Fundamental Values: Reverence for the Environment

By Robert Gronski on May 17, 2013

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(Part 4 of Series on Fundamental Values)

During my time at Catholic Rural Life (2000 to present), I had the opportunity to learn about Church perspectives on the natural environment. Although my primary responsibility was to advocate on behalf of sustainable agriculture and local food concerns, I was intrigued to see what the Church had to say about our relationship as people to nature. Or to say it another way, our relationship as reflexive creatures to Creation.

We are often reminded that we are made in the image of God, and that God has given us dominion over the creatures of the earth. Genesis makes clear this includes dominion over all the seeds, fruit-bearing trees and green plants for food; we go on to infer that this must mean dominion over all the earth!

Of course, God also tells us to be fertile and “subdue the earth”. Some of this gets reiterated to Noah after the flood, although it is interesting to wonder what God meant by declaring his “covenant between me and you and every living creature with you” as we continue our existence on earth.

So beyond dominion and subduing the earth, I’m thinking we should take to heart this greater idea of covenant between God and “all mortal creatures”. This seems to fit well with the word of God telling us to “till and keep” the earth, which implies a caretaker role rather than one purely of dominion and subjection. God entrusts us as human beings, generation after generation, to harvest the fruits of the earth, yes, but to take care of the earth, too, and live in harmony with it and share its wealth with all people.

Human beings as earth’s stewards

In the words of Bishop George Speltz, who I have been evoking in this series on fundamental values in Catholic rural life: “Human beings are the earth’s stewards, not its master who dominion is limited only by the limits of technology.”

He is talking about industrial large-scale agriculture as much as anything, and his concern is that we are making an assault on creation — the earth itself appears to be a treasure in peril. Besides the land, there are the waterways under assault, both surface and ground waters. Throw in our thirst for fossil fuels and other energy sources, and the earth feels hard-pressed on the land, sea and skies!

Bishop Speltz argues that we must be more than “technocrats” guided only by materialistic or economic considerations. There are religious values in our make-up as human beings, and these should guide us as well in our relationship with nature.

In the words of Pope John Paul II: “The dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to use or misuse, or to dispose of things as one pleases … When it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n.34)

Referring back again to the story of Noah, we can say that God will not destroy all mortal creatures again by cataclysmic flood waters, but we must not forget that we still are called to show reverence to God. A good part of that is to care for one another, and we can only do so by caring for the earth – by respecting its intricate life systems and acting more like stewards than subduers.

Reclaiming a theology of the land

Bishop Speltz knew his way around the farmlands of Minnesota, and he would preach that industrial agriculture does violence to land, water and air. He called intensive operations “short-sighted, … irreverent and irresponsible.” He wanted us to see that our relationship to the earth will depend upon our theology of the land. At the same time, he made clear that our reverence for the earth should not lead us into a deification of nature at the expense of God’s transcendence.

Here is where we can see again that our relationship to the earth and all its creatures is beautifully expressed by the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In his hymns and prayers, Francis greeted the sun and moon, earth and air, fire and water, all animals and plants as his fellow creatures under the love of God.

We wait with eager longing to hear what Pope Francis may teach us in this same regard. His words already give us hope and courage. He has touched on the social values of family, community and the earth in how we should live our lives in God’s good grace. How might this come together in a rural life producing food?

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