do not want to convert away from their ecological sins. Pope Francis has tried to fight this lie. We should pray for its defeat, for the enlightenment of the ignorant, and for the correction of the wayward.
People in the Amazon region have already suffered badly from powerful forces that exploit the region, harming both it and the people who live in it. The synod denounces this sin in the strongest possible terms. Thus the document continues:
It is urgent to face the unlimited exploitation of our common home and its inhabitants. One of the main causes of destruction in the Amazon is predatory extractivism that responds to the logic of greed, typical of the dominant technocratic paradigm (cf. Laudato Si’ 101). Faced with the pressing situation of the planet and the Amazon, integral ecology is not one path among many that the Church can choose for the future in this territory, it is the only possible path, because there is no other viable route for saving the region. (66)
There are many other similar passages that could be quoted as well.
In the face of all these ecological sins, the synod also proposes some specific steps for the Church to take in the battle against evil:
We may not be able to modify the destructive model of extractivist development immediately, but we do need to know and make clear where we stand, whose side we are on, what perspective we assume, how the political and ethical dimension of our word of faith and life are transmitted. For this reason: a) we denounce the violation of human rights and extractive destruction; b) we embrace and support campaigns of divestment from extractive companies responsible for the socio-ecological damage of the Amazon, starting with our own Church institutions and also in alliance with other churches; c) we call for a radical energy transition and the search for alternatives. (70)
Although the challenge is too great for the Church to solve single-handedly, Catholics can participate in three significant ways: 1) by speaking out and denouncing the forces of ecological sin, 2) by financially divesting from the companies complicit in it, and 3) by investing in efforts to find alternative sources of energy so that there is no longer a profit motive to exploit the earth for its oil. Given the enormity of the problems we face, these are actions that cannot be taken on a merely-individual level; political action is required. Religious orders, parishes, schools, dioceses, etc., need to use their institutional power to divest from bad actors, invest in “radical energy transition,” and speak out against ecological sins and crimes. I hope that, in the new decade, we will see more and more of this. Unfortunately, many of the Church’s institutional resources are currently controlled by people who, at best, are indifferent to the bigger picture because they are caught up in their own problems and structures, or, at worst, are actively on the side of the exploiters, against Pope Francis, the synod of bishops, and the people of the Amazon.
Mission, the common good, and re-creation
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Rev 21:1)
The word political is badly misunderstood nowadays, as though it meant “partisan.” (Politicians themselves are guilty of this whenever they say “This isn’t political” when they mean that it shouldn’t be partisan.) Political action is action aimed at the common good, the “body politic.” As such, it is not something separate from the Church’s mission. The accusation that the Church should “stay out of politics” was once the common coin of the left due to gay marriage and abortion (and one still hears that a lot). Increasingly, however, the right re-appropriates it to try to shut down Pope Francis’s social agenda. A Dutch bishop used this line to attack the synod while it was happening, by using the slogan “politically correct” (“Dutch bishop: Amazon Synod’s ‘politically correct’ agenda ignores Christ”). Retired Cardinal Walter Brandmüller denounced it as “secular,” and asked rhetorically: “One asks oneself: what do ecology, economy, and politics have to do with the mandate and mission of the Church?” (“German cardinal says Amazon synod is ‘heretical’, must be ‘rejected’“). (Church-watchers will recall that Card. Brandmüller was one of the four cardinals to sign the “dubia” intended to undermine Amoris Laetita.)
When I read his rhetorical question, I was appalled to see such a gross misconception of Catholic doctrine coming from a cardinal. Although it has been widely-deployed on the internet for a long time and has acquired the status of a first principle among conservative Catholics, it is wrong. I could quote from any number of social documents to disprove it, but my favorite is Vatican II’s decree on the laity Apostolicam Actuositatem. Its second chapter opens this way (quoted in full):
Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of human beings, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to human beings but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience. (5, emphasis added)
This is a profound statement, and it explodes the widespread error that the Church’s mission is just “saving souls.” We are not trying to just “save souls,” but to save people and the whole created order. Yes, of course we want to save souls, but we also want to heal bodies (think of all the Church’s hospitals!), as well as protect trees, rivers, oceans, animals, and all of God’s beautiful, wonderful gift. The whole project is the Church’s mission. It is a grave mistake to focus on one aspect of that mission and neglect the rest. Saving souls is more important than saving whales, yes, but our Lord says “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Mt 23:23 NIV).
Part of the problem is that many Christians have no notion of eschatology beyond the soul going to heaven at death. Even though we recite the line from the creed every Sunday: “and in the resurrection of the body”, my experience as a theology teacher has shown me that many Christians do not understand this or even recognize it! Our hope as Christians is not just to “go to heaven when we die” (as great as that sounds!), but to see the entire cosmos resurrected, including our bodies, so that we can live on the “new earth,” aka the kingdom of God. Using symbolic language, Scripture describes this as follows:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with human beings. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)
Although we cannot imagine what this will be like, it means that we cannot divorce “saving souls” from the bigger picture of the transformation of creation. Pope Francis says something evocative about the future re-creation at the end of Laudato Si’:
At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude. Even now we are journeying towards the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all. (243)
Our eternal destiny will not be lived in isolation of the rest of creation; it “will be a shared experience of awe” with all the creatures God made: the animals, the mountains, the land, the forests, in short, the earth. These will not be as we have known them, just as we ourselves will not be as we once were: “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when [God] appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:50). Do not even try to imagine what the new creation will be like, for it exceeds the human intellect: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). But believe that all creation, as the pope says, will be “resplendently transfigured.” Again using symbolic language, Scripture hints at this transfiguration in the way it describes Christ, who forecasted his glory to his apostles before his death: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matt 17:2). We, too, and the earth and all its creatures with it (and the whole universe!) will also “shine.”
We cannot save the world all on our own; that will happen only through divine intervention when Christ returns in glory. The Catholic Church rejects “millenarian” and “pseudo-messianic” ideologies that try to do this (see CCC 675-77). But it would also be wrong to say we cannot do anything to contribute to God’s plan. This is the opposite of the error of “quietism.” It is Catholic doctrine that we must co-operate in our own salvation; it is not merely passive (see the Council of Trent’s Declaration on Justification, especially canons IV and IX). In Greek this is called synergy. When we work to save the Amazon, or do anything that promotes the common good and the created order (like use less energy and recycle), we participate, at least in some small way, in God’s work and the Church’s mission.
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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).