Christopher Thompson is a professor of moral theology at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism (Emmaus Road Publishing) and writes frequently on the intersection between Catholic moral theology and ecological concern.
The environment? Really? It would not be an understatement to say that Cardinal Blaise Cupich’s recent interview with an NBC affiliate in Chicago did not come off as well as he might have expected. Hoping to deflect some of the acrimony surrounding the latest news he’s quoted as saying, “The pope has a bigger agenda; he’s got to get on with other things [such as] talking about the environment and protecting migrants and doing the work of the church.”
It was awkward at best and the timing brought back memories of Nixon begging the press to ignore any suggestion of systemic fraud and get “back to the people’s business.” And yes, reaching for “the environment” as a lifeline was probably the least effective strategy, especially among the more traditional Catholics who are especially irked by Francis. Nixon is reported to have said, “I would have made a good pope.” That still sounds absurd even these days.
But, in principle, the cardinal is on to something. We are not baptized into Francis, or Ted, or Joe, or whomever the favored prêtre du jour might be among the Church these days. We are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Period. Jesus: the Logos Incarnate, the one through whom all things were made.
Turning our attention to the splendor of His creation – what some often dismissively refer to as “the environment” – might just be at least a temporary antidote to the spiritual ennui that is fast consuming our energies. The computer screen is certainly no object of contemplation and the bathroom mirror doesn’t fare much better. Many are calling for a renewed effort in our prayer and worship (and rightly so), but can we blame anyone for being especially distracted these days by “that priest” occupying the sanctuary? So where can we turn for renewal?
“Consider the lilies,” he said. No. Really. Consider those lilies. And the asters, the rudbeckia, the blazing star, the thistle, the blue stem, and all of the glorious array of flora and fauna He prepares for us every day. Rest in them for a while and you may find yourself resting in Him as a result. “Be still … and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46)
It is gut-check time for most of us. We need to reboot some of the core values that animate our Catholic life. Among them is an unshakeable confidence in the loving providence of God the Creator, who has brought this glorious cosmos into being simply out of sheer generosity and love. It would be wise to refuel at this first wellspring of wonder and enchantment, to fall in love again with God who so obviously loves us.
In so many ways our theology of creation has fallen through the cracks in Catholic imaginations, a distorting habit of mind that becomes especially acute in these days of perversion, disappointment and despair. We have inadvertently succumbed to the cult of personality, of both the conservative and progressive flavors, and have now discovered what a silly spirituality that can be.
Don’t get me wrong. The appeal to creation is not some Pollyanna move. The scandals are enough to drive one to total despair and I dread that there may be a few familiar faces at the base of the proverbial guillotine. (I say, “proverbial” because Francis, in the nick of time, has declared any expectation of real guillotines “inadmissible.”)
In short, there can be no cavalier suggestion of simply moving on. But we cannot allow the victims of these horrible events to be left alone in their despair because we ourselves are not in a position to confront it in our own hearts. The agenda is bigger than this because God is bigger than this. Are we? Just maybe, by turning our attention from all of the mess and consider “the environment,” the beauty of creation will help us come to know, trust and profess the Christ, the One into whom we are baptized, the One through whom all good things come.