The New View of Creation in Laudato si’
Audio available from Eist on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 087 278 9390
Thank you for this invitation to share with you, and the opportunity to meet so many of you for the first time.
If you were to read Laudato si’ without having read the advance publicity three years ago, and were looking for a suitable sound byte to summarise its leading theme, I don’t think you would call it a document on climate change (about which there are really only three pages), and to say it is the encyclical on the environment is too vague to tell you anything. I think you might call it the encyclical that focuses – for the first time in a document of this kind – on the real meaning of life on earth, and the crisis the bleeding away of its abundance and diversity faces us with and calls us to confront.
It is only 25 years since the wake-up call first really sounded. In 1992 the United Nations convened its Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro: which concentrated the attention of the human race on the unplanned-for consequences of population growth made possible by the advance of scientific understanding and its application to human welfare in such areas as agricultural production, health and mechanisation.
This haemorrhaging of global biodiversity is among the most serious and challenging of these consequences. In the six seconds it takes me to complete this short sentence an area of natural forest the size of a football field disappears. That’s 200,000 acres every day, 150 acres a minute, 78 million acres in a year: an area bigger than Denmark.
- ! Around 150,000 km2 of rain forest a year
- ! A straight-line extrapolation of this rate means it will all be gone by 2135 AD
- ! Much higher in some areas:
- ! Madagascar has lost 93% of its forest cover
- ! The Atlantic forest coast of Brazil is 99% gone
- ! The forests of the islands of Polynesia and the Carribean are gone altogether
- ! 30% of species will be extinct by 2050
- ! Already one-eighth of plant species are in danger of being lost
– The figures speak for themselves.
Here in Ireland the loss is apparently less dramatic. But if you had hopped on a train here in Athlone 50 or 60 years ago and headed for Dublin or Galway – or indeed in any other direction – nearly all the farmland you saw through the window would have qualified as what we now call High Nature Value Farmland because of the diversity of flowering plants, 40-50 species as often as not in an average field.
In the intervening decades these fields have been transformed, mainly through reseeding with ryegrass and the application of fertilisers that few farmers could afford before the 1970s; but also as a result of reclamation and drainage, hedgerow removal and field enlargement, the use of other petroleum-derived agrichemicals, changes in grazing breeds and the pattern of grazing, and a whole lot of other changes in farm practice, including the general abandonment of mixed farming. All of which resulted in greatly increased productivity where this is measured in quantity of forage in a given area, without factoring in such other criteria as forage nutritional quality etc. etc.
With the new markets that opened up after our accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 and the more affluent quality of life that widened markets at home, all of this had a profoundly positive affect on farm livelihoods.1
FLOWERING MEADOWS, COWSLIPS
But it also had the effect of reducing the abundance of most native species of flowering herbs and grasses in the fields – not wiping them out, but greatly reducing their abundance. And this happened slowly and incrementally, and you would hardly have noticed because our minds were on other things. But it wasn’t just the flowers that disappeared from the fields.
Plants are the base of all food chains. All animal life depends on them, either directly if they are herbivores or at a further remove if they are carnivores. As their sources of food become scarcer the creatures that depend on them become less abundant, and there is going to be increased competition for that food, which may result not only in general decline, but in the disappearance of more vulnerable species. The likelihood is that many rarer species have been lost to us because of this diminution of habitat and the particular and more specialised resources these species depend on: and particular groups are likely to be more vulnerable in this respect than others. The predicament of wild bees is a good example – and an economically important one because they are responsible for something like two-thirds of all pollination.
But then, apart from its effects on the soil biota – out of sight, hidden and so scarcely noticed – much of the nutrient applied in fertiliser was in excess of what the target rye- grass could utilise, and so was lost: being soluble in water lost in runoff and to groundwater and ultimately to rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, where it has had an impact on the aquatic fauna and flora comparable to that of changes in farm practice generally on dryland biodiversity. It is no gilded memory that the rivers of Ireland were full of fish 50 or 60 years ago, for with the decline in water quality went a decline in the invertebrate creatures upon which they feed, and in the general quality of their habitat.
We failed to realise what was happening. We could have done had we paid closer attention, and in the 50 years since we have gradually come to understand the unintended and unforeseen effects of our actions and begun to adapt our ways and practices to stop the decline in aquatic biodiversity and to restore where we can what we have lost.
