Trees and ‘God Talk’ Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC


I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1950s, surrounded by trees.  A ribbon of horse chestnuts lined both sides of the road that linked the Killaloe and Limerick roads.  In summer their intertwining canopies shut out the light which gave the road its name – the Dark Road. In the fields around our house there were stands of oak, birch and sycamore. About 40 yards away to  the south and west my father planted  a shelter belt of  leylandis.  We had different varieties of apple trees in the orchard and two pear trees.

I entered St. Columbans seminary at Dalgan in 1962. The estate in which the seminary was built had extensive woodlands, full of indigenous trees such as oak, hazel, holly, ash, Scots pine, willow, elm and rowan.  The woods also contained a number of exotic species, including a number of sturdy Cedars of Lebanon and a few Californian Redwoods.  The trees had been planted in the 1820s by General Taylor who had fought alongside Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.  According to local the woodlands were planted to mark where different British regiments were lined up to do battle with Napoleon.

During my seven years in the seminary I heard very little that might increase my love or respect for trees.  Students were not allowed to walk in the  woodlands and we were not even encouraged to give the trees the basic respect of knowing their names.  There was one ceremony each year which gave prominence to a tree. It was the beautiful, plaintive melody which was sung during the Exaltation of the Cross on Good Friday. As the celebrant unveiled the Cross, the celebrant sang, Ecce lingnum crucis in quo salus mundi perpendit (Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the saviour of the world). The faithful answered, Venite Adoremus ( come let us adore).  The truth is that we were not being asked to focus on the Cross, but on the figure of Christ which was nailed to it.  Unfortunately, the natural world did not figure at all in our education for ministry in the 1960s.  Little has changed in the intervening four decades in seminaries.  Theology and scripture presentations focus almost exclusively on the divine and human realms with little consideration for the rest of creation.

Ministry in Mindanao in the 1970s

My generations of missionaries were blessed for a number of reasons. The main one was that we were given an opportunity to learn local languages in a professional way, using the insights of modern linguistics.  After studying the local language, Cebuano in the autumn of 1969 and the first half of 1970, I was assigned to the parish of Oroquieta in northwest Mindanao, Philippines.  It was quite a peaceful place, but there were significant pockets of grinding poverty, especially among those living in the barrios.  The Catholic Church in Mindanao was dedicated to promoting the well being of people through a number of initiatives, especially in the area of land reform.

Everything changed in September 1972 when, the then president,  Ferdinand  Marcos declared martial law.  Many Church workers, especially those who were involved in promoting social justice, were arrested and some were murdered. For the next 14 years, the energies of Church people were focused on protecting the human rights of the people against both the military and the guerillas as well as promoting social justice. During this time I had little knowledge of or concern for the environment.  The only time environmental degradation crossed my mind was when Panguil Bay in northwest Mindanao turned chocolate brown  after a day or so of monsoon rains or a typhoon. Even then, my concern was more for the farmers who had lost the precious topsoil than for the integrity of the forest and the well-being of other creatures in the web-of-life.

Working among the T’boli

My interest in trees and forests blossomed during the twelve years I spent working among the T’boli people in the province of South Cotabato in Mindanao.  The rainforests are a world of beauty, colour and fruitfulness which encircle the globe in the tropical areas of Africa, Central and South America and Asia. At least half, and possibly as many as 80% of the world’s animal and plant species live in the rainforests of the world.  Unfortunately, this has not spared them from the bulldozers and chainsaws of global logging companies, In Mindanao, international and local logging companies plundered the rainforests, especially in the years following World War II. A few companies and individuals became extraordinarily wealthy.

Ethno-linguistic communities such as the T’boli, who for many centuries had depended on the tropical forests for all their needs, including food, building material, medicinal plants and inspiration for their music, poetry and religion, were devastated by the destruction of the forest. The destruction of the tropical forests in the Philippines has greatly impoverished the country from the perspective of biodiversity and many species have been driven over the precipice of extinction.

Importance of Forests for the local climate

A study carried out in Central America in the 1980s showed that a single rainstorm can dislodge up to 150,000 kilogrammes of top soil from one hectare of hillside once the trees have been cut.  The comparable figure from a forested hillside is a mere 44 kilogrammes. Intact forests regulate water run-offs and thus mitigate risks of flooding and droughts.  Destruction of forests also impacts on rainfall. Cutting  trees leads to a reduction in evapotranspiration which in turn leads to less rainfall.  Much of the rainfall in southern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay is a direct result of the water recycling activity of the Amazon basic. According to James Astill in The Economist,, “a decrease in regional precipitation would be calamitous, but the actual effect could be much worse.”[1] On hydrological grounds alone, protecting forests is essential for the future of agriculture.

