Is Catholicism on a slide into nature mysticism? It is a discomforting question for a Catholic to ask, but it bears scrutiny. Messianic environmentalism is about to assume the status of dogma in Pope Francis’ looming encyclical. Once discarding our incandescent light bulbs and biking to work become a religious obligation, it will be too late to ask the question.
The temptation to grand ideological transformations to reclaim an imagined pristine environment is not new. Francis is not the first pope to carry a green torch. John Paul II celebrated the 1990 World Day of Peace with this:
Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. . . . a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which . . . ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) took the cue. Six months later, they began drafting a 16-page pastoral letter proclaiming an environmental crisis and terming it a moral crisis. “Renewing the Earth” emerged from conference in 1991, demanding urgent action “to ensure the survival of a healthy planet.” A blend of bien pensant political opinion and moral fervor, its tenor calls to mind those heady leaflets issued by the October Revolution.
The New Faith requires “a new solidarity” against ecological crisis. The masses are called upon to renounce the mailed fist of development and join the heroic struggle for “the planetary common good.” (The masses to whom the bishops address themselves are those bourgeois ones, like themselves, who read Gerard Manley Hopkins. “God’s Grandeur” is quoted in full.)
When Global Warming Really Does Become ReligionIn the words of atmospheric physicist John Reid, anthropogenic global warming is “the central tenet of this new belief system in much the same way that the Resurrection is the central tenet of Christianity. . . . My skepticism about AGW arises from the fact that, as a physicist who has worked in closely related areas, I know how poor the underlying science is. In effect, the scientific method has been abandoned in this field.”
If creation and Creator are one, nature itself is sacred. Any animist could say the same.
If not economic growth, then what? Answer: “an exceptional call to conversion” that will lead Christians “to find God dwelling in created things.” Straddling the orphic and the theological, the bishops hasten to add that God also surpasses all things. But a canker has dropped on the rose. The addendum does nothing to blunt the mystical assertion that God dwells in nature. And if creation and Creator are one, nature itself is sacred. Any animist could say the same.
Does Loving Nature Fit Catholic Doctrine?There are risks to this seep of eco-spirituality into the Church. No one denies man’s role as steward of the world he inhabits. Assertions that Western man is oblivious or hostile to that role is a straw man. And all suggestion that the developed world is indifferent to the poor is a slur on centuries of effort to raise men above subsistence and the cruelties of the natural world. Nature is to be respected. But loved? Nature kills. We can love nature only to the degree of our control of it, our protection from it.
Nature is to be respected. But loved?Where do proclamations of nature love lead except into the eco-mysticism that installs a shrine to Gaia in Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine? Contemporary nature piety, couched in religious phrases, is the springboard for re-sacralizing the natural world. It reverses Christianity’s historic—and life-enhancing—de-divinization of nature. It is neo-paganism by the back door.
Francis enjoins the world to protect “God’s plan as inscribed in nature.” Lovely as that sounds, what does it mean? What is the plan, including as it must mortality and all its dreaded agents? Episcopal rhapsodies about the “beauty and richness of nature [that] raises our minds and hearts to God” are reckless indulgences in the romantic myth of a once-upon-a-time harmony between pre-industrial man and his environment—one without natural disaster, disease, disfigurement, or rapacity.
From Parishioners to ActivistsIn 1993, the USCCB followed its pastoral letter with an Environmental Justice Program. Its stated intention was to “motivate Catholics to a deeper reverence and respect for God’s creation” and to encourage them to address environmental problems. In other words, to become activists.
Benedict plastered the Paul VI Audience Hall with 1,000 solar panels and agreed to a carbon off-set scheme that, had it materialized, would have crowned the Vatican the world’s first carbon-neutral state.
Among member groups based in the United States are: Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Climate Covenant, Pax Christi International, Franciscan Action Network, Franciscan International (NY/ Geneva), Sisters of Charity of New York, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, CatholicEcology.net, Ignatian Solidarity Network, Ignatian Volunteer Corps, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, and the National Catholic Education Association. The list goes on.
Benedict XVI furthered John Paul’s endorsement of a push for eco-programs. Daniel Stone, writing in National Geographic in 2013, stated that one lasting legacy of Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope,” was how he steered the global debate over climate change and “made environmental awareness a key tenant of his tenure.” Benedict plastered the Paul VI Audience Hall with 1,000 solar panels and agreed to a carbon off-set scheme that, had it materialized, would have crowned the Vatican the world’s first carbon-neutral state.
Following papal lead, “environmental stewardship” has become a staple on the list of advocacy topics of national dioceses around the world. The USCCB designed a toolkit for missionizing Catholic college and university students on sustainability. The subject is too urgent to be left to local efforts. In “Caritas in Veritate” (2009), Benedict signaled his hope for a “world political authority.” This global political body—a Brussels on steroids—would dictate procedures governing multiple global issues, with particular attention to environmental ones.
Beware the ‘Settled Science’Now comes Francis, advised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “On climate change, there is a clear, definitive, and ineluctable ethical imperative to act.”
The science is neither clear nor definitive, and the Vatican appears to have forgotten the Lysenko affair. That was the twentieth century’s most notorious instance of the scandal—and tragedy—of politically correct science. By stacking the deck in favor of a manufactured “consensus” over the still-contested issue of man-made global warming, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences risks comparison with the ideologically driven postures of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era.
Marxism thought itself to have progressed from Utopia to science. Environmentalism makes a corresponding claim for itself. Both are scaffolds for authoritarian controls and for subordinating science to the advocacy needs of politics.
Let me leave the last word with Robert B. Laughlin, Nobel Prize-winning Stanford University physicist and former research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: “Please remain calm: The Earth will heal itself. Climate is beyond our power to control. . . . Earth doesn’t care about governments or their legislation. You can’t find much actual global warming in present-day weather observations. Climate change is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself.”
Maureen Mullarkey is an artist who writes on art and culture. Her weblog appears here on First Things' website.