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  • Beholding the LogosThe Church, the Environment, and the Meaning of Man
  • Christopher J. Thompson (bio)

When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers,  the moon and the stars which you set in place—  What is man that you should be mindful of him,or the son of man that you should care for him?

(Ps 8:4)


To behold the heavens and gaze upon the infinite expanse of a star-studded sky, indeed to ponder any vista of creation's splendor is to be drawn not merely into the mystery of creation, the intricacies of cause and effect; rather, to ponder the mystery of things is to be inevitably drawn into the meaning of the human person. The splendor of being thrusts us back upon ourselves and calls us to question the meaning of our own existence.1

Does our Catholic intellectual tradition help us navigate such questions? Is there a distinctive Catholic voice crying in the wilderness?

If we are to live up to the claim made by Pope Paul VI in Populorum progressio and echoed again by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis splendor in which they speak of the Church as "an expert in humanity," [End Page 33] we cannot be indifferent to these fundamental issues.2 Ever ancient, ever new, the Church enters again into that perennial contemplation of creation and creature; it is an ancient exercise now framed in the more contemporary language of "environment," "stewardship," and "care of the earth."

Without diminishing the necessary contributions of scientists, economists, philosophers, and theologians of other traditions, I propose that Catholicism, with its comprehensive theological anthropology and vision of the created order, is especially prepared to illuminate some of the most fundamental aspects of this complex problem. In contrast to those who have suggested that Christianity itself is the source of our environmental problems, I propose that the Church is our principal hope for renewing the face of the earth. All those who are concerned about the issues surrounding the care of the environment should recognize in the tradition of our common faith not the cause of the problem, but the hope for a way forward.

This bold claim has to overcome the inertia in the minds of those who see the Church, perhaps Christianity more generally, as the source of many of our environmental problems.

Christians and Creation

In a famous essay published in 1967 titled "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis," Professor Lynn White Jr. traces the roots of the current problem to that era in Western Christianity (around A.D. 1000) when a shift in the character of theological reflection upon the created order emerges—away from what might be considered a more contemplative and iconic appreciation, toward a greater emphasis on the analysis of the order of causality and the nature of the divine rationality at work.3 From this point on, White suggests, there emerged an increasing identification between knowing the world (scientia) and technically manipulating the world (techne), between the most reliable knowledge of the order of things and our [End Page 34] technological domination of things, with techne usurping the more contemplative, speculative character of a traditional scientia. Clearly, the transition didn't happen overnight, but by the time of the eighteenth century, the positing of the existence of God became increasingly unnecessary in constructing an understanding of the created order. Nature no longer disclosed the creative power of a personal God as much as a faceless system of a mechanistic order of causes.

White's thesis that the origins of our ecological crisis have their roots in Christianity has been frequently repeated in one form or another ever since, as others have suggested that religion, especially Western Christianity, is responsible for many of the environmental challenges we are now facing.

Roderick Nash, in his well-known work titled Wilderness and the American Mind, takes up this thesis about the Christian roots of our ecological distress, citing White's essay specifically.4 Nash traces the history of the efforts in the United States to preserve wilderness areas, giving special attention to the historic accomplishment achieved by the U. S. Congress: the Wilderness Preservation Act, signed...


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pp. 33-52
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