“Equally worrying is the ecological question (…) At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him”
— Pope St. John Paul II
Centesimus Annus, #37
When Pope Francis announced an incoming revision of the Catechism that will include the concept of “ecological sin” (something that was foreshadowed during the Amazon Synod), papal detractors unsurprisingly reacted with criticism. Their argument usually flowed like this: Man can only sin against God and against his fellow man, not against a non-living non-human entity, like the Earth. Defining ecological sin would be, therefore, a novelty forced upon the corpus of Catholic teaching by a pope intent on abusing the concept of doctrinal development.
Of course, even papal critics can acknowledge that destroying Creation can be a sin against our neighbor. If I litter my neighbor’s yard, then I am sinning against him. Therefore, destroying our Common Home could also be construed as a sin against the whole of mankind. By devastating the same environment that nourishes and sustains all human beings, we are sinning against our brethren.
Still, we need to ask ourselves: does this exhaust the topic? Papal critics seem to think so. I am not so sure. Of course, I still have no idea (like no one else has) on what terms “ecological sin” will be defined. But I do think that, even if Pope Francis chooses to define it so as to include sins against the environment itself, it will not be an illegitimate novelty. After all, St. John Paul II’s quote above says that the earth has its “own requisites and prior God-given purpose” that man betrays by “setting himself up in the place of God.” Additionally, Benedict XVI is on record as saying:
“Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.”
— Pope Benedict XVI
Address to the Bundestag
How can we develop this concept without falling into a syncretistic view of the earth, where we set it on par with (or above) human beings or even God Himself (as some illegitimate ecological movements seem to do)?
I would like to answer this question by elaborating on another, seemingly unrelated question: what does the account of Creation in Genesis 1 mean?
The answer to this question has always fascinated me: what does Genesis 1 mean, especially in light of scientific findings about our origins? Religious fundamentalists often set aside science and believe Genesis in a literal way. Those who do so are no different from the atheists in their lack of imagination: for them, science and Genesis are irreconcilable, so they must make a choice — accept one and reject the other. The atheist and the fundamentalist disagree only in which to accept or reject.
I have always taken a more nuanced approach, just as the Church has done, especially during the last three pontificates. I know that the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are written in a different literary style than the historical books. This does not mean that they are false, or merely symbolic, but it does mean that there are elements in the narrative that need to be interpreted in the cultural context in which they were written.
What was this context? Certainly not a scientific context, totally foreign to anyone living before the seventeenth century. Jews at the time Genesis was compiled were not as concerned with explaining “how” God created the world, but rather in explaining “why” the world was created the way it was. They were not so much interested in providing a detailed and factual narrative of the past, but in making sense of the present in light of the past, whether in a historical or meta-historical way.
However, regardless of such considerations, something always struck me: why did God create vegetation on the third day, before He created the Sun and Moon on the fourth? That never made any sense to me, since plants need sunlight to thrive. This was something that even the ancients were empirically aware of. For me, this seeming inversion suggested that something was missing in how we understand the Genesis narrative. Why the holy writers structured the Creation account in such a way, unfortunately, continued to evade me for many years.
In my quest to understand this, I read a myriad of books. From orthodox Catholic sources (most notably St. Augustine’s “On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis”), to heterodox Catholic ones and even “orthodox” atheists. But none seemed to provide a plausible answer. All of them appeared to project their own biases and cultures into the Genesis account. This does not mean that it was illegitimate of them to do so. However, that makes them less helpful in my attempts to ascertain what the holy writers had in mind when they wrote Genesis the way they did.
For example, Augustine develops Genesis through the lens of a Christian context, both Christianizing it and also helping to dismantle a fundamentalist, literal reading of the book. Still, his interpretation is not imbued in the Jewish culture that produced the book. He is developing it, and legitimately so. But Augustine is as chronologically distant from the Jewish author of Genesis as we are from Thomas Aquinas.
This tension continued until I came across a book written by a Protestant scholar: The Lost World of Genesis One by Prof. John H. Walton.
