Year of Mercy: Care for Creation
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
In my last column I suggested that a key to understanding mercy is the call to never abandon. Not abandoning also means to be in relationship, including a relationship with the created world.
The environment, however, is not a person. How can we be in relationship with something that is not a person?
The key to understanding this challenge is to recognize that God the Father blessed us with this world and that he wants us to live within it according to his will. In Laudato si, Pope Francis states that Genesis teaches that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” (No. 66.) Sin disrupted these relationships. To walk right with the Lord, to walk in mercy, means to walk again in relationship with all three.
The importance of including creation in this triad of relationships should be apparent. God made us with physical bodies in a physical world. At this very moment you are touching the physical world. Christ became incarnate and lived in this same physical world, breathed the same air, ate the same fruits of the same earth, and walked on the same ground. By his life we learn that our bodies and the material world in which they roam are not just valuable, but also that they are part of God’s will for us. We were made for this creation and it for us. He means for us to be in right relationship with the environment.
Care for creation, therefore, is not just care for creation itself. Care for the human person is central to our care for creation and flows from our acceptance of the Father’s plan. Pope Francis explains that because of this relationship “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (No. 49, emphasis is Pope Francis’.) It also means that the “human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. . .” (No. 48.)
Contrary to portrayals in the news and social media, Pope Francis is not just talking about specific environmental problems, though he has done a little of that. Building upon what already is Christian teaching on creation, Laudato si consists mostly of a call to live with respect to the environment as a Christian. In other words, in right relationship with God.
The rupture which began in Genesis has become so great that it threatens the earth on a global scale and especially the poor of the world. Perhaps more damaging, however, is that it has become so engrained that we do not see the broken relationship in our daily lives, especially our public life.
Our relationships with God, others, and the environment should be an integral, not secondary, part of our economic and public life. Environmental concerns should not viewed as just limits on what we can do.
This is especially true with agriculture. John Cuddeback, a professor at Christendom College puts it this way: “Stewardship issues are not something that place an exterior limit on agriculture, as though we were to say: ‘Do your farming, but remember to be careful and don’t damage the earth too much.’ Rather, true farming is intrinsically environmental and stewardship minded.”
Nor would it be right to say: “I’ve followed all the laws and I’m just doing what I need to do to make a profit” or “we have to do it this way to compete.”
Here is where care for creation and relationship with others relates to mercy. Remember: mercy is about going beyond what required. Certainly, laws should protect people and the environment from practices harmful or detrimental to both natural resources and the common good. The political and legal system, however, often falls short. Mercy calls us to always include the common good and the environmental good, even if doing so is not required by the law and even if it means that others will have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
In its testimony against legislation to weaken the state’s anti-corporate farming law — legislation being put to the voters in June — the North Dakota Catholic Conference noted that Pope Francis has called the relationship a farmer has with the land as like the relationship that exists with in a family.
The same principle applies to all economic and social activity. As human persons we are called to be in relationship with God, others, and creation in all that we do. As agents of mercy, we are called to go beyond what is required, just as we do for family.