By Christopher J. Thompson
The history of the ecological movement within the Catholic Church is yet to be written, but when it is, one will discover that many of the practices now espoused by the most progressive minds were, in fact, voiced in a prior era by those Catholics engaged in the issues of ecological stewardship. Buying locally sourced, sustainably raised foods from smaller scale family owned vendors was a consistent mantra of Catholic rural life for decades leading up to its now more popular expression in the broader culture. It is difficult to distinguish sometimes between the enthusiasms of the Catholic growers of the 1940s and the co-op movements present today.
Long before Aldo Leopold penned his classic Sand County Almanac in 1949 and launched the environmental movement, before Sigurd Olson wrote Listening Point in 1958, or Rachel Carson sounded the alarm in Silent Spring in 1962, there were extensive and consistent Catholic voices championing the importance of created nature and the imperative to steward it. The absence of a serious account of these efforts is a curious lacuna in Catholic cultural scholarship. Let us hope that Laudato si’ inspires a correction.
Laudato si’ is hardly the first time that the Church has been called upon to confront widely held but alien visions of material creation and the place of humanity within it. In virtually every century since the beginning of the Church, ordinary saints and extraordinary scholars have followed the impulse of Sacred Scripture and contemplated the glorious universe in praise of the God who made it. In the fourth century especially, St. Augustine met the challenge of the Manichaean heresy, a bizarre amalgam of fantastical claims about the origins of the universe and our place within it. While Manichaeism may not be described as an environmental philosophy without some charge of anachronism, it was nonetheless a comprehensive philosophy of nature and human life. Not unlike present circumstances, the Church found itself needing to offer a defense of the goodness of all creatures, human and otherwise, giving comfort to an anxious world searching amidst what they were convinced was a cosmos destined for annihilation.
The Albigensian heresy of the twelfth century (itself a prodigy of Manichaeism) was still another “environmental philosophy,” one that endorsed a vision of material creation as utterly corrupted and the human person as an abomination within it. Through the inspiration of St. Dominic, the Order of Preachers was founded in part to confront these concerns. The most famous of its members, Thomas Aquinas, joined the order in April of 1244 and committed his life to an intense study of the Christian faith. His unparalleled genius and personal holiness testified to his saintliness, but perhaps more importantly for today, he defended a vision of the created order that can still supply the necessary tools to address the question of the environment and our place within it.
The point of these brief remarks is to underscore that Pope Francis could draw upon the universal Church in his drafting of Laudato si’ because the foundations for a theology of creation and its implications for the care of the earth had already been laid throughout the centuries of the Church’s collective discernment. It is unfortunate that so many Catholics, especially in the United States, fail to recognize the Church’s tradition reflected in Francis’ efforts.
A few scholars have openly wondered why ecological concerns have gone largely unattended in the average American Catholic’s experience despite the once-successful efforts in the Church’s systemic social engagement, especially in the arena of agriculture. Christopher Hamlin and John T. McGreevy, in “The Greening of America, Catholic Style, 1930–1950,” chronicle the rise and fall of the “green revolution” advocated by the Church in America. They are among the few in contemporary Catholic intellectual circles who seemed to have noticed that there was, in fact, a robust effort on the part of many to bring Catholic intellectual tradition, specifically the social tradition, to bear upon the circumstances of Catholic agrarian life.
This green revolution “Catholic style” was rooted in the philosophy of creation, what Hamlin and McGreevy call “cosmology,” of St. Thomas Aquinas. In other words, the Church was enabled to address critical issues of ecological practices because the Church was invested, deeply invested through the centuries, in a dominant philosophy of creation, of creatures and their habitats, including the human person, who participates in that same cosmic order.
The demise of any social traction regarding the Church and ecology, then, was due in large part to the collapse of the philosophical foundations regarding creation and creatures upon which that social agenda depended—and still depends to this day, up to and including the historic pronouncement of Laudato si’. That foundation (it cannot be emphasized enough) was established, maintained, and developed along Thomistic categories, and it was this intellectual tradition that sustained the conversations through most of the modern period. Recovering that Thomistic nomenclature—its philosophical, ethical, and theological vision of creation—will be the first and crucial step in developing a coherent spiritual set of practices and an ecologically converted life that gives witness to integral ecology today.
A Green Thomism needs to be fostered throughout Catholic intellectual and socially-minded communities. For not only would a renewed and robust vision of the created order animate our engagement with the newest ecological concerns, but it would also extend the reach of our intellectual tradition beyond the horizon of punditry and pronouncements. Absent a coherent, philosophically integrated worldview of creation and its creatures, even the best moments of magisterial instruction simply dissipate into the rhetoric of the times. The good seed falls on poor soil because the people are unprepared to nurture and sustain what has been given them.
Inspired by St. Thomas, Green Thomists insist, among other things, that the human person is an embodied, spiritual creature dwelling in a cosmos of created natures, intelligently ordered by God and capable of being intelligibly grasped by human reason; they insist that this wisdom of creation is something prior to us, given by God and discovered through intelligence; and they insist that despite original sin, the original wisdom of the Creator still permeates creation and provides norms for its care as well as human flourishing.
Christopher J. Thompson teaches moral theology at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His books and essays focus on issues in moral theology, ecology, and Thomas Aquinas. If you’re interested in learning more about the Catholic environmental ethic, pick up a copy of his book The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism.