There is a long history of ecological spirituality within Catholicism. The first major figure was St. Francis of Assisi, who talked to the birds and communed with nature. With the rise of the environmental movement in recent decades, ecological concerns have been voiced by many Catholics. Thinkers such as Rosemary Reuther and Thomas Berry have worked to integrate these concerns into Catholic doctrine. Official church statements have now begun to emphasize the profound bond between humans and nature.
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis (1182 to 1226) saw the intimate connections between humans and the natural world long before there was an environmental movement. Stories of his life reveal that, when he was not busy with the affairs of the Franciscans, the religious order he founded, the Italian friar preached to birds and tamed a marauding wolf. Francis also wrote a poem, the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” praising God for all of nature. The poem refers to “Sister Moon and the Stars,” “Brothers Wind and Air,” and “Sister Water.”
Environmentalism and Eco-feminism
The environmental movement that started in the 1960s prompted Catholics to begin thinking about ecology in a new way. Catholic environmentalists started questioning traditional church teachings about the relationship between humans and the natural world. Some criticized the concept of human “stewardship” over nature, saying that this led to environmental abuses. Others, such as the theologian Rosemary Reuther, linked ecological concerns to feminist concerns and came up with a new cause, “eco-feminism.” Eco-feminism criticizes traditional male power structures, claiming that they do damage to both women and nature.
A key figure in contemporary ecological spirituality is the American Catholic priest Thomas Berry. In his books, including “The Dream of the Earth” (1988), Berry describes the profound interdependency between humans and the natural world. Also, he emphasizes the intrinsic value of each and every organism on the earth -– including all the animals and plants. In a famous quote, he describes the universe as “a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
Official Church Position
Official Catholic Church statements (from popes and other Vatican sources) have lagged behind the pronouncements of those theologians -– such as Berry and Reuther –- who have wholeheartedly embraced ecological spirituality. However, in the past 20 years the church has shown increased awareness of the fragility of the earth’s ecology. Statements such as Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), have emphasized the importance of living in harmony with nature. While the church still considers humans as having special dignity, its teachings now demonstrate a greater appreciation of the natural world.
- Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images