Cardinal Raymond Burke, the titular head of the online resistance to Pope Francis, has given an interview about Querida Amazonia. It contains several eyebrow-raising lines, but what really stands out is his denial of Christ’s presence in creation. His eminence is perturbed by this statement:

Christ is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind, as the Lord who reigns in creation without ever losing his transfigured wounds, while in the Eucharist he takes up the elements of this world and confers on all things the meaning of the paschal gift. (QA 74)

This, in his estimation, is “animism” and “paganism.” Animism is a term coined by scholars to refer to the common belief held by many people around the world (it’s not a particular religion) that everything, even things Westerners call “inanimate,” is imbued with spirit (animus being a Latin word for spirit). Burke interprets Francis’s words, as well as the synod’s Final Document, to mean that Christians should worship rivers, trees, fish, etc. This is a widespread right-wing talking point against the synod. (I have already written a little about this when rebutting criticism of the term “ecological conversion.”) Neither the synod of bishops nor the Bishop of Rome has suggested Christians start worshiping creatures instead of the Creator! Christians, regardless of ideology or denomination, worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone—one God in three divine Persons. (We’ll leave aside for now the question of the cult of the saints!)

In a previous post, Brian Killian took Burke to task for this. He noted that the question of God’s presence in creation is a “complicated matter that requires an understanding of the context and historical background, as well as precision in determining intentions and meaning.” I would like to offer a beginning into this matter.

Querida Amazonia says Christ is present in his creation, both in animals (which have “spirit,” i.e., life) and in things like wind and rivers (which do not). His presence within creation is “mysterious,” which means that it is invisible and incomprehensible. We cannot see or touch Christ in a fish in the way that his disciples touched and saw him. Nor can we analyze scientifically how he is present in a rock. A molecular analysis will not reveal the divine presence, but it is there, in mystery.

Though hidden, it is glorious. Why? Because Christ rose from the dead, gloriously triumphant. Now he reigns everywhere in every thing. “He reigns in creation.” Where did rocks, rivers, trees, and fish come from? From the hand of the Creator. When we contemplate created things in the light of faith, far from taking us away from God, they draw us to him; they reveal his hidden presence to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20 RSV). If the Father is present in creation, then so, too, is Christ, since they, with the Spirit, are inseparable. St. Paul says: “In him all things were created. . . All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17 RSV).

His eminence urges Catholics to hold on to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (presumably excluding the recent revision regarding the death penalty, which he rejects). Well, let’s read it:

Because he is the free and sovereign Creator, the first cause of all that exists, God is present to his creatures’ inmost being: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In the words of St. Augustine, God is “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self” (Confessions 3,6,11). (CCC 300)

This short paragraph is the entirety of the section called “God transcends creation and is present to it.” Its brevity speaks to the fact that it is an underdeveloped and “controversial” part of Catholic teaching. I hope that when the Catechism is revised again to incorporate this synod, as Francis has said it will be, he will expand it.

But the Catechism does go on in the next section to speak of how God’s beauty and goodness are mirrored in creation:

Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.

God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.

The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will. (CCC 339-41)

Although human beings enjoy a unique relationship to the Creator in that we alone were made in God’s own image (Gen 1:25-26), God is in fact present in all his creatures, even the “cedar and the little flower.” How does this work?

St. Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, divides the relation of creation to God into three categories: first, all creation; second, all rational beings (human beings and angels); and third, the righteous. In all beings, “however little,” there is what Bonaventure calls a “trace” of God, because they have God as their principle (origin) (Breviloqium 2,12,2). Rational beings, like us, in addition to having God as our principle, also have God as our end, and can “grasp God through knowledge and love” (ibid.). Therefore, Scripture says we are God’s “image” (ibid. 2,12,3). Lastly, the greatest connection to God is in the righteous, because they possess the Holy Spirit. These are therefore said to be God’s “likeness” (ibid.). In distinguishing between “image” (possessed by all human beings) and “likeness” (which only the righteous have), Bonaventure follows a tradition of interpretation stretching back to St. Irenaeus in the second century. The idea is that human beings by sinning lose their likeness to God (but not the image), since God is all good (1 John 1:5). Insofar as we sin, we are not like God. Through redemption we are restored to the divine likeness and become like God again (cf. 1 John 3:2).

The paragraphs in the Catechism about creation blow apart the claim that Pope Francis, with all his talk about protecting the environment, deviates from Catholic doctrine. The doctrine has always been there; it just has been neglected. Many Catholics have reacted to things Pope Francis has said by saying, “Well, I never heard that before,” or “That’s not what I was taught!” They think he has invented strange new doctrines. No, he has revealed the grave deficiencies many Catholics have in their awareness of the full gamut of the Catholic faith. Francis has brought them to the forefront. Now if only more people would listen.

Image:  John Briody, via Flickr Creative Commons. License: Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0). Link: https://flic.kr/p/KByxaP

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Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies 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).

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