Soon after arriving in the T’boli  ancestral territory in the Philippines, I realized how important the forest was for these tribal people. It became clear to me that, unless the remaining area of forest was protected, the T’boli would literally have no  future. So, one of the major goals of my 12 years working among the T’boli was geared towards helping them to protect what was left of the forest. I was also involved in initiatives to replant indigenous species of trees in areas where the forest had been destroyed. That meant learning as much as I could about the rainforest from the T’bolis themselves and also from the writings of biologists, botanists and entomologists.  It was an exciting but often dangerous journey.  In April 1988, Fr. Carl Schmitz,  a 70 year old Passionist missionary was murdered partly because he spoke out against illegal logging. In July of that year, Fr. Mario Escoba a Divine World Missionary was murdered in Butuan city in northern Mindanao.  He had documented atrocities committed by logging companies against local settlers in the local area.



Rainforests under attack across the globe

 The rainforest are under attack, not just in the Philippines but right across the globe from the Amazon to   New Guinea.  In 2011, only 60 percent of Earth’s original tropical forests remain.  According to Astill writing in the Economist, “ Despite many campaigns by NGOs, vigils and rock concerts for the rainforests, and efforts to buy it, lease it, log it and not log it, the destruction proceeds at a furious clip. In the past decade, the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) records show that around 13 million hectares of the world’s forests, an area the size of England, have been lost each year. Most of this was tropical rainforest, razed for agriculture.”[2] Astill reports that the destruction of rainforests has slowed down in recent years in Brazil, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Guyana.

Climate change will also have a negative impact on global forests. While forests  will thrive in high northern latitudes such as Finland, this will be off-set by increased forest dieback elsewhere, caused by “rising aridity, drought, pests and fires – all symptoms of global warming. Melting permafrost will also release billions of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere.  Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.  Scientists also warn that if the average global temperatures increases by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of 2100, this will effectively destroy all rainforests and release 50 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. [3]

A viable theology of creation

As a religious person, I believe it is important to have an adequate  “God Talk” or theology about, trees, forests and the natural world. When I began writing about ecology and theology in the early 1980s there was very little treatment of the subject in Catholic Social Teaching. In fact, despite a number of initiatives by Pope John Paul II, Pope  Benedict XVI and bishops conferences, concern for ecology and  trees is still very much on the margins of Catholic though. For example, in the  in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Chapter X on “Safeguarding the Environment,” is the weakest chapter in the book. There is only one reference to the plight of forests.  No 466 which states that, “in this regard, each person can easily recognize, for example, the importance of the Amazon, one of the world’s most precious natural regions, because of its biodiversity which makes it vital for the environmental balance of the entire planet,”[4]  

Cedars of Lebanon (Dedus liban)

In reality, it is not difficult to find a theology of trees and the environment in the Bible and the experience of Christians down through the centuries. In the Bible trees can, set the moral and religious context for the life both of the individual believe and the community,   For example, the Cedars of Lebanon grew to a height of 120 feet. Many cedars were more than a thousand years old. The long life and erect stance of cedars represented a symbolic challenge for humans. “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar of Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age, they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap showing that the Lord is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.” (Ps. 92: 11–15).  The cedar tree was chosen for the construction of the temple of God in Jerusalem probably because the wood was resistant to a variety of insects and that that it lasted for a long time. (I Kings 6: 9-20).

The Olive (Olea europaea)

In the bible the olive tree is seen by St. Paul as a symbol for the nation of Israel (Rom. 11:15-25).  Olive oil was widely used for cooking in Israel.  It was also used at night as a fuel for lighting a room. Olive oil was used in the tabernacle both as a fuel for lighting an area and also for the ceremonial anointing by the priests of God (Exod. 30: 24- 25; Lev. 24:2-4).  In Psalm 52: 8, the psalmist compares himself to an olive tree in the house of God. “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”  The olive tree even plays a role in the book of Genesis.  When the dove returned to Noah’s ark with an olive leaf in its mouth, Noah knew the waters had receded from the earth.

