The NCR applauds Sean McDonagh

NAVAN, IRELAND — There was a priest in America that Columban Fr. Seán McDonagh needed to see. McDonagh, recalled to the monastery in Navan, County Meath, Ireland, after several years in the Philippines, had himself routed through New York. It was 1980. Sent as a missionary to Mindanao in 1972, McDonagh had developed reforestation and land-use projects with the T’boli people. Standing up to the money interests was risky; a Passionist priest colleague, Carl Schmitt, had already been murdered “up in the mountains.”
The New York priest that McDonagh was intent on meeting also was another Passionist, Fr. Thomas Berry. He’d agreed to meet in a diner, but not for long. Berry had an afternoon appointment.
Not long ago, McDonagh, his hand wrapped around a coffee mug in the Dalgan Park monastery kitchen at Navan, recalled that they talked for an hour, then two hours, then three. McDonagh reminded Berry of his appointment. Berry waved it away, said it had been a ruse — just in case he needed an exit line. More hours. Finally McDonagh asked Berry if he could study with him for a week.
“Waste of your time, waste of mine,” Berry said. “Four, five months.” With some trepidation McDonagh telegrammed his superior in Navan: Could he delay his return? He got his four, five months. “That was an extraordinary period, reading, studying. I read voraciously. It gave me a framework of understanding. It gave me peace: When the issues come up you just work on them.” He returned to the forests.
Nine books and constant world travel later, McDonagh has never been more in demand. Not long after finishing his coffee, he had to pack for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. In the previous 12 months he’d attended climate change and sustainable development meetings on two other continents, marked the “Year of the Forests” in Rome by reading a theology of trees to the major religious superiors, was a speaker at the Pacific Institute in Sydney, Australia, and received a global justice award.
He also finished a manuscript, Nuclear Power Post-Fukushima, and began the search for a publisher. The new book comes two decades after his To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology, one of the first books in English on creation theology. Said McDonagh, “The theological framework we had was so static it wasn’t taking into account what was happening on the planet.
“Today, the church that could give a voice, that could give leadership, is just not into it,” he said. “That’s what I feel. The only one to really address it was Pope John Paul II in 2001 when he called the church to ‘ecological conversion.’ The most recent Pontifical Academy of Sciences document on climate change [glaciers] is extraordinary because they used Tom [Berry]’s insight that humans are creating changes of a geologic order, not just a scientific order. The old thinking was deus ex machina, man wasn’t big enough to alter any of this, only God was big enough.”
As ecological issues adviser to the Columban Fathers, the work broadened — into Third-World debt issues — once he’d dodged a suggestion that he go to Rome for a doctorate in canon law. “That was my worst nightmare. Not the slightest interest in canon law, but I had a huge interest in anthropology, culture and faith, culture and linguistics and faith.”
Columban Sisters’ work reducing infant mortality took him into issues that are a compelling and complex challenge for the church: Will there be too many mouths to feed?
“The issue for church is the carrying capacity of the world: its resources, its food supply, for humans, but for all the other creatures as well. One reason the Catholic church is slow to get into the environment is the whole population issue. You can’t discuss it, you can’t raise it at all.”
Back at his base in Ireland, McDonagh and the Columbans have turned Dalgan Park into an environmental education site, an impetus that’s led to a master’s in ecology and religion being offered at All Hallows College, part of Dublin City University. It’s one way to counteract the fact that “there are not that many people in the church who are either knowledgeable or articulate on ecological issues. Yet modules like ‘God and geology’ and ‘God and biodiversity’ — that’s where the excitement is.”
If the Catholic world in particular, and the Christian world in general, has experienced two geologians — in Francis of Assisi and Berry — it might want to take a much closer look at McDonagh while it still can. He may be the third.
[Arthur Jones is NCR books editor.]

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  1. Mary O Vallely says:

    To think that Fr Sean could have been lost to canon law! (and I am in agreement with Mr Bumble the Beadle’s opinion on the law} The culture of blind obedience in the Catholic Church mystifies me. No discussion of population issues is allowed. As Fr Sean says, “We can’t raise it at all!”
    So more and more mothers and babies will die and we are forbidden to have an intelligent, humane discussion?? I don’t think any topic concerning the future of this planet and all life on it should be out of bounds for discussion.Then again, I am a mere woman and have not a notion about canon law. Strikes me canon law is deemed more important than the lives of children. Did I not hear about a certain American Law being welcomed with open and generous arms in Rome despite an appalling record of neglect towards his flock back home?

  2. Sean (Derry) says:

    “… the whole population issue. You can’t discuss it, you can’t raise it at all.”
    What does that mean?

