The Sacred Earth

Redemption may depend more on rethinking humanity’s relationship with creation than focusing solely on environmental strategies — a theology of nature to which the Church has given voice.

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Everything I read about Hungary’s Bükk National Park sounds Edenic.

Low, green hills forested with oak, hornbeam and mountain beech conceal gentle waterfalls and cool ravines. Sunlit meadows add to the range of the park’s myriad microclimates, but the overall effect is temperate and pleasant. Wildflowers abound — the all-but-vanished lady’s slipper orchid may yet be found among the oxlips and alpine roses. Some 22,000 animal species thrive here, from beetles and butterflies to the European wildcat. Not long ago, the saker falcon, which once more nests in good numbers in the cliffs of Bükk’s majestic karst formations, nearly fell off the brink of extinction.

People visit for more than the scenery. Shot through with spelunkable caves, the park boasts Hungary’s largest network of woodland bike trails and is an internationally certified dark-sky preserve. Two hundred years of glass- and ironmaking scarred this earth, but the limestone-rich soils also have made the surrounding Eger region famous for its wines, while bountiful salt deposits beget alluring medicinal waters — and brisk business for Turkish baths. A herd of Lipizzaners, tended by elite breeders, graces the park’s northern border.

Why am I telling you all this?

Bükk National Park was supposed to be the site of the Vatican Climate Forest.

I remember the announcement in 2007. It caught my eye because I had been an environmental reporter and later had tried in vain to find grant money to fund a modest solar installation for a Catholic employer. Bluntly, when it came to renewable energy, it was hard at the time to find others in the pews who gave a fat fig.

But even if we were once inclined to ignore the prophets of global warming, our Church was not. The media release quoted Pope John Paul II in asking, “How can we remain indifferent to the prospect of an ecological crisis which is making vast areas of our planet uninhabitable and hostile to humanity?” And now here was Pope Benedict XVI, poised to make the Vatican the world’s first carbon-neutral state.

Big deal, you say. The Vatican is one-twelfth the size of Notre Dame’s campus. The plantings were hardly going to give the earth a new set of lungs. We’re talking maybe a few clean alveoli.

Yet imagine the symbolic power of the Vatican City State, the spiritual motherland of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, leading the community of nations toward a climate-conscious ideal. The idea was to plant 125,000 oak, poplar, willow and fruit trees in a bare section of the park by November 2008. According to the company that proposed the project, a square mile of new forest would be enough to offset the carbon output of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Library and Museums, the curial offices, the heliport, the world’s shortest national rail line, and the rest of it. The Church wouldn’t drop a dime. All it had to do was accept the offer and lend its moral authority to the venture. 

Which it did. But the Vatican Climate Forest never came to be. A planned announcement at a London concert to fight climate change allegedly collapsed when a celebrity emcee demanded permission to take credit for the whole idea. KlimaFa, the Hungarian company driving the deal, went bankrupt. Its founder, Russ George, blamed a smear campaign by ecoradicals who hate market-based solutions like carbon offsets and the concept of using “papal indulgences” to buy a way out of the sin of carbon dioxide emissions.

The Church soon washed its hands of the now all-but-forgotten embarrassment. But as of 2013, George remained “committed to planting those trees on behalf of the Vatican.”

To dismiss the climate-forest episode as a gimmick, an out-of-character papal blunder or the humiliating folly of environmentalist ideologues within the Curia would be an ignorant mistake. The Church’s sincerity was not merely authentic; it was grounded in a reverence for God’s creation traceable through the millennia. Since Pope Francis’ election in 2013 and the whispers heard ’round the world in anticipation of a papal encyclical on environmental and social justice, media outlets from National Geographic to The Guardian to the Catholic World Report took pains to point out all his predecessor had done to lay the groundwork for what would become Laudato Si’, noting that if the title of “green pope” belonged to anyone it was the retired pontiff from Bavaria once derided as the “Panzer pope.”

When Francis issued his authoritative teaching, subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” in May 2015, observers pointed out that he quoted John Paul 23 times and Benedict 22. Addressed to “every person living on this planet,” the document is a deep reading of the life and spiritual writings of St. Francis of Assisi that draws upon the thought of other saints across the centuries, bishops from six continents, numerous Catholic visionaries, the current patriarch of Constantinople, a ninth-century Sufi mystic and a noted Protestant postmodernist.

Of course, Francis could have cited any number of holy people and thinkers of all persuasions the world over. The encyclical is a comprehensive teaching grounded in Catholic tradition and the inmost convictions of the human heart. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, an American Methodist for what that’s worth, called Laudato Si’ “nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet — an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary.”