Vines (Vitis vinifera)

In the New Testament in chapter 15 of his gospel, John presents Jesus as the true vine.  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. (Jn. 15:1) The believers are the branches, but they cannot bear fruits unless they are joined to and sustained by the  vine tree.  “ Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you re the branches.”(Jn 15: 1-5).  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15: 5).  Being cut off from the vine has serious consequences for the believer. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.”  (Jn. 15:6).

The Palm tree, (Phoenix dactylifera)

The date palm tree is one of the most useful and beautiful trees in the Bible. Its deep tap-root system means that it can grow where there is very little water.  Not alone did it produce dates, it also produced sugar, oil, wine, thread, tannin and dyes. The seeds could be fed to animals, especially cattle and leaves were used as roofing material. The popular belief that the fruit became sweeter as the tree aged, is reflected in Psalm 92. Mats and bags were also made out of the fibre of the palm trees.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem waved palms and placed them on the road when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass’s colt. (John 12:13; Matthew 21:8).

In the Book of Revelation, the great multitude of the redeemed will greet the resurrected Lord Jesus. They will be “clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands”; crying, “Salvation belongs to our  God who is seated on the throne and to the  Lamb” ( Rev 7: 9-10).


Trees used as Satire.

The author of the book of Judges uses the contrast between useful trees such as the olive, the fig and the vine, and ‘problems’ trees such as brambles to ridicule the ambition of Abimelech to become king. (Judges 9: 7-15).


Susanna and the Judgement of Daniel.

Daniel saved the life of Susanna who was accused by two judges of having sex with a young man.  Daniel separated the judges and asked them,  what tree did they see Susanna and her supposed lover lying under? One said a mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) the other a holm oak (Quercus ilex). Both were seen to be lying, so Susanna life was saved and the wicked judges put to death.   (Dan. 13: 50-59).


Parable of the Mustard Seed (Brassica nigra)


This is one of the shorter parables of Jesus. It appears in three of the Canonical Gospels of the New Testament. The differences between the Gospels of Matthew (13:31–32), Mark (4:30–32), and Luke (13:18–19), are minor, and the three parables may be derived from the same source. At the most obvious level the parable suggests the growth of the Kingdom of God from tiny beginnings to worldwide Church. .

Matthew’s version, “He set another parable before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.

The plant referred to here is generally considered to be black mustard, a large annual plant up to 9 feet tall, but growing from a proverbially small seed (this smallness is also used to refer to faith in Matthew 17:20).

The nesting birds may refer to Old Testament texts which emphasise the universal reach of God’s Kingdom. However, a real mustard plant is unlikely to attract nesting birds, so that Jesus seems deliberately to emphasize the notion of astonishing extravagance in his analogy.  In the natural world trees do support an enormous amount of biodiversity. Both species of the oak tree (Querus petrea) and Quercus robur) support 284 species of insects.[5]

Some commentators claim that, there is a “subversive and scandalous” element to this parable, in that the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it a “malignant weed” with “dangerous takeover properties.”

Ben Witherington notes that Jesus could have chosen a genuine tree for the parable, and that the mustard plant demonstrates that, “though the dominion appeared small like a seed during Jesus’ ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out.”[6]

The drama of redemption is played out between two trees at the beginning and end of the bible.


Finally, the drama of human history is framed between two very significant trees, In Genesis, the first book of the Bible we find that God planted,” the tree of life and the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden” ( Gen. 2:9). In chapter 3, Adam and Eve were admonished “not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. You must not eat it or touch it under the pain of death.” (Gen. 3.3).  The serpent then told Eve that “No, you will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” (Gen. 3).  Eve and Adam disobeyed God’s command when they ate the fruit from the forbidden tree.  As a result, they were expelled from Paradise and  found themselves in need of  salvation and redemption. Their disobedience also affected their relationship with nature. “Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life. It shall yield you brambles and thistles and you shall eat wild plants. With sweat on your brow you shall eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 4: 17-19).  In the  last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation we find that one of the signs that salvation has been achieved by the death and resurrection of Christ is the reappearance of  the “tree of life” planted in the new Jerusalem along the banks of the river and bearing leaves which bring healing and comfort.”(Rev. 22:1).