Two other changes in the pattern of land use that seriously diminished the area of natural habitats were the disappearance of the raised bogs through peat harvesting, and the afforestation of much of the blanket bog and upland grazings of mountain land. Both of these enterprises were undertaken and carried through at a time when conservation was not a significant consideration, and both have made an important contribution to the economic well-being of the country. (Indeed, not the least important outcome is that without the employment provided by Bord na Móna Offaly would never have won its three All-Ireland Senior Football titles!). But in the last 50 years our awareness and appreciation of the price we paid in terms of the loss of the other values these landscapes embodied has grown, and we are endeavouring to ensure that our future management maximises the opportunity for the restoration of at least something of what was lost.
But there are of course two sides to this. The landscape of the bogs has been utterly transformed by the removal of most of the peat. A small area of the cutaway has been made into productive grassland, a larger area into less than successful conifer forest, but the greater part is reverting to a new and vast area of wild land. While it is true that, as J.J. Moore wrote back in 1982, the experience of being isolated in a vast brown ocean of bog, extending to the horizon on all sides, is something we can never again have – it is only half the truth. What Fr Moore could not see 60 years ago, because his ecological vision could not reach beyond the brown deserts that were appearing as the great machines went triumphantly about their business, was that one day, no more than a few decades into his future, most of the large raised bogs would be exhausted of their peat reserves and their place taken by a new wilderness: a glimpse of which you can have on a visit to Boora Parklands just a few miles away.
Within a decade or two history will close its chapter on the great bogs exploited by Bord na Móna in its short 80-year history – a useful example of the fact that more often than not the loss of biodiversity and of biodiverse habitats is due to economic pressure rather than with deliberate intent and awareness of the consequences; it’s not always greed. Industrial exploitation of the bogs transformed the economy of this part of Ireland. At the time of his first visit to the peat works at Turraun in the 1930s, Todd Andrews (who became the first Managing Director of Bord na Móna) found at Pullough ‘evident squalor and poverty on a scale much worse than I had ever seen even in the Dublin slums of my youth … It was truly the home of the ‘bog-man’ tradition.’2
Long before mechanical exploitation of the bogs began, the great forests of Ireland, which were such focal points of spiritual reverence in the religious ethos of pre- and Early Christian Ireland, disappeared; the last of them in the 1500s to build the great ships of the Elizabethan navy. In our day it is hard to credit how much oak it took to build the great wind-powered sail-ships that were becoming the key to military dominance in the 17th century, and continued so well into the 19th. It took 3,000 loads of oak, or about 60 acres of century-old trees (that’s three or four thousand) to build the average ‘ship of the line.’ What remained of the woods was pushed further and further back as the graph of population began its ominous potato-fuelled rise in the 18th century, after the wars and displacements of the previous century, going from 1 million in the middle of the 17th century to 2.4 million a century later, and in the half century between 1755 and 1801 it went from 2.4 to nearly 6 million.
By the time of the Famine the population was way over 8 million and the island of Ireland was entirely denuded of natural woodland. Only behind high walls did it survive. The tradition of Gaelic woodcraft had entirely withered.3 The reverence and respect reserved in an earlier Ireland for the great trees of the forest and the sacred woods that were the churches of pre-Christian Ireland could only be directed were reduced to reverence for the whitethorns that grew at the sacred wells of every parish – a sort of displacement activity, for there was nothing else.4
This loss of biodiversity is profoundly serious not just because we might lose all those wonderful animals and plants that we see on television – polar bears with the disappearance of Arctic ice, snow leopards with the warming of the Himalayan foothills, whales because of hunting, or the clearing of rain forests and their indescribably abundant flora and fauna in order to make more soybean plantations to feed more cattle to maintain the flow of beef for affluent stomachs. It is because of the much wider range of critical functions that nature fulfils in our lives, ranging from the purely economic to the transformative function of contact with the natural world, all of which can be translated into economic terms for those for whom this is the bottom line: and of course it is this bottom line that is the only driver of effective political action at the end of the day.
And profoundly serious in an immediate moral sense because it is the poor, and the poorest of the poor, who will pay the greatest price, Laudato si’ in this respect can be seen to echo and continue the preferential option for the poor so passionately championed by Pope Leo XIII in the great encyclical Rerum Novarum,
Since the publication of Laudato si’ at least, most of us have bought into this new way of thinking. But I am not sure how many of us appreciate how radical it is: how radical for our thinking, for our behaviour; how radical for our understanding of the meaning of creation and of our role in the making of the world.
