Religion and Sustainable Development Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

In the past, the ascetic tradition of various religions sometimes seemed to be motivated by a denial of the value of the world.  Often salvation was presented as removing humans from the natural world, as if somehow matter itself was tainted, and could not in any way be associated with the world of the spirit. Manichaeism depicted the world as radically deficient and that even the human body is somehow evil.  While many of the Fathers of the Church, including St. Augustine opposed Manichaeism, they were not always enthusiastic about the natural world or even the human body.

Some of the dominant strains for medieval Catholicism saw monasticism as a flight from the world (fuga mundi). In some places this spirituality descended into contempt for the world (contemptus mundi). This negative attitude towards the world received a new lease of life in the Catholic Church with the rise of Jansenism in the 17th century. Bishop Jansen (1585- 1638), was Dutch Catholic theologian and a professor of theology at Louvain.  In his posthumously published book, Augustine, he amplified Augustine’s negative attitude towards the world.  Jansenism coloured and soured Catholic attitudes toward the world for 200 years.  Such negativity was not confined to Catholicism. Despite his own deep appreciation of nature, the split between the realm of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’ world was also found in many forms of Protestantism.


Very often in the past religions, particularly Christianity, were seen to be  indifferent to the deteriorating plight of local ecosystems or the biosphere as a whole.  Religions and Churches often upheld human rights and promoted social justice, often at great cost to individuals and  Churches, but their voice was seldom heard when it came to the plundering of the planet. Anthropocentric ethics promotes consumerism because it sees the rest of creation, not as closely linked to humanity, but as a resource which can be exploited for the benefit of humans.

The new ecological cosmological awareness which I wrote about yesterday must be brought into our liturgies and worship in order to integrate our work for justice and sustainability with our Christian faith. The sacraments offer an extraordinary opportunity to link respect for water, food, light and healing with the depths of the Christian tradition. Many religious prayer traditions have an ecological and cosmic dimension which can help the individual and community, move away from an almost narcissistic obsession with the human to become more aware of the deep bonding which is at the heart of all creation. In this way spirituality, rather than creating and confirming dualisms, can be an integrating force bringing together all aspects of our existence.

Today, the ascetical dimension of the various religions must be based on our understanding of the finite nature of the earth and a clarity that the present consumerist way of living cannot be sustained and is only made possible by massive injustice towards the poor of the world and by robbing future generations of their fair share of the resources of the planet. This is an area where religions must begin to highlight the moral dimension of how we relate to and treat the natural world.  The Churches have much to learn from traditional cultures. Even forms of Christianity such as Celtic Christianity have much to teach us about the intrinsic value of all creation.

The Christian Churches have much to offer also. A spirit of sacrifice and concern for others is at the heart of the Christian faith. Christians believe that that, in his life, death and resurrection, Jesus gave himself, freely and unreservedly to others.  Christians are encouraged to follow this pathway of self-less love in their response to people who are living at the margins through poverty, disease or conflict. That love and service today must go beyond the human and embrace the suffering planet as well. In many ways this is a new call to show generosity for others, especially species facing extinction or habitats which have been ravaged.

Religions can also a space for discerning and celebrating hope, even when the situation seems bleak. One of the most effective ways for the Catholic Church to give leadership in the area of protecting the planet would be for Pope Benedict XVI to call a Synod for Creation.  Each local Church could begin to reflect on creation in its own area and see how Christians could give leadership in moving towards a more sane and sustainable world.  In preparing for such a Synod, everyone in the Church, young, old, farmers, industrial workers, bankers, scientists, fishermen, theologians, contemplatives, religious, teachers, doctors, liturgists, artists, poets and writers would be able to share their insights and wisdom.  This would give a great impetus to the tasks of caring for the earth that cares for every creature. I believe it would also give new life and focus to the Catholic faith in our contemporary society.



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