Nature in Celtic Christianity

Dr. John Feehan in his book, Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, makes the point that, “the sacred places of pre-Celtic Ireland were not the caves and buildings of stone which Christianity inherited from Rome, nor were they like the temples of other great religions. For the Celts the sacred place was the nemeton; the grove of trees, living, full of spirit, whispering of things in our own spirit we can hardly comprehend and barely articulate.


Groves and individual trees played an important role in the lore of the Druids, and there is no doubt of the pre-eminence of the oak, tree which of all the trees was most full of symbolism for European druids and the Celtic people they served.”[7]


Feehan tells us that the sacred groves of the pre-Christian era were carried over into the Irish Christian Church of the 5th century. “It is more than likely that many or even most of the early Christian churches were founded on the site of druidic oaks or other sacred trees which still echo faintly in the names of these places; cill dara,(Kirdare), dair-mhagh (Durrow), doire Calgaich (Derry).”[8]


Columban and creation

If, in my theology courses in the 1960s,  I had been exposed to the thinking of our patron, St. Columban and other early Celtic saints instead of authors such as Adolphe Tanquerey, I would have been much better placed to have developed a theology of creation much earlier in my missionary work. In his Sermon, ‘Concerning the Faith,’ Columban wrote about the  presence of God in nature and the importance of understanding nature if we wish to know God. Amplius non requires de Deo; quia volentibus altam scire profunditatemrerus ante natura consideranda est.  (Seek no further concerning God; for those who wish to know the great depth of things must first know the natural world). [9]


Bishop Chamnoald, at one time a disciple of  Columban  tells that Columban would call out to the creatures when he went into the woods to fast or pray, and that they would come to him at once. He would stroke them with his hand and caress them: and the wild things and the birds would leap and frisk about him for sheer joy as pups jump on their masters. Even the squirrels would answer his call, climbing into the hands and onto the shoulders of Columban and running in and out of the folds of his cowl. Chamnoald said that he himself had seen this, and that we should not marvel that bird and beast should obey the command of a man of God. Animals are involved in several of his principle miracles including: escape from hurt when surrounded by wolves, and obedience of a bear which evacuated a cave at Columban’s command.


With this intense Celtic love for nature it is understandable that nature poetry developed in Gaelic almost one thousand years before it appeared in English or other European vernacular languages. One of the best known of these poems comes from the monk Marban. He feels nurtured and protected by nature, especially when he is alone. Trees figure very prominently in the poem.


For I inhabit a wood

Unknown but to my God.

My house of hazel and ash

as an old hut in a rath.


And my house small, but not too small,

Is always accessible:

women disguised as blackbirds

take their words from the gable.


The stag erupts from rivers,

brown mountains tell the distance;

I am glad as poor as this

Even in men’s absence.

death-green of yew,

huge green of oak


and apples grow

close by new nuts;

Water hides.


Young of things,

bring faith to me,

guard my door;

the rough, unloved,

wild dogs, tall deer,

Quiet does.


In small tame bands

the badgers are,

Gray outside;

and Foxes dance

before my door at night.

All at evening

The day’s first meal

since dawn’s bread;

Trapped trout, sweet sloes,

and honey, haws

beer and herbs.

Moans, movements of


birds rouse  me:

Pigeons perhaps,

and the thrush sings,



Black-winged beetles

boom, and small bees;


though the lone geese

a wild winter

music stirs.


Come fine white gulls

all sea-singing

and less sad,

lost in heather,

the grouse’s song

little sad.


For music I

Have pines, my tall


So who can I

Envy here my

Gentle Christ.[10]


The Christian community must begin to see itself once more as part of the wider community of life. Insights from biology, botany, zoology and entomology show us the wonderfully cooperative community of forests. These insights will help us celebrate the beauty and wonders of  forests and trees with poets, musicians and other artists.  They will also help shape an ethical consensus which will guide human interaction with trees, forests and the wider natural world.


Need for a relevant and viable theology of creation.


In the past two decades, both the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have addressed the ecological issue on a number of occasions. The most notable documents are :  Peace with God the Creator: Peace with All Creation (January 1st 1990),  Chapter 10 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), Caritas in Veritate (July 2009), If you want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation (January 1st 2010)  and The Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps, (January 11th , 2010). But it is not all words.  The Vatican has installed photovoltaic panels on the roof of the Pope Paul VI auditorium.  In addition, it is funding tree-planting in Hungry as a way of off-setting its carbon omissions.  However, I will argue that despite the above writings and initiative it is difficult to support the claims that the documents are very competent and insightful from an ecological perspective.