Twice in Laudato si’ Pope Francis refers to the created world as the ‘other’ book of revelation. Creation itself, the ‘other book’, the ‘magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness; … God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe.’5
But it is not just the other book. Here is what St Augustine says.
Some people read a book in order to discover God. But there is a greater book – the actual appearance of created things. Look above you and below you, and note and read. The God that you want to discover did not write in letters of ink, but put in front of your eyes the very things that he made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that.6
Creation is the first book then, the book out of which human history, after a long course of time, comes to be written, from which in its turn the written books of revelation are distilled. You are probably familiar with the famous calculation of Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, who worked out after years of careful study that God created the world ‘… at the start of the evening preceding the 23rd day of October in the year 4004 BC.7
We now know of course that human beings – people endowed with souls to save as truly as we are so endowed, have lived on earth for many hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps indeed for as much as 4 million years. It is inconceivable that they should count for less in the eyes of God than we do, privileged though we be to live two thousand years after Christ and born anew out of the recrystallisation of human understanding that his being on earth brought about.
When human consciousness first awoke to self-reflective awareness … can you imagine the shock with which our First Parents saw the Creation about them come into focus? Without any of our distractions to deflect or dim or distort the sensory experience? – and they reached to try to touch what was behind it with their newly-awakened intellect. All they could know, all they could ever know, lay before them, was all around them, in the thrilling and terrifying creation out of whose womb they had emerged after a gestation of nearly 14 billion years.8
But for the overwhelmingly greater number of all of the generations of humankind, our experience of God was the created marvel that had come into being through that awesome process of Unfolding that we in our time are the first to know about, to understand, and to stand in amazement before.
Up to this, all our First Parents and their early descendants could know about God lay before them, in Nature: in these others who share the earth with me: others the same as me in my family and clan and further afield, others who are alive but variously different: and in the seasons and elements in which we all play out our lives – the sun rising in the morning, the stars at night, the round of the year, wind, fire, water, air. What are they saying to me about who and what they are, and where they have come from?
There are no books.
For the longest time there is no language in which to frame our thoughts about it all with each other.
Our human grasp of what life on earth means, really means, has been transformed by advances in scientific understanding in the last few hundred years, and especially in the last hundred: part of the same more general advance that has given us the affluence we enjoy and which the rest of the world aspires to (but such is the draining demand on the limited resources of the natural world that this is impossible). Very briefly, it has been transformed in three ways: with regard to our understanding of complexity, of diversity and of affinity.
Two of the three axes around which our biological understanding has been utterly revolutionized can be described under the headings of complexity and affinity. All that lives is comparably complex biologically. The cells of other creatures, the building blocks of the body, are no less complex than our human cells. But just stating it like that gives no sense of how mesmerisingly complex, on every level that description is possible, every living creature, plant no less than animal, is. To be truly overwhelmed by this requires knowledge of biology, and the deeper that knowledge the greater the depth to which you are overwhelmed, although few of us are so privileged …
An appreciation of all of this is the essential foundation for the remarkable passages inLaudato si’ on the meaning and worth of individual species. The spiritual implications of the new perspective on what life on earth really means are like an electric current that infuses the entire encyclical. Whether its writers appreciated this at the time or not. It’s like some of the things Jesus said to his followers when he was alive, and which they didn’t get until he was gone. [Maybe he didn’t get some of them himself.] It is precisely the way the encyclical
is rooted in this essential biological foundation that gives the passages on the living world their unprecedented colour and depth: and it is only against this background that we can properly appreciate the conversion to which the encyclical calls us in this regard.
The creatures of the earth were not created in the first instance for us to dispose of as we will, regardless of their place in God’s plan. They are primarily for ‘the fulfilment of God’s own unfolding plan for Creation.’ (Laudato si, 53).
Together with our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly, we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes; “by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2416).’ (Laudato si, 69).
Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things. (Laudato si, 69).
Creation is ‘God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance.’ (Laudato si, 76).
Even the fleeting lives of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection. (Laudato si, 77).
Each creature has its own purpose. (Laudato si, 84).
Everything is, as it were, a caress of God. (Laudato si, 84).9
Our meditation upon the meaning of it all is deepened as the progress of understanding of the nature of creation’s diversity makes it ever clearer to us that creation is not in the first instance for us. ‘Each creature has its own purpose,’ Laudato si’ reminds us;10 ‘The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us to a common point of arrival, which is God.’11
Only such meditation will bring home to us the depth of truth in which such phrases in the encyclical are rooted.