Four summers later, on August 5, scientists at the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service determined that July 2019 was the globe’s hottest month ever recorded. Things are getting worse. So it’s fair to wonder how we got where we are, what with the world’s religions in apparent harmony regarding our responsibilities to the earth and each other. The planet, to quote Francis, is “presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system . . . a constant rise in the sea level and . . . an increase of extreme weather events.” It is crying out to its human caretakers to wake up, “to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

My God. What have we done?

Writing in the journal Science 52 years ago, medieval historian Lynn White famously accused Christianity of shoving aside the old nature gods, of teaching an account of creation that elevated man to brute dominion over nature and invited him to exploit its bounty through the divine command to “fill the earth and subdue it.” At first glance, Francis seems to agree with White in the opening paragraphs of Laudato Si’. “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” he confesses.

Then Francis takes another step, laying out the view that the ecological crisis is at its withering roots a spiritual one: “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

So which is it? Is religion itself to blame, responsible as White says it is for shaping our use of nature’s resources? Darren Dochuk, an associate professor of history at Notre Dame, just published Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, a compelling case for how competing notions of what it means to spread the Gospel and build the kingdom of God fueled the rise and apocalyptic excesses of the global petroleum industry.

Or is it possible that we act with obstinate disregard for what we say we believe — in this case, the precepts of our creation stories? That we have forgotten who we are as created beings who owe our Creator, each other, ourselves and the earth nothing less than humble reverence and respect? That instead we have given in to the wounding of sin, as Francis suggests, violated those sacred relationships and distorted the oldest wisdom of all in order to pursue our true ultimate concern — which is not for peace or justice, or goodness, truth or beauty, but for comfort?

Does Genesis 1:28 truly make man the center of all things? Or does it remind humanity that we share our dependence upon God and our essential goodness with every other created thing?

“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters,” Francis writes. “A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable.”

And yet, argues Father Terry Ehrman, CSC, ’91, ’99M.Div., we have worked hard — especially over the last four centuries — to accept it. Among the culprits the Notre Dame theologian and biologist holds responsible for our twin bruises of habitat and soul are “the Enlightenment, Cartesian dualism and its mechanization of nature, the Industrial Revolution.” Democracy and capitalism have played their roles, as have urbanization and suburbanization.

Lynn White, he concludes, “confounded the actual behavior of individual Christians with normative Christian dogma and belief. He did not address the reality that many Christians act in a way that is not Christian.”

In a word, what White didn’t consider was sin.

In The Ten Green Commandments of Laudato Si’, Father Joshtrom Kureethadam, SDB, writes that all the concerned talk over the last 50 years about “the environment” may have hurt more than it’s helped. That word, says the in-house ecology expert on the Vatican’s commission on integral human development, has reduced the many problems of Earth’s air, water, habitats and atmosphere to bare scientific abstractions, secondary problems detached from everyday life. Political headaches we can do nothing about. Instead, the encyclical speaks of creation, calling it “our common home.” The only one we’ve got.

Nagy Climate2Illustrations by Anna Godeassi

Consider then the Vatican’s ecological choices over the past 15 years as efforts to put its part of the planetary house in order. At his inaugural Mass in April 2005, Benedict explained his pastoral duties in terms that intertwined the theological, moral, social and ecological crises confronting his papacy. “So many kinds of desert,” he called them, speaking to the thousands in St. Peter’s Square. Deserts of poverty, of hunger and thirst, of abandonment, loneliness, destroyed love. “There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life,” he said. “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”

So it wasn’t a spiritually indifferent moment when, in 2008, workers wired the last of 2,400 solar panels on the roof of the hall where popes conduct their general audiences, enough to light, heat and cool it and several other buildings — and to save the annual equivalent of 80 metric tons of oil. In 2012, Renault supplied His Holiness with an electric popemobile — along with a second EV for Vatican security — even as the Holy See had committed to a 20 percent renewable segment of its energy portfolio by 2020.

Similar changes continue under Francis. This year, St. Peter’s Basilica staff oversaw the completion of an 18-month project to retrofit the church with digitally controlled LED lighting — 100,000 bulbs in all — that promises to cut energy use 90 percent. In July, the Vatican announced an immediate phaseout of single-use plastic sales, meaning that any day now visitors may no longer purchase bottled water, packaged foods, plastic flatware, cup lids or straws — two years ahead of an EU ban. According to Plastics Europe and, millions of metric tons of such items worldwide were not recycled in 2017.

Beyond Rome, the Church is rallying to Francis’ message that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same. Bishop Bernard Unabali of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, who died in August, and whose diocese includes the vanishing Carteret Islands, former home of the world’s first unofficial global-warming refugees, said that whenever he baptized an infant, confirmed a Catholic or ordained a priest, he would ask everyone present to plant 10 trees as a sign of gratitude and “to help people recapture our relationship to the environment.”

