In Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes:
It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. . . .
Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. . . .
If everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life. “Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment”. In this sense, social ecology is necessarily institutional, and gradually extends to the whole of society, from the primary social group, the family, to the wider local, national and international communities.
As Pope Francis points out, what is true of atoms is true at all levels. Human beings in society are fundamentally relational; we are fully intelligible only in our relationships. We can see this in the way human beings define ourselves: as having a relationship to God; as parents, spouses, children, and siblings, born into the relationships of a family; as members of a particular nation or community; as members of social or ethnic groups.
The One Thing is Three
In The One Thing is Three, Father Michael Gaitley presents the fundamentally related nature of all things as the key to understanding Catholic theology. He calls this idea the “superconcept” of communio. In the book, he applies this to three major aspects of the Faith: the Trinity, our union with Christ, and the Church’s mission of communion.
We believe in a God who is himself a community, a loving relationship of persons. The relational nature of all created things stems from their common origin in the love of the Trinity. Everything flows out from this love and then flows back again in praise and thanks, in what Thomists call “The Great Circle of Being”. Irrational creatures participate in this movement simply by fulfilling their God-given natures. Human beings, however, have a higher dignity and calling, since we can give a free response to God. Through our free response, humanity fulfills its role as the “cosmic priest”, offering up material creation as a sacrifice of praise to God. Our ultimate destiny involves not only praising and worshiping God for his goodness, but participating in the divine life itself.
Our participation in the life of God comes through our unity with Christ. By his Death and Resurrection, he made us sons with him and heirs of heaven. With Christ, and through the power of his Spirit of love, we can call God “Father”. The Son deeply desires us to abide in him, united with him even as he is united with the Father. This mystical Body, in which Christ is the Head and we are the members, constitutes the Church.
Christ not only desires to unite us with him in his glory, but also to unite us with him in his mission. He entrusts to the Church part of this mission of unity here on Earth. As St. John Paul II puts it in Redemptoris missio:
The entire missionary sense of John’s Gospel is expressed in the “priestly prayer”: “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). The ultimate purpose of mission is to enable people to share in the communion which exists between the Father and the Son. The disciples are to live in unity with one another, remaining in the Father and the Son, so that the world may know and believe (cf. Jn 17:21-23). This is a very important missionary text. It makes us understand that we are missionaries above all because of what we are as a Church whose innermost life is unity in love, even before we become missionaries in word or deed.
The Fragmentation of Evil
In contrast to the unifying nature of God, evil fragments and separates. We can see this evil working in the world beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve. Original sin divided human beings from God, from one another, and from the created world. In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of how sin creates war and division even within us:
So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:21-23)
Fragmentation particularly marks our modern world. Society has collapsed into a collection of isolated individuals. Knowledge has been fragmented into specialties. Our lives lack geographic and social integrity.
A typical symptom of this fragmentation is that complex problems are reduced to technical issues to be solved by technical means. This is particularly true of our current environmental crisis. Many of the solutions being proposed to “solve” the problem are focused on merely “swapping out” polluting energy sources while keeping our economy, politics, and society unchanged.
Pope Francis, by contrast, has a deeper perspective. He sees the destruction of our environment as a symptom of human sin, and of the fragmentation that sin produces. Concrete action is necessary, of course, and there is certainly a place for technical solutions. The Vatican is launching the “Laudato Si Action Platform” this week as a guide to practically implementing the encyclical. The evil that is destroying our world, however, can only be resisted by a renewed spirituality, a spirituality of unity and love. Actions that do not stem from such renewal will ultimately fall short. That is why the Pope concludes Laudato Si with a magnificent reflection on the Trinity, the principle of unity:
The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. The world was created by the three Persons acting as a single divine principle, but each one of them performed this common work in accordance with his own personal property. Consequently, “when we contemplate with wonder the universe in all its grandeur and beauty, we must praise the whole Trinity”.
For Christians, believing in one God who is trinitarian communion suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation. Saint Bonaventure went so far as to say that human beings, before sin, were able to see how each creature “testifies that God is three”. The reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened”. The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key.
The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity. (238-240)
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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.