And although for a public whose genuine and often passionate concern the driver for awareness and action is concern for human welfare, generally and personally, this deepened spiritual understanding should inform our concern even more deeply.
For Thomas Aquinas living creatures are incarnations of the divine: they present something of God to us: Produxit enim res in esse propter suam bonitatem communicandam creaturas, et per eas repraesentandam. ‘He has therefore – in order to share his goodness – brought into physical being creatures: and through them he reproduces in material reality aspects of his own goodness.’ Each creature is anembodiment, shaped by matter and energy, of an aspect of the beauty of the creator. Out of God’s plan has unfolded the utterly amazing diversity of living things, each an embodiment of some facet of His goodness, so that what is lacking in one may be found in another: because Goodness, which is God is Alltogether Alltogether, is refracted into endless multiplicity in the beauty of the living creation.’12
The dimming of the rainbow of life on earth
We evaluate the critical nature of the biodiversity crisis in terms of its effects on the human situation. Much of our concern for environmental issues is driven by concern for our human welfare: for what will happen to us and our world if we fail to rein in global warming, or halt the draining away of biodiversity, or soil loss and degradation, or confront the water crisis that approaches ever nearer: failure in any one of which will have devastating consequences, and we can defend our stance in this regard on solid moral grounds, because those who will suffer most are t he poor, and as Christians we are committed – on paper at least – to a preferential option for the poor.
But now that we come to see – are beginning to see – earth alive as the very embodiment of divine purpose … not therefore for us or about us in the first instance, however central we are to its continuation into the future God intends … everything in that human-centred perspective changes. This dimming of the rainbow of life’s diversity is not merely inconvenient, potentially disastrous. It is denial of God’s purpose. If we truly believe, and bring our understanding to bear upon what we are making of the world, we should be horrified. God’s mind and heart and word to us are in all the species that weave life’s diversity. Just as we look back appalled at the venality and cruelty, and concern for power and material wealth, that have accompanied the advance of Christianity over the centuries, so (a thousand years into the future) we may look back on our moment of custodianship of the earth as the time we lost our way – again.
It is given to us, our unique privilege and responsibility, to care for the earth not as we would care for a garden in which we grow the vegetables that sustain us, but because it is the garden God walks in, and we have been invited to walk with him. We are placed in this Garden of Eden to share in God’s own wonder and delight at his creation; ourselves alone endowed with that gift of Mind that enables us to tend and nurture it as God wants us to tend it.13
Just as there are intimations of evolution in the way people thought about creation much earlier than the 19th century, so too this new way of thinking about incarnation is presaged in earlier theological speculation. One of the foundational concepts of neoplatonism, seen in a more developed Christian way in the writings of St Thomas, is that all the different forms of being we see in creation are embodiments of ‘ideas’ in the ‘mind’ of God: but in the mind of God they are perfect: the archetypes of the beauty to which we respond in creatures. It was part of the thinking of the philosophers who pondered the Great Chain of Being that, God being what He is, every possibility would have to be realised, embodied in creation: and indeed this conviction was behind the search to discover new forms and patterns; and the more deeply continued search penetrates, the closer we come to an appreciation of the archetypes in the mind of God – or as close as it is possible for our human mind and body to do so.
And yet: in theology we are held fast in a formulation of what incarnation means that was welded together to still the speculative theological turmoil that was rife in 325 CE, even though that formulation is steeped in a child’s grasp of what creation means. We are reminded of something Canon Raven wrote 65 years ago:
We as human creatures limited by our status cannot speak with knowledge of what transcends our experience: we may lay down certain propositions about the nature of the Godhead, we may support them by inference and analogy, but it is sinful pride, and great foolishness, to talk as if we could define the infinite or formulate absolute truth. We must beware of claiming for our words an ultimate wisdom, an inerrant authority.15
I know you have enough to be thinking about and worrying about on a whole range of other fronts that demand all of your time and attention on a daily basis. But this is fundamental. It needs to be at the heart of what really defines us.
There is no greater thrill than that which comes from being caught up in this (‘There is no seeing without being caught up,’ Hans Urs von Balthasar reminded us): and there is no more important task than responding to it. There is no perspective that can lift us above the more immediate concerns that have come to dominate our days and to suck up all our energies: that offers the possibility of revitalizing the message and infusing it with the relevance it appears to have lost in the eyes of the affluent young.