True magnitude of the ecological crisis

Firstly, none of the above documents give any overall sense of the magnitude of the current ecological crisis facing the planet, humankind and every other creature living on the planet. The only document that has any sense of the overwhelming nature of the problem was an address by Pope John Paul II on January 17th 2001, in which he called for an “ecological conversion” for everyone. In that address he used the word catastrophe, and he stated that humanity needed to stop before the abyss. This document is not found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nor have I seen it quoted in official documents since.  It seems to me that, if an individual or institution does not have an accurate appraisal of the true magnitude of the ecological challenges facing the earth, one cannot claim that that individual or institution understands the current ecological crisis. Furthermore, unless one understands the magnitude of a problem, one cannot design an appropriate response. So, despite an increased sprinkling of ecological language and concerns in addresses and documents from the Holy See, these still lack an accurate analysis of the problem.  One can make all kinds of excuses, for example, that the immediate problems facing the human community are so immediate and pressing that there is little energy left to look beyond this to what is happening to the wider earth community, even though such oversights will have dire consequences for every creature, including humankind.

Take the two most serious ecological issues facing the planet – climate change and the destruction of global biodiversity, or, in theological language, the irreversible destruction of global biodiversity, God’s creation. Both of these concerns merit only one paragraph each in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  Given the enormous pain, death and destruction caused by these human-created global phenomena, and the devastation they will continue to wreak on the planet, every living creature and humankind, into the future, a single paragraph from the leadership of the Catholic Church is, in my opinion incompetent and not very responsible.

Urgency of Dealing with Ecological Crisis

The second element which must inform any ecological analysis is clarity about the urgency of tackling the issue.  Is it something that must be addressed on a massive scale immediately, or is it something that can be postponed until other issues, such as poverty or unemployment are first confronted and solved? Once again, in reading the above documentation, one gets no sense that the authors are aware of the urgency of the particular issue. On climate change, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that, unless greenhouses emissions begin to drop by 2016, there will be no realistic chance of keeping the average rise in global temperature below 2 degree Celsius.  In the past two years, the scientific consensus has moved towards the conclusion that we will need to reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million if we want to achieve that goal.  The scientific consensus is also clear that, if the average global temperatures rise by more than  2 degrees Celsius, huge areas of the planet will be uninhabitable for humans and many other creatures.  This is why the failure to reach a fair, ambitious and binding treaty at Copenhagen in December 2009 was such a tragedy.

On December 6th 2009, after praying the Angelus, Pope Benedict XVI wished success to the world leaders who would gather in Copenhagen to seek an agreement on how to tackle climate change in a fair and just way.  In his brief remarks, the Pope recalled that the way to protect the earth was to include respect for God’s laws and the moral dimension of human life. He went on to say: “I hope that the work will help identify actions respectful and favourable to solidarity – development founded on the dignity of the human person and oriented towards the common good”   (  December 6, 2009). He spoke about protecting the interests of the poor and future generations. It is regrettable that he did not include the public details of the Holy See’s position at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

At all the previous UN Climate Conferences, the Holy See was represented by the local Nuncio who could not be expected to have a detailed knowledge of the various strands of the negotiations.  In Copenhagen, the delegation of the Holy See was headed by Archbishop Celistino Migliore, the Permanent Observer for the Holy See at the United Nations in New York. He has written and spoken regularly about climate change within the UN.  The delegation included a climate expert Marcus Wandinger and Paolo Conversi, an official from the Vatican Secretariat of State, who also teaches human ecology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The Vatican delegation lent its support to a robust treaty which involved sufficient curbs on greenhouse gas emissions to keep the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. The target set for rich, industrialized counties was a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases before 2020.  It also championed a scaling up of the Adaptation Fund to at least, $195 billion per annum. This fund would be made available to economically poor countries in order to help them adapt to the climate change consequences which are already affecting the planet. I believe that it would have been very effective, in terms of moral pressure, if Pope Benedict XVI had included these figures and the rationale behind them in the Angelus address of January 6th or in Caritas in Veritate for that matter. As it is, very few people know what is the Vatican’s position on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, at the UNFCCC in Cancun in December 2010, the Vatican reverted to its previous practice of being represented by the local Nuncio. It also made no public statement.