Bishops in the Philippines have led protests against new coal-fired power plants. More than 100 Catholic organizations, including Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s worldwide network of humanitarian agencies, have divested from petroleum companies. And in the U.S., Catholic Energies, a project of the nonprofit Catholic Climate Covenant, is organizing investors to help Church entities adopt solar power. They began with a parish in Hampton, Virginia, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

Notre Dame is playing its part, guided by a sustainability strategy that University leaders developed in response to Laudato Si’. “Our long-range plan is to reduce [carbon] emissions by 83% from 2005 levels by 2050 and eventually become carbon neutral,” the document declares. Already the University is ahead of schedule. The installation of solar arrays and of geothermal well fields on the north, east and south sides of campus jump-started progress toward the goal of a 10 percent renewable energy supply by 2020. Work on a 2.5-megawatt hydroelectric plant on the St. Joseph River is slated for completion in 2021. Rooftop plantings on the Joyce Center, Morris Inn and new stadium buildings cover 122,000 square feet in greenery, the largest vegetative roofscape in Indiana. And thanks to the addition of new natural-gas systems in the power plant, the University will burn its last-ever piece of coal in 137 years of electrical generation on campus — within days of the mailing of this magazine.

Laudato Si’ had a measurable impact on Americans’ views on global warming — and not just among Catholics. Researchers from Yale and George Mason universities dubbed it the “Francis Effect.” Across the board, they reported in November 2015, Americans were likelier to express concern about global warming, to say the matter was personal and to see it as a moral and religious issue. The biggest leap came in the belief that climate change would harm the poor. Among Americans generally, the percentage who espouse that view climbed 12 points to 61 percent. American Catholics leapfrogged the group with a 20-point jump to 62 percent.

One month later, an Oxfam study of “extreme carbon inequality” lent statistical support to the ideas transforming these opinions. It found that the poorer half of the world’s then-7.3 billion people, who live overwhelmingly without access to fossil fuels and in those countries most vulnerable to severe heat, drought, famine, habitat loss and water shortages, account for only 10 percent of those global carbon emissions “attributed to individual consumption.” Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10 percent of us are responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions, living the lifestyles and consumer habits of a “throwaway culture” in which, as Francis put it, “the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels.

“The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits,” he lamented, “and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.”

Yet in the darkness of that papal diagnosis, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climatologist at the University of California San Diego, sees an opportunity that has eluded him and his colleagues for decades. “We need technology and science, but the fundamental transformation that is needed is for us to change our attitudes,” the 15-year member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences told National Geographic when Laudato Si’ was released. “Scientists don’t have the moral authority to ask people to change behavior.”

Apparently popes do. What else could explain the gathering this summer at the Vatican, for the second straight June, of the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and other major oil companies, along with the top executives of leading investment entities and insurers, to discuss issues around energy transition and “care for our common home”?

Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., also attended the two-day meetings, which were organized and co-facilitated by former Mendoza College of Business dean Carolyn Woo and Leo Burke ’70, the director of Notre Dame’s climate investing initiative. Burke says the 2019 dialogue picked up where the previous year’s left off, focusing on three issues that participants agree are most important: carbon pricing, the need for transparency in climate-risk-related financial disclosures and the “just transition” to a new energy future that won’t make life worse for energy-industry workers or the world’s poor.

What was said, and who said it, transpired off the record. But the talks unfolded in what Burke characterized as “a spirit of listening,” of vulnerability, allowing people to admit candidly that they didn’t have the answers. “They know how to run their business. They have deep concerns about what’s going on, but they don’t know how to solve it,” he says.

Together they produced two “breakthrough” documents that recognize the need for “sustained, large-scale action . . . to keep global warming below 2°C while advancing human and economic prosperity.” The first calls for “reliable and economically meaningful carbon pricing regimes” — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade mechanisms that in Burke’s metaphor would shut off the emissions tap. Revenues, it says, must underwrite low-carbon innovations “while assisting those who are least able to pay.” All but three of the principals signed this document.

The second accord affirms that “companies should provide clarity for investors about how they are planning and investing for the energy transition.” It supports the work of the G-20-based Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and encourages open assessment of “how resilient company strategies are” to all the risks associated with global temperature rises. Everyone signed it.

“Some lawyers of some of the CEOs were saying, ‘Do not sign. This will put us in legal jeopardy. Do not sign these statements.’ But people ended up signing,” Burke says. And both documents conclude with a declaration he expects will make an impact when they’re presented to the United Nations’ secretary-general at the climate meetings in Chile this December: “Undeniably, the Earth is a single system and humanity is a single whole. This requires a new level of cooperative leadership, trust-building and commitment. We embrace this challenge.”