You don’t need to use the words and phrases we used to think were essential to a spiritual message in order to engage the disinterested young or the disenchanted middle-aged, the many who are disillusioned with the way the Church has been betrayed by the few in its ranks.
When I wrote my book on The Wildflowers of Offaly ten years ago I didn’t include the word ‘God’ in the index, because I didn’t need to. Because it is present unspoken on every page and to mention it as a word would distort from that real presence on every page.
For a start, become familiar yourself with the local Biodiversity Action Plan of your County Council, which is how the blueprint for how, at community level, the EU Habitats Directive is being implemented in your parish and its surroundings (or is supposed to be implemented). Pore over it. Ask yourself, what are the areas, which the initiatives, where I, we, can act? In what areas can we make common cause with others who are not interested in sitting in the pews, but who in their different ways share that same concern and ask the same questions about how to act. Somewhere in the future all these pathways converge, but that need not be our concern. We should be concerned only about getting to that future around the corner together. The rest, when we have done our best, is, as we were once happy to say, in God’s hands.
Then you can turn to Ecocongregations for help and information, and the wealth of resources available through the Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford (of which the pollination book is an example) and countless other sources of information and help. But focus it all through your parish, with its unique opportunities and needs.
We need to find, for our time, that upper room where the first disciples, confused and disoriented, sought to make sense of it all in a world where Jesus, as they thought, was gone, and that what had taken over their lives for the last three years was over. Certainly in our lives in our own day we are conscious of ‘a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky that filled the whole house where they were sitting.’ Whether we have the gift of tongues sufficient to translate what began to dawn on them then for our time is what remains to be seen. But where, when it did, and when each for himself found his tongue ‘as of fire’, they realised that it was, after all, only beginning.
1 John Feehan (2016). Reflections on fifty years of natural history in Offaly. The Dipper’s Acclaim and Other Essays, 113-127. Columban Ecological Institute.
2 C.S. Andrews (1982). Man of No Property. An Autobiography (Volume 2). Cork, Mercier Press. Quoted in Bogs of Ireland, page 118.
3 John Feehan (2003). Trees and woods on the farm. Chapter 13 in Farming in Ireland: History, Heritage and Environment, 299-356. UCD Faculty of Agriculture.
4 A.T. Lucas (1963). The Sacred Trees of Ireland. Reprinted by The Society of Irish Foresters (2017); John Feehan (1999). The Spirit of Trees. Special Millennium Issue of Releafing Ireland,15-21.
5 Laudato si’: 12, 85.
6 St Augustine, Sermons 68, 6.
7 Ignorant of the limits imposed by living at an earlier stage of human comprehension of how the world works we are inclined to scoff at this today: unaware perhaps that Newton differed in hiscalculation by no more than a few years!
8 John Feehan (2018). God in a Five-Pointed Star. A Spiritual Philosophy of Nature, Xxx-xxxColumban Ecological Institute.
9 Among other key passages are the following.
‘The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us to a common point of arrival, which is God.’ (Laudato si, 83). ‘Saint John of the Cross taught that all the goodness present in the realities and experiences of this world “is present in God eminently and infinitely, or more properly, in each of these sublime realities is God.”’ (Laudato si, 234).
Creation is ‘a precious book, “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe” (Quoting John Paul II).’ (Laudato si, 85).
The Japanese bishops write of how every creature sings ‘the hymn of its existence.’ (Laudato si, 85).
10 Laudato si’, 84.
11 Laudato si’, 83.
12 ‘The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that “contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves.”’ (Laudato si’, 233).
13 John Feehan (2018), op cit.
14 ‘Those of us who are theologically inclined may wish to reflect on the way all of this deepens and extends the meaning of incarnation;’ for the background see Niels Gregersen (2013).Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology. Fortress Press; and (2001); ‘The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World.’ Dialog: A Journal of Theology 40, 192-207.
15 Charles E. Raven (1953). Experience and Interpretation. The second series of the 1951-2 Gifford Lectures: Natural Religion and Christian Theology, page 102. Cambridge University Press.
John Feehan is an award-winning environmental communicator whose work is driven by a deep commitment to the maintenance of rural biodiversity and cultural heritage, and the sustaining of rural community. He has written extensively on the natural and cultural heritage of the Irish landscape and on many broader aspects of environmental science.