Ecology is a science based on data

Thirdly, ecology is a science which is based on empirical data about what is happening in particular ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. Despite this data-focused nature of ecology, none of the above documents based their ecological reflections on scientific data.  The drafters of these documents have available to them competent scientific data from reputable bodies such as the IPCC or, in the area of the destruction of Biodiversity, from the UN Convention on Biodiversity. There was no reference to these bodies or to any other scientific authorities in the documents.

The Vatican has no problem quoting UN documents on economics, social, political and historical data in dealing with almost every other aspect of Catholic Social Teaching. They have no difficulty referring to research conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Why is there one modus operandi when dealing with economics and a different one when it comes to looking at ecological issues? Other religious organisations such as the World Council of Churches include scientific data in their reflections on issues such as climate change. Similarly, Bishops’ Conferences in Germany, Ireland, the Philippines, the United States and Australia have written pastoral letters on ecological issues. The majority of these documents base their moral and religious reflections on ecological issues on a number of sources. These include empirical data on the topic in question, the new perspective we have gleaned in recent decades on the Universe and the Earth and the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Archbishop Giampaolo Grepaldi’s defence of Caritas in Veritate

In a reflection entitled, “Benedict XVI Offers Middle Ground on Environment,”  on (January 10, 2010).  Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace gave, what I consider, an extraordinary explanation for this lack of scientific data in Papal documents on the environment. He claimed that “in the countries of north-central Europe, and especially in Germany, Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” was the object of severe criticism, precisely in regard to the question of the environment, and particularly in regard to climate change.” Archbishop Grepaldi continued “So it was logical to look forward to the message of this year’s World Day of Peace dedicated to the theme “if you Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.”  “Benedict XVI did not miss the opportunity to restate his teaching and, thus probably upset once again all those who tend to weigh down ideological themes with excessive ideological burdens.  The central point of the message is, in my opinion, found in paragraph 13, where the Pope says that ‘a correct understanding of the relationship between man and the environment’ will not end by absolutising nature or by considering it more important than the human person.”

Speaking about the papal document Crepaldi continues “the Church expresses misgivings ‘about notions of the environment inspired by eco-centrism and biocentrism’ because it eliminates the difference between man and other living things, favouring an ‘egalitarian vision of the dignity of all living creatures’”. He goes on to say that,“ this  gives rise to a new pantheism with neo-pagan accents which ‘would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms.’”

These same sentiments were already expressed in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Number 463 states that “a correct understanding of the environment prevents the utilitarian reduction of nature to a mere object to be manipulated and exploited. At the same time, it must not absolutise nature and place it above the dignity of the human person himself. In this latter case, one can go so far as to divinize nature or the earth, as can readily be seen in certain ecological movements that seek to gain an international guaranteed institutional status for their beliefs.” In the second paragraph of No. 463, it goes on to state that, “the Magisterium finds the motivation for its opposition to a concept of the environment based on eco-centrism and on biocentrism in the fact that, ‘it is being proposed that the ontological and axiological difference between men and other living beings is eliminated, since the biosphere is considered a biotic unity of undifferentiated value. Thus man’s superior responsibility can be eliminated in favour of an egalitarian consideration of the ‘dignity’ of all living beings. [11]

Vatican’s vision based on inadequate understanding of modern science

The problem with the above texts is that they are based on an inadequate understanding of modern science.  In his book, The Singing Heart of the World: Creation, Evolution and Faith, the Irish scientist Dr. John Feehan writes about the unity at the heart of the universe and, in a special way the unity that marks the living world.  He writes that “the animal, mammal or bird or insect or worm, is from its unique perspective the subject, each at the centre of a world, and all their worlds overlap and influence each other and this is what in the words of Albert Schweitzer is the ‘science of the architecture of creation.’…. “The differences that distinguish one species from another exist to the extent that each species is uniquely adapted to exploit the resources of one particular niche, which is different from another creature.” [12]

Earlier on in the book, he points out that “if you speak the language of belief in God and embrace what the revelation of science tells you, then no species is insignificant. Each is worthy in the eyes of God, deserving of our respect and study and admiration. Even and, perhaps especially, the most obscure.”[13] He quotes Saint Augustine “for heaven God has created the angels, for the earth creatures that crawl, and neither is superior to the other; because the hand of man can no more create a worm than an angel.”[14]