Prof. Walton interprets Genesis in light of the cultural context that produced it. His breakthrough comes from his interpretation of the seventh day of Creation. On the seventh day, God “rested.” Some people might interpret this to mean that God entered a stage of inactivity that may extend even to our days. Just like the watchmaker lets the clock function after creating it, perhaps God allowed Creation and man to function on their own, intervening only in exceptional cases, or operating the handles in the shadows. Others might simply think that this is a justification for Judaism’s religious practice that defines the Sabbath as a day of rest.
This is not, according to Prof. Walton, what the Genesis authors meant by the word “rest” at all. Referring to ancient Mesopotamian culture, he shows that writers from that time and place would use the term “rest” when describing a god taking residence in his corresponding temple. “For deity, this [rest] means that normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.” He makes the analogy of a US President taking residence in the White House at the beginning of his term. It can be said that the President is now “resting” in the White House, but this does not mean inactivity, quite the contrary. Walton goes on to say:
“Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is – a place for divine rest. Perhaps even more significantly, in some texts the construction of a temple is associated with cosmic creation.”
Based on this, Prof. Walton reconstructs the Genesis account. He explains that in Ancient Middle Eastern culture, the consecration of a temple would take seven days. Israel is no exception, since Solomon consecrates the Temple of the Lord with a seven day dedication followed by a seven day feast (cf. 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chron 7:9). In other words, the Genesis account describes God creating the universe with the intention of making it a cosmic temple where He would ultimately “rest” (i.e. rule).
Walton explains that the remaining six days of Creation mirror the way a temple was consecrated. First, the priests would name the functions of each part of the temple. Next, they would nominate the functionaries that would perform those functions.
Only after knowing this, does the Genesis sequence make sense. In the first three days, God establishes the functions of the cosmic temple. In the following three days, He nominates the functionaries that will perform the corresponding functions, respecting the first sequence:
- First day: creation of day and night;
- Second day: division of the waters above and the waters below the firmament;
- Third day: creation of the dry land (including vegetation);
- Fourth day: creation of the sun and moon, the functionaries of day and night (cf. first day);
- Fifth day: creation of the birds in the sky and the fish of the seas, the functionaries of the waters above and below the firmament (cf. second day);
- Sixth day: creation of the animals and Man, the functionaries of the dry land (cf. third day);
Only after this cosmic temple had been consecrated, did God “rest” in it:
“[T]he cosmos is now not only the handiwork of God (since he was responsible for the material phase all along, whenever it took place,) but it also becomes God’s residence – the place he has chosen and prepared for his presence to rest. People have been granted the image of God and now serve him as vice regents in the world that has been made for them. Again it is instructive to invoke the analogy of the temple before and after its inauguration. After priests have been installed and God has entered, it is finally a fully functional temple”
This explanation makes sense, because it seems to consider the cultural milieu of the Genesis writer. Whether we take the traditional interpretation that Genesis was written by Moses, or the more scholarly interpretation that it was compiled throughout Israel’s history right until the Babylonian captivity, the Temple (or in Moses’ case, the Tabernacle) was an essential part of ancient Jewish culture. The Temple was central for Jewish religion, which revolved around the sacrifices performed there. It was a hub of national identity for ancient Israel, and we cannot read the Old Testament without noticing how imbued the narratives are with temple theology. We recall that Jesus said that His own body was a living temple in order to make Himself intelligible to his interlocutors (something that was later on described and “Christianized” in the Epistle to the Hebrews.)
That said, do we have any external validation of the accuracy of this interpretation? I would like to bring up this Youtube channel that provides very interesting and scholarly biblical exegetical videos. They are not Catholic, but I have not stumbled anything in their videos showing blatant incompatibility with Catholic doctrine. (I think they try to be as transversal as possible.) Either way, they seem to verify Walton’s interpretation in their video about the Temple:
What about Catholic sources? Well, a very interesting validation actually comes from a very unlikely source — Taylor Marshall. Before became a dissenter and counter-apologist, he wrote a book entitled, The Crucified Rabbi – Judaism & the Origins of Catholic Christianity. In his chapter, “Jewish Temple, Catholic Cathedral,” he discusses Temple Cosmology:
“The Old Covenant Tabernacle or Temple was a miniature version of the Garden of Eden (…) The decor of the Temple consisted of garden imagery like that found in the Garden of Eden (1 Kings 6-7) (…) Most importantly, the Temple and the Garden of Eden were the places where God dwelt in the midst of His people (Gen 3:8; Lev 26:11-12; Deut 23:14; 2 Sam 7:6-7).