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    The saddest aspect of this whole issue is not something we can just blame “the bishops” or even “Rome” for. At least the Irish Bishops’ Conference ‘showed willing’ in 2009 with “The Cry of the Earth” – though of course the whole spadework and drafting was down to Fr Seán once again. The final section of that paper comprised “What you can do in your Parish” suggestions. Do they ever get an airing, as having anything to do with the Gospel message?
    To come nearer home, to our own virtual parish: Between October 2010 and October 2011 Fr McDonagh posted more than a dozen substantial articles – nay, ‘consubstantial’ articles when we consider them under their category heads of “Creation/Ecology” and “Social Justice”. And our response? Almost non-existent.
    Two priests, Fr Joe and Fr S, responded to one or two of those posts – but neither of them is in pastoral work in an Irish diocese or parish. Two other redoubtable pastors, Fr Pádraig McCarthy and Fr Donal Dorr, posted or responded on Social Justice. So where were the rest of the, then, 500-600 members? And where were the rest of us camp-followers – normally not so backward about coming forward with comments on more predictable topics from Cardinal Burke’s cappa or testa magna, to what they want us to get our tongues around on Sunday mornings, to seminarians’ sleeping or living arrangements in Maynooth ?
    Ah but Social Justice is getting a bit too close to politics, and Creation/Ecology is a bit beyond us and better left to the geologians. Though someone called ‘Chris-007’ had it all worked out and thought Fr Seán was breaking strict Union Rules:
    “When there are so many NGOs involved in environmental protection work . . . do we really need to be preoccupying ourselves with environmentalism? Surely that is the work of NGOs. The Church exists to spread the Gospel AND SAVE SOULS . . .”. O Sancta Simplicitas! I thought the Church was the original NGO.
    Good to see The National Catholic Reporter gets some things right. As for the rest of us, what did your man once say about a prophet being without honour in his own country?

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Part of the Catholic propaganda against contraception is that the population explosion is a myth. In the Philippines, which is in the throes of a huge population explosion, the bishops see under their noses children living on garbage dumps and being sold into prostitution, but they urge NFP as the only answer. To get those bishops to sit down and discuss the population issue calmly and reasonably would be impossible.

  5. Sean (Derry) says:

    Fr Joe, did the ‘Catholic propaganda against contraception’ ever suggest that the solution or answer to poverty was NFP?
    I have however, heard many others suggest that if we can get rid of the poorest and most vunerable in society (by stopping them breeding) then ‘we’ can live in a more affluent and secure world.
    The founder of ‘Planned Parenthood’, Margaret Sanger wrote, “More children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief aim of birth control.”
    This approach contrasts greatly with ‘Responsible Parenthood’ as discussed in Humanae Vitae.
    Ironically the Catholic Philippines are currently being targeted by American government influence and coercion to legalise contraception.

  6. People can control themselves, can’t they? If you don’t want more children, then you either abstain, or else you practise NFP – if you’ve a good reason not to have more kids. I get fed up hearing about all these poor people having no food and endless kids. Well, excuse me, but if you’ve energy for sex, then I am sure you can muster up a meal for your family, and if you can’t, then perhaps the sex can wait? Am I being too harsh? I think not. I think I am being realistic. People don’t just ”get pregnant” – there is a definite decision, an act of the will, if you like, to have sex. And men can control themselves too, so there’s really no excuses.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    “If you don’t want more children, then you either abstain, or else you practise NFP ” or else you use some form of artificial contraception.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, the Catholic bishops in the Philippines do suggest that NFP is the answer, and even made excommunicatory noises against politicians who proposed distributing artificial contraception. Margaret Sanger was a much greater person than your quotes indicated.

  9. Mary O Vallely says:

    I have an image of Christ walking through the shanty towns of the world, watching children competing with the rats and flies as they scavenge for food, parents desperate to know how they will feed the children they have or find medicines for those who are ill through malnutrition or disease. He sees young girls and boys working as prostitutes in order to survive and his heart bleeds. He walks on a little further and sees cardinals and bishops living in palaces, dining on fine food served on the most exquisite china by numerous servants who are grateful to have a job and who keep their thoughts to themselves about the wasted crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables. He sees all this and His heart weeps and He bites his lip because this is not at all the vision of a world that he had hoped his words and the giving of his life had inspired.
    Sometimes, Martin, when people have nothing else they will grasp at whatever warmth and comfort they can get and who can blame them? To deprive them of the pleasure of sex when they have nothing else is – yes, harsh, very harsh. I think Christ would understand.

  10. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Martin, “Am I being too harsh?” you ask.
    Well, in comparison, the Vatican Council’s ‘Gaudium et Spes’ with its insistence on the dignity of the ‘conjugal pact and act’ and ‘the various values and purposes of marriage’, and Pope Paul’s ‘Humanae Vitae’ with its pastoral concern to stress the ‘unitive as well as procreative meanings of marital intercourse’ seem to have been written by a bunch of raving liberals.
    And your unquestioning “then you either abstain, or else you practise NFP” makes me long for those kindly fuddy-duddies of the 1940s-1960s, John Charles of Dublin and Michael Browne of Galway.
    I don’t know the Philippines but I certainly do know Sierra Leone. Maybe I should suggest to my past pupil, Archbishop of Freetown, that he forget about mosquito nets for his village flock – he should be flogging them calendars and thermometers instead. I believe they even have computerised thermometers nowadays – I wonder if a solar panel would power them out in the bush.
    Meanwhile, Martin, may I suggest a title for your new Humanae Vitae commentary: “No Canoodling for Catholic Couples” ?