One afternoon in July, puzzling over those sacred relationships to God, each other and our common home left damaged and broken by sin, I go looking for Father Terry Ehrman in his office in Flanner Hall. I want his thoughts on global warming and what we’re to do about it, on how the “integral ecology” of Laudato Si’ might take us “to the heart of what it means to be human.” And I want to ask about his “tree class.”

Not 20 minutes into the conversation, as I’m admiring the stunning, high-resolution photograph of a sable, golden-backed snipe fly that he snapped at a rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike, the scientist-priest tosses out another arresting image. For me, it helps explain how modern life is symptomatic of a theological catastrophe that left most of us indifferent to the natural world and blind to the suicidal recklessness of our own behavior.

“Creation and redemption are two essential elements of God’s single plan of salvation,” he begins. “I describe it as a DNA molecule, where you have the double strands, and you get life with that.

“What’s happened over the last 400 years is that this double strand has been denatured” — its ladderlike structure dissolved, deformed, diminished, peeled apart — “and we’ve separated creation from redemption,” he says. “The first article of the Creed — God, the Creator — is disconnected now from Christ the Redeemer, the second article.”

The Enlightenment reduced creation to “nature,” Ehrman continues. Ever since, “that’s what scientists study.” We have gained dazzling capacities to grasp how the world around us works, a potentially never-ending odyssey of observation and discovery that, admittedly, most of us leave behind when we close our science textbooks. But we’ve lost our abiding, soul-deep perception of the earth’s sacramentality. The holiness of our home.

Meanwhile, he says, theologians have retreated primarily to preoccupations with “the Church and human redemption in Christ.” Once inseparable theological focal points, creation and redemption are “two different worlds now.”

Not so in the Gospel of John, where in the opening verses we meet Christ as the Word, the Logos — God — through whom “all things came to be, and without him nothing came to be.” The popes from Paul VI through Francis have all been working to restore our grasp of God as Creator, Ehrman says, and “always in the context of Catholic social teaching.”

Knitting creation and redemption back together means understanding science and theology as distinct ways of knowing that benefit by talking to each other. It means perceiving living organisms as evolutionary creatures that are transparent to the divine. Similarly, he adds, Francis wants us to see not an environmental crisis on one hand and a spiritual crisis on the other, but rather one integrated megaproblem. That’s integral ecology.

Ehrman spent three undergraduate summers at Notre Dame’s Environmental Research Center in Wisconsin as a student and teaching assistant for an aquatic ecology class. After his ordination, he started and then left a doctoral program in entomology. “I was going to name new species of caddisflies,” he says, “but I left all that glory behind to become a theologian.”

Back at Notre Dame now, he teaches a course called Science, Theology and Creation. His students read scripture, patristics and the medievals — mostly St. Thomas Aquinas — before turning to the Big Bang, evolution and ecology. Ehrman credits the course concept to St. Basil the Great, who delivered his homilies on the Hexaemeron, the six days of Genesis, as a “guided tour of the amphitheater of creation.” The fourth-century saint wanted to mute cultural noise so believers might truly encounter the natural world — and through it, the Creator, who in each moment was sustaining their very being: each stone, each molecule, every living thing a cosmic work of eternal and active divine generation.

This isn’t mere nature appreciation. “If you just go out there and start looking around, you can say, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful. That’s pretty. Well, that’s hideous.’ The guided part is important,” he says. “Look at it. Open your eyes. Let’s talk about how God is there, and how God acts in this world.”

Ehrman begins each class with a “logos of the day,” a photo of some surprising plant, bird, reptile, insect or other that he’s found on campus. He presents a scientific profile, kingdom through species, but the point is what each one has in common: its imprint with a “small-‘l’ logos,” its mark of the divine presence. The brilliant blue dasher dragonfly Ehrman finds over by the campus lakes? “Jesus Christ is creating it at this very moment. He is the cause of its being.”

The class has a “lab.” Each student chooses a tree to observe for 15 minutes at the same time every week. They keep notebooks to record their observations and responses to questions from the readings. “The tree becomes this opportunity for quiet reflection,” he says.

“It’s amazing, John, what this does to these students. . . . This overcommitted, overinvolved, electronic generation — for them to be able to actually encounter reality bears great fruit.”

Ehrman pulls out a file of their comments. He recalls one from memory: “In the beginning I thought this was really hokey, but I’ve come to love it as the best time of my week, because I can just sit and be quiet.”

This one he reads: “With what you have taught me this semester, I obviously had a different internal experience from watching the sunset than my friends. I’ve seen the Creator through creation, witnessing God’s beauty, majesty and power through the medium of the sunset.”

“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder,” Francis writes in Laudato Si’, “if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”

The story goes that those fissures in our relationships with God, each other, ourselves and the planet started in an earthly paradise. Repairing them, and reclaiming the world as we know it from the brink of extinction, is a challenge we must all embrace.

John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.