--by Fr. Larry Bernard OFM

In times past perhaps a typical thought about the environment was "Let me get out of the earth whatever I can and let nature take care of whatever I leave behind." For various reasons there was little focus on the care of creation. Toxic waste was thought to be absorbed into the earth with no real damage to anyone or anything that mattered to corporations or to their owners. Guided by their nature to grow and make profit and protected by the concept of limited liability corporations had little motivation to respect seriously and constantly the interconnectedness of all parts of the ecosystem. Nor was it as clear in the past as it is now, how powerful are the effects of toxic waste on the air, water and land. A common point of view even among Christians was simply that the earth was there for our use, since we had "dominion over the earth" (Gen. 1:21).

In his article "Christology-Cosmology" in Spirit and Life, Vol. 7, 1997, The Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY 14778, Zachary Hayes OFM briefly sums up the effects of certain systems of thought in the Christian era that unwittingly discouraged a focus on the necessity to care for the earth or to consider her as "mother" of life. First, Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought influenced Christianity with its emphasis "on the realm of ideal forms as more important than material reality". Then, Western Enlightenment thought fostered "an anthropology that understood humanity as essentially above and independent of nature". Then Newton's understanding of physics promoted a mathematical mechanical view of the world as operating on "immutable laws putting the human spirit as foreign to the cosmos and with no need of a God except as the creator who sets it up in the beginning" (C-C, page 46-47). With these modern philosophical understandings of reality , the sense of a loving God manifesting his goodness, wisdom, beauty and mystery in his astounding variety of Creation was being put into the shadows, if not quite rudely being ignored. The result was a lack of appreciation and desire to preserve and enhance the beauty of the earth

Pope John Paul II in his powerful message "The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility", World Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 1990, spoke of this lack of proper care for the environment as an effect of sin going back to the beginning. "Made in the image and likeness of God, Adam and Eve were to have exercised their dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28) with wisdom and love. Instead, they destroyed the existing harmony by deliberately going against the Creator's plan, that is, by choosing to sin. This resulted not only in man's alienation from himself, in death and fratricide, but also in the earth's 'rebellion' against him (cf. Gen. 3:17-19; 4:12). All of creation became subject to futility, waiting in a mysterious way to be set free and to obtain a glorious liberty together with all the children of God" (cf. Rom. 8: 20-21). (EC, #3)

The Pope continues: "When man turns his back on the Creator's plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order. If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace; 'Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away' (Hosea 4:3).

The Pope then adds that"the profound sense that the earth is 'suffering' is also shared by those who do not profess our faith in God. Indeed, the increasing devastation of the world of nature is apparent to all." (EC, #5)

If we consider our Christian and Franciscan tradition in the light of the more recent scientific understanding of the universe we may be able to promote a "paradigm shift" or a view of the "cosmos" as remarkably "fine-tuned to bring forth intelligent life". As Zachary Hays says in describing the universe "Simply put, this immense, dynamic, organic, chemical process that today's science describes is, from a Christian perspective, the home in which a loving Creator has placed us, and it is the object of God's Creative and salvific love" (C-C, page 47). If we look at the world in this light, there will be "practical implications for an environmental ethics" (C-C, page 48)

The Franciscan tradition has always shown the intimate relation between creation and incarnation. Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Matthew of Aquasparta, William of Ware and John Duns Scotus "were all convinced in one way or another that what happened between the world and God in the mystery of Christ could not have been an afterthought on God's part" (C-C, page 49).

Hayes continues, "the Christ-mystery must be thought of in terms of the fundamental aim of God in creating the cosmos. We might say that, for this tradition, the mystery of Christ pertains to the very nature of the cosmos as God intended it" (C-C, page 48).

The great scholar, Alan Wolter OFM, puts it this way: "from a negative perspective Duns Scotus rejects the idea that the redemption of the human race is the fundamental reason for the coming of Christ. From a positive perspective, Duns Scotus holds that what God first intended in creating was the mystery of Christ as king and center of the universe" (C-C, page 48).

Karl Rahner appeals to this part of Scotistic thinking by saying that "what God intends first in creating is the reality of Christ. That Christ might be possible, there must be a human race. That the human race might be possible, there must be a world in which human beings can live" (page 49). For Bonaventure "the mystery of Christ was the key to the meaning both of the human race and of the entire cosmos" (C-C, page 49).