  11. Wendy Murphy says:

    Eddie, in your post 3. above, you ask where we camp-followers have been on Creation/Ecology Social Justice etc.
    It’s true that I, at least, only came across this site last Autumn because of despondency about the new translation and a longing to take part in a discussion which was impossible to have in the parish.
    I imagine, however, that many contributors, like myself, DO have a huge concern and interest (some with practical experience and scholarship such as Fr McDonagh – others reading, thinking and/or involved in the activities of various charities)
    I suggest, moreover, that it’s concerns such as these, plus increasing dismay about the scandalous position (or silence) taken by the hierarchy on these and other grave issues which have all lead to the disappointment and anger now expressed about what may appear to be the relatively trivial issue of the new translation. The issue is not, as you know, merely one of words, but also of being let down by Catholic propaganda myths (Fr Joe), desecrated images of Christ (Mary O’V) the dismissal of so many hopeful and energetic groups working for ‘collaborative ministry’ (whatever happened to that?) and the utterly ludicrous position we find ourselves in if we can’t or won’t look at modern life and culture and evaluate it and ‘the world’ (the hierarchy hates that, doesn’t it?) with clear, honest eyes.
    My gist is that there is hope – because so many of us do care about Creation, our role and relationships with the earth and all living things.

  12. Oftentimes, the fixation on creation distracts us from that pollution we find within ourselves. The Church is primarily concerned with the salvation of men, and whilst this involves a complete life focussed on Christ and all that that entails (which includes turning off the light when not in use along with not committing adultery etc…), the Church’s primary mission (as far as bishops and popes goes, i.e. the Magisterium) is not about elephants and rainforests but about conversion to Christ. Those other things matter, but they are primarily the area and competence for the laity to get stuck in at a practical level.

  13. As one who worked for many years in the shanty towns of an African city, I echo Mary O’V’s sentiments (9, above). I want to applaud Seán McDonagh’s work in promoting respect for God’s creation. In today’s Examiner, there’s an excellent letter from a 13-year-old, about the urgency of minding our planet. My own comment is simply that we, the human race, are the ‘new kids on the block’ in the context of the creation story. In the past, we were wrongly taught that the earth was solely for our use and benefit as if we were some kind of patriarchal overlords. Recently, when attending Mass at which the novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help was said, I was shocked at some words in the concluding prayer which went something like: ‘You have given man (sic) the earth to use and control.’ If this phrase were to be amended in the light of current theological insights, it would be a small step towards awareness-raising of our responsibilities towards God’s awesome creation.

  14. Soline Humbert says:

    Isn’it a pity the theme of the Eucharistic Congress is not
    ” Communion with Christ, with one another AND WITH ALL OF CREATION “?
    We still operate with a very restricted vision of the Body of Christ,not taking into account the cosmic dimension. At our peril!

  15. Joe O'Leary says:

    Excellent suggestion from Soline — it is too late to bring it in? — it is very much in the spirit of Vatican II style Eucharistic theology — Teilhard’s Mass of the Earth etc.

  16. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Thanks, Joe and Soline, for sending me back to Teilhard’s Hymn of the Universe. After nearly fifty years it’s as fresh and surprising as my first reading of it. Yes, the Mass of the Earth/on the World would make the ideal pageant to close the Congress in Croke Park. You might need to disguise it as a work of ancient Celtic Christian spirituality to allow it slip under Rome’s radar.
    Martin, no doubt you have a point about the Church’s primary mission, but you have a curiously reductionist take on the “fixation on creation”. Indeed John Paul II did stress the need to attend to the desert within, giving prime position to human dignity, prior to losing ourselves in the desert without, but his whole approach to “ecological conversion” (in his World Peace Day 1990 address, his General Audience in Jan 2001, his co-signing of an ecology position with the Patriarch of Constantinople in ?2002)was not a fixation on light switches, elephants or even rainforests. Just on the elephant in the cosmic room maybe. Magisterium business definitely, not just for laity.

  17. Soline Humbert says:

    A friend who is a sister of the Sacred Heart was the first one to draw my attention to this important omission early last year.She had contacted the Eucharistic Congress organisers, but obviously to no avail.
    However I noticed All Hallows College in its Spring series of talks on the Eucharist includes communion with creation….

  18. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Fr Seán McDonagh has a welcome in his ‘Rite & Reason’ article in today’s Irish Times (6th March) for the Vatican’s belated U-turn on its decades of support for civilian nuclear power for all countries including developing nations. Care of the universe is not just for endangered elephants. There are a few dangerous white elephants out there, as Japan’s tsunami revealed.

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