Embracing the wonder of life
The U.S. Catholic Church’s struggle to define “care for creation”
By Susanne Janssen
Nothing is more intimately associated with God — besides his main attribute: love — than life. Even beyond the Christian understanding, God is considered the giver of life, the creator who brought everything into existence, over billions of years.
Anyone who has ever marveled at a starry night sky, held a baby in their arms, or wandered through nature in full bloom cannot help but experience awe at the wonder of life.
Therefore, shouldn’t each believer do everything possible to care for life?
Moved by the hope that future generations continue to enjoy the same beauty and bounty of creation with which we have been blessed, Pope Francis wrote the encyclical Laudato Si’ to help the Church and humanity in protecting the planet.
It is a reminder of a truth long embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition that humans are not “owners” of the earth, only “stewards.” The encyclical draws from the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, who understood the deep connection between the natural elements and all creatures.
Indeed, God’s creativity extends to the most minute details of his favorite planet (or so we assume). From alpine meadows, profuse with spring wildflowers; to the thick, lush fauna of the Amazon rainforest; to the most parched desert, where tiny creatures survive in arid sand dunes. Every part of nature, from the particle to the ecosystem, bears the loving mark of its creator.
Wider implications of respecting life
When it comes to protecting life, the U.S. Catholic Church struggles to articulate a consistent message. In theory, the Church’s teaching is clear-cut: human life begins at conception and ends with natural death. This stance is pronounced clearly from pulpits nationwide and internationally as a moral obligation to uphold, and our advocacy is untiring.
Looking deeper into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, there are many passages that define restrictions for humanity’s endeavors: “The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial.” (CCC, 2403) That is, of the highest order of priorities.
St. Pope John Paul II spelled out this teaching in his message at the 1990 World Day of Peace: “The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many of the patterns of environmental pollution.”
Therefore, when it comes to the protection of life, the first — the protection of human life — inspires our numerous initiatives to protect the unborn, advocate to ban abortions and help future mothers in need.
The second — the environment — still awaits a response from the U.S. Church.
Well-being depends on the environment
Perhaps a deeper look at how the environmental crisis affects human life and wellbeing is warranted. According to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, around 9 million people (about half the population of New York) die prematurely in the U.S. every year due to pollution.
While each of the 600,000 abortions per year in the U.S. is one too many, lives are also endangered, shortened and lost in many other ways. We can look to the children who suffered brain damage from the lead in their drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Are these children’s lives and futures not worth protecting?
“Shouldn’t the Catholic Church care more about human beings than about animals?” This remains an often-heard argument. And it’s not wrong: if someone must choose between rescuing an animal or a person, of course the choice should be the latter.
But these questions disregard the bigger picture — namely, that human lives are inextricably connected with nature. And not only to birds or plants. A change in weather patterns can disrupt or destroy the lives of human beings: droughts, such as those affecting the Western United States and parts of Australia lead to deadly wildfires. Droughts in African countries bring firstly, famine and secondly, new waves of immigrants, seeking to reach neighboring countries throughout Europe.
So, eventually, these incidents caused by not being in balance with nature cost human lives.
Our call to action
Somewhere, deep down, we might know that this is true: we cannot survive without taking care of our environment, and we cannot genuinely care for our neighbors if we ignore the cry of nature. However, it is not easy for us to take the next step — to act.
Am I ready to give up certain comforts? What about that coffee-to-go? And the long, relaxing shower? Does this mean having to get used to bar soap and saying goodbye to fresh-smelling shower gel?
Yet here’s another perspective. It isn’t about what I must give up, but what I can gain. I can exercise my freedom to choose to do my part for a better future. Trying to avoid single-use plastics doesn’t mean I should never have coffee in a to-go cup, rather that when I have it, I treasure it. By using bar soap to wash my hands, I waste much less liquid soap. Being more conscious of water consumption while doing dishes could be a next step for me.
God does not want us to avoid everything that is enjoyable. He wants us to make conscious decisions, let go of what is unnecessary and get the reward of moderation.
We, as a Church, will be far more credible if we don’t give the impression that it only matters that a human being is born. We also need to accept this human being, love her, respect him, and give to each the same dignity we give to everyone. We need to think further ahead about what kind of planet we pass on to this child. Will it be one where droughts, tornados, runaway migration and instability are a daily occurrence? Or a planet where they are free to contemplate the beauty of God’s creation?
Therefore, we must stop fighting with each other regarding how we should be pro-life. Can’t we advocate against abortion and against pollution? Can’t we emphasize the value of every human life until its end and the value of biodiversity? Can’t we argue against human trafficking and climate change?
All are hurting God’s creation and, whether directly or consequently, God’s children.