Another interesting parallel is the linguistic similarity between the description of Adam’s original vocation in the Garden of Eden and the description of the vocation of the priests in the Temple. Adam is called “to work” (Hebrew: abad) and “keep” (Hebrew: shamar) the Garden of Eden. Those two Hebrew words are used to describe the work of the Levites in the Temple. The Levites kept (shemari) the tabernacle (Num 8:26) – the same word used to describe Adam’s custodial work. The priestly service of offering sacrifice is referred to as abad (Num 8:26; Josh 22:27; Is 19:21), the same Hebrew word used to describe Adam’s labor.
Judaism in particular understands that God’s creation of the universe was essentially the creation of a cosmic temple. Judaism asserts that creation is inherently good because its Creator is good. Creation was made as a place for man to worship God and have fellowship with Him.”
This corroborates both what Prof. Walton and the Bible Project have said in this regard.
In this way we can see that the most traditional understanding of the Genesis narrative is not the literal interpretation that fundamentalists wrongly consider the most ancient. In fact, the fundamentalist interpretation is quite modern, deriving from Protestant movements within the last two hundred years. The most ancient interpretations, as Augustine testifies, were not literalistic. In fact, it seems like the most traditional interpretation (since it was the interpretation of the author of the book itself) is that Creation is a cosmic temple where God dwells. Man is invited to partake in a special priesthood, by tending to this temple.
And this brings us full circle to the question that started this article: how to construe “ecological sin” beyond the scope of merely hurting our fellow men by destroying our Common Home?
It seems that papal critics have trouble understanding the notion of ecological sin, because they have a thoroughly de-sacralized view of the universe. They will often say that “stewardship of the earth” is actually quite traditional, and that they assent to this doctrine. However, when they say this, they are usually just paying lip service to this concept, before going all out in defense of ideologies and policies that actually deplete and damage the environment, twisting Catholic doctrine to fit those ideological molds. They have a purely utilitarian concept of stewardship of the earth.
Nevertheless, there are different kinds of stewardship. I would not exercise stewardship of a car in the same way I would exercise stewardship of a chapel. In the former case, I am taking care of a useful object, so that it will serve me better. In the latter, I am caring for a sacred place, demanding special reverence.
Papal critics, who are often liturgically-minded, certainly acknowledge this. They will many times rail against liturgical abuse as a blasphemy, as a sin in demands of reparation. But then the first question I asked in this article rears its ugly head. Liturgy is a non-living non-human entity, just like the earth. Can we sin by disrespecting liturgy, since sin has been conceived only as being directed against God and Man?
The answer is obvious: yes. Because by disrespecting the Mass, for instance, we are actually disrespecting God. It is a sin against God, since God’s Real Presence is worshipped in the Eucharist.
If profaning a sacred space is considered sinful, and if the whole Creation is considered a temple where God’s presence dwells, then shouldn’t it be considered sinful to defile Creation? Papal critics should examine their consciences to discern whether they would allow the exploitation and ravaging of a cathedral in the same way they often ignore the exploitation of God’s Creation.
Whenever we do not exercise adequate stewardship of God’s Creation, we are sinning not only against others, but against God. As John Paul II said in the aforementioned quote from Centesimus Annus, when Man refuses to be a co-operator with God in the work of Creation, he sets himself up as God. By taking more than what he needs in order to satisfy his greed, Man destroys parts of Creation that God crafted with special care and love. It is a part of God’s work that Man is demolishing whenever he acts this way. It is a gift from God that Man simply tramples on.
In an ultimate sense, Man also sins against himself when he does this. John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus, also mentions that Man “consumes the resources of the earth (…) in an excessive and disordered way.” Benedict XVI also, in his aforementioned speech to the Bundestag, seems to equate disrespect for the environment with a sin against the virtue of temperance.
Let us, then, not resist Pope Francis, as he legitimately develops doctrine on “ecological sin.” There is more to it than meets the eye. Perhaps it is a more traditional teaching than what we even imagined, going back three thousand years or more, to the hand of the writer of Genesis.
[Photo credit: “The Garden of Eden”, Erastus Salisbury Fields, ca. 1860]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.