By Father Bud Grant
What makes environmental theology distinctly Catholic? I have an idea, but lest this question be construed as elitist, we should acknowledge a couple of antecedent points.
First, Christianity in general and Catholicism specifically have not enjoyed an unblemished environmental reputation, despite our common biblical heritage and our particular tradition embodied by the green papacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Other faith traditions, among whom certain branches of Buddhism and Hinduism are preeminent, have no need to be defensive about collusion or collaboration in the dismantlement of God’s Creation. That dismantlement was wrought by, and we must admit this, a predominantly Western industrialism informed by a Christian worldview.
Secondly, most of what we have heard from environmental theologians in the Catholic tradition is very much in line with what we hear from other mainstream Christians; indeed, green theology is remarkably ecumenical. The key themes are stewardship and, well, come to think of it, that is about it. Of course, this is not a bad thing. The principle is sound, if also confusingly polyvalent, and provides a platform for interfaith collaboration. Indeed, this is such an obviously good thing that scratching out a uniquely Catholic approach might be not only elitist, but fragmenting.
An important admonition, that.
So: any uniquely Catholic perspective must not undercut broader consensus. Rather than judging others as lacking, we can discover a great power within our Catholic faith. We can do this. We ought to do this. Profound ecological change is happening and Catholicism must respond from our unique self-identity. Note this: 18 of the last 20 years are the warmest ever recorded, this year being the warmest (yep, already). That means that today’s college students have grown up in a world already shaped by global warming. We have already entered the epoch of the environment. What can they tap into for help in navigating this grave new world?
In a word: the Eucharist.
On one level, this is obvious: what is more essential to our Catholic consciousness? It is worth noting, however, that in a study by Georgetown University, one-quarter of Catholics do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and only 55 percent know this is a teaching of our faith. But what makes the consecration of bread and wine a green era sacrament?
The bread and wine represent the most basic forms of material sustenance in the ancient world (wine was quite common, even among the poor, because it was plentiful and because it was more healthy to drink a wine/water mix than straight water). These elements, being “what God has given and human hands have made,” are proxies for all of God’s cosmos, created by God and shaped by us. In the Eucharist these most simple material substances become the very presence of Christ on earth — simple matter transformed into the Body of Christ.
When I participate with the Catholic community in the consecration, I am overwhelmed by the mystery that unfolds, tangibly — almost visibly — before me. I am stunned to dumbness by the unimaginable truth of the holiness of the act, the words, the “stuff” of the Eucharist. I am convinced beyond reason that the Eucharist is the only bastion against meaninglessness in our world. Because that host and that cup are rendered holy, all that exists is made holy. If they are not, nothing could be. This is a deeply personal experience, I admit, and I am not a sacramental theologian, but I know that in the broken bread and poured out wine…
the whole universe,
with every single part of that whole…
reflects the divine goodness…
to the glory of God.
— Thomas Aquinas ST I.65.2
Rendered holy, made sacred, it is the flesh and blood — that by which the divine inter-penetrates matter. Because of that, to quote Peter Meyer, an inspired Catholic musician from St. Paul, Minn., “everything, everything, everything is holy now.”
Let us give thanks.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)