Scientific studies have long shown the connection between human behavior and climate change. Over 97 percent of climate scientists agree on this. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in its 2014 report: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”
The climate crisis conversation is more about intellectual arguments than about the profound spiritual and moral implications of our failure to care for God’s creation. Many years of advocacy by hardworking environmental groups have failed to produce even modest climate legislation in a dysfunctional US Congress.
In a November 2019 speech at the Vatican, Pope Francis called for adding to the Catechism “the sin against ecology, the ecological sin against the common home.” Commenting on this, Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond, director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute (LSRI) at Oxford University, said, “Defining ecological sin in this way is a natural outcome of the idea of integral ecology, that is, the ontological basis for why everything is interconnected, which is grounded in a doctrine of creation.”
Justice for the Environment
This concept of integral ecology or interconnectedness is not new. Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis of Assisi looked at life through a lens of all creation. He had a relational connection from which blossomed a perspective of deep empathy. In his poetry, when Francis talked about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, it was not just flowery language; it was a belief in the connectedness of all creation, a wholeness of being. In her book A Franciscan View of Creation, Dr. Ilia Delio, OSF, talks about the link between creation and the Incarnation: “Francis’ respect for creation was not a duty or obligation but arose out of an inner love by which creation and the source of creation were intimately united.”
St. Francis, who understood this intimate unity, was not alone. St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic and doctor of the Church, said: “The Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. This means that no creature, whether visible or invisible, lacks a spiritual life.” Her poetry describes how God is in all things, and all things are in God. Centuries before we discovered that the Earth and the universe are not a static creation, Hildegard understood the universe and Earth as one evolving being connected to all.
St. Bonaventure, a 13th-century Franciscan, described the created universe as the “fountain fullness of God’s expressed being.” In other words, as God is expressed in creation, creation in turn expresses the creator. Also in the 13th century, Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart said, “Every creature is a word of God and a book about God.”
Returning to the Garden
Even though we have become aware through science that some of our sacred stories cannot be taken literally, it doesn’t make their spiritual message less relevant. We should not think about the creation story as a static event, where two people disobeyed God by eating an apple. Instead, we should apply the creation story to our current reality, where we as a people choose to separate ourselves from the creator by consciously leaving the Garden.
Perhaps instead of thinking of the story as a single event that happened thousands of years ago, for which God has continuously punished us, contemplate this theory: We are in a continuum where every day each of us—individuals and society as a whole—makes a conscious decision to leave the Garden. Maybe this is the “ecological sin” that Pope Francis talks about. In 2014, speaking in Latin America, the pope said, “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.”
We are waiting for Jesus to come again and open the Garden. Yet, in Matthew 28:20, Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always.” The question we should be asking is not when will Jesus return, but when will we return to the Garden?
This year marks the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si.’” In it, he says that “many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.” Francis is talking about a change of both attitude and action. We need to stop living in a world where we are all separate and come together in a world of interbeing, a world where we are part of God’s creation, not separate from creation.
It's Time for Action
Our everyday choices may seem simplistic or even irrelevant. But St. Bonaventure tells us that how we choose and what we choose make a difference—first, in what we become by our choices, and second, in what the world becomes by our choices.
Faith organizations such as Franciscan Action Network, Greenfaith, and others have jointly created a project called “Living the Change: Faithful Choices for a Flourishing World” (LivingtheChange.net). The project is based on the concept that Earth is sacred, and that each of us individually and all of us collectively are responsible for our sacred Earth. Every choice we make—whether it’s what we eat, the energy we use, how we travel, or any other choices—should be made as if we have come home to the Garden.
As Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Simple changes such as eating a more plant-based diet, choosing renewable energy over fossil fuels, and walking or riding a bike instead of using a car can make a difference. This is even more effective if we make these changes a vital part of our spiritual practice.
If we are prayerful and intentional in our actions—understanding, as St. Hildegard taught us, that “God is life; God lives in all created things”—then we will be taking a step toward returning to the Garden.