In analyzing Bonaventure's powerful commentary on the Prologue of St. John's Gospel Hayes says, "one must conclude that the cosmos itself is the first and primal revelation of God through the divine Word. But the same Word is the principle through which God enlightens all who come into the world.... That is, the God who creates is the God who saves. And the object of salvation is the world that God creates. Clearly for Bonaventure, the salvation of the cosmos is mediated through the salvation of humanity. ...1) humanity plays a distinct role in the salvation of the world and 2) salvation is larger than humanity alone.".... This might incline us to think of salvation as the process by which God brings to completion (=salvation) the world which God creates. With that in mind, we will be more inclined to develop an understanding of salvation that embraces nature as well as human beings." (C-C, page 51)

Pope John Paul II reflects this line of thinking when he writes "Christians believe that the Death and Resurrection of Christ accomplished the work of reconciling humanity to the Father, who 'was pleased ... through (Christ) to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross' (Col. 1:19-20). Creation was thus made new (cf. Rev. 21:5). Once subjected to the bondage of sin and decay (cf. Rom. 8:21), it has now received new life while 'we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells' (2 Pt 3:13). Thus, the Father 'has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery ... which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, all things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:9-10)" (EC #4)

In harmony with the Scriptures mentioned, the Franciscan tradition emphasizes that "First, Christ in his destiny with God embodies the final destiny of the human race, and ultimately of the created order as a whole. Second, Christ, in his historical life and ministry, embodies the way to that destiny. ... In biblical terms as well as in medieval terms, what happens in Jesus is the anticipation of the future of humanity and of the cosmos. We do not look forward to the annihilation of creation, but to its radical transformation through the power of God's life-giving, fulfilling Spirit" (C-C, page 52).

"The biblical tradition has long been convinced that the destiny of humanity is intertwined with that of the cosmos. ... In the Franciscan tradition ... humanity is that point at which the created order finds a personal consciousness and a personal voice with which to give conscious praise to God. This is important in defining the way in which humanity is 'above' the rest of creation, as well as the way in which creation best 'serves' humanity. In Bonaventure's words, the entire cosmos serves humanity principally by leading human beings to a conscious love for and praise of the Creator. This is along way from a relation of human domination and control over nature. (C-C, page 52-53)"

In this Christian tradition Hayes continues, "the cosmos is a symbol system in which something of the mystery of the divine is communicated to those capable of reading the symbols. To recognize the sacredness of the cosmos in this way is different from the tendency among many religious environmentalists to replace the reality of God with the earth itself, or with some form of totally immanent principle. This sense of the sacramental is radicalized in the Christian perception of Christ. The human reality of Jesus is the most focused statement of what God is about with the world more generally. Jesus is the preeminent instance of the sacramentality of the cosmos.

"This sacramental sense of the whole of creation is brought to its completion in the understanding of the resurrection of Christ. For this mystery is but the anticipation in the individual Jesus of what God intends for all of humanity and, through humanity, for the cosmos. It is from this basis that Christians come to believe that the created cosmos is destined not for annihilation, but for a fulfillment brought about by the final, life-giving relation between God and creation" (C-C, page 54-55).

In our journey toward this final fulfillment as Christians and as Franciscans we experience ourselves as "pilgrims and strangers" but now we know this "need not be seen as the homelessness of humanity yearning to escape this world for a more permanent world. It may well be seen as the homelessness of the world itself, which has not yet arrived at its God-intended fulfillment.... What that fulfillment might look like we discover by reflecting on the mystery of the resurrection of Christ.

"The spiritual journey of humanity, then, is not a journey out of this world. It is rather a spiritual journey that is deeply embedded in the journey of the cosmos itself. The universe is not at home until it comes to its end with and in God. Hence, the issue of spirituality is not to get out of the world, but to align oneself with the journey of the universe into God in the light of the ethics Jesus has made known to us as the appropriate way of relating to the world and to God.

"If this is true, it means that human agency is involved in bringing the divine aim for creation to effective realization. ... This is a way of saying that a respect and healthy concern for the world of nature should not be allowed to be turned into a passing fad" (C-C, page 56-57).

Pope John Paul II seems to build solidly and urgently on this Christian and Franciscan tradition when he concludes his message on the Ecological Crisis saying "the commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God (cf. Ps 148: 96).

"In 1979, I proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi as the heavenly Patron of those who promote ecology (cf. Apostolic Letter Inter Sanctos: AAS 71 [1979], 1509f.). He offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation. As a friend of the poor who was loved by God's creatures, St. Francis invited all of creation-animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon-to give honor and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.

It is my hope that the inspiration of St. Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of caring, of stewardship, indeed of 'fraternity' with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created" (EC, #16).