One might ask does the approach of people such as Fr. Thomas Berry or Dr. Feehan denigrate the human as the Vatican documents seems to fear. Not at all.  Feehan critiques the hubris of believing that we are the only beings on earth that have intrinsic value, but also celebrates what is truly unique about the human mode of being and the responsibilities which accrue to knowing our proper place in the scheme of things. He writes, “We are, of course, very conscious that we humans are unique. We are so aware of it that for a long time we thought of ourselves as altogether superior because of this special human talent, in the process losing sight of our place in creation, so firmly were our eyes fixed on a destiny that would see us enjoying eternity with God, in whose image we conceived ourselves to be made – unmindful of the fact that so is every other creature on the earth.” He goes on to write that “we can now ask the question of what is special about the human mode of being in a more essential way: what is this special human talent, and how are we meant to use it, knowing our place in creation as we now do, and having a better grasp of family history?

We are no less a part of the family than before, but we have been promoted to a new post of responsibility in the family, so to speak. If our living, in common with all that lives but in a way distinct to us, can in some sense be thought of as sharing in an incomprehensible well-spring of life that out of infinity infuses the cosmos (we might call it Divine Life), we can through this new human mode of apprehension be said in some sense to share in the Divine Mind.” [15]

I will agree, of course, that some of the ideas that the archbishop Crepaldi challenges are found in the Deep Ecology movement associated with the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. This movement insists that “all things in the biosphere have an equal right to live and blossom and reach their individual forms of unfolding and self-realisation with the larger Self-Realisation.[16]” I do not know of a single Catholic theologian who accepts this position. Many competent theologians such as Fr. Denis Edwards from Australia, Dr. Celia Dean-Drummond or Dr. Mary Grey from Britain, Elizabeth Johnson, Mary Ellen Tucker or Thomas Berry from the U.S, Leonardo Boff from Brazil or Dr. John Feehan , rightly situate humankind within an emergent cosmology and a living, evolving world. But even before modern scientific discoveries gave us an insight into the extraordinary age of the  universe and its evolutionary emergence,  Francis of Assisi was telling us that all nature are kin, in other words part of our family.  He expressed this most beautifully in the Canticle of the Creatures. All creatures are understood as kin. St. Francis was not a pantheist and he is the Patron of Ecology.

Donal Dorr on Caritas in Veritate

In an otherwise positive review of Caritas in Veritate, the Irish theologian Fr. Donal Dorr writes that “the whole encyclical is written from within an older anthropocentric paradigm, the ecological issues are treated almost entirely in terms of present-day human concerns. What is needed today, however, is a kind of Copernican revolution leading to a major paradigm shift. We need to locate all our human concerns – and especially our approach to economics – within the far wider context of an ecological and cosmic vision. Nothing would be lost and much would be gained if what the pope had written in this encyclical about economics and business were framed within this wider vision.” [17]

I am aware that the translation from the Italian of what the archbishop said may be crude and may distort his meaning.  I cannot see however what all this fear of an eco-centric approach to the biosphere and possible pantheism has to do with the fact that Pope Benedict XVI did not deal in any substantive way with climate change, in an encyclical issued five months before one of the most important conference of the 21st century. I do not understand how a scientific analysis of the causes of climate change, or the horrendous consequences which it holds for the future of all life, and the steps that need to be taken to avoid this catastrophe, could lead to pantheism.

An exclusively homocentric view of creation is understandable for people such as Archbishop Ussher of Armagh (1581-1656) who, using the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient documents, calculated around the year 1630 that the earth began on October 23rd  4004,and that all the creatures which are now on earth were there from the beginning.[18]   According to Ussher Within this kind of cosmology it is easy to see how someone even as perceptive as Aristotle would place man at the pinnacle of the world and claim that everything else on the planet was there to serve man. In the book Politics Aristotle writes that “nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made (animals and plants) for the sake of man.”[19]

What does ‘human ecology’ mean?

Right throughout the recent papal teaching on ecology we find a very strange and confusing notion called “human ecology”. Caritas in Veritate (51) states“when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits”. I presume that what the pope is saying is that societies which respect human beings, especially the most vulnerable – the unborn, the young and the elderly –  will also be more inclined to respect the environment. But, does one have to invert the scientific categories of the Linnaean taxonomy to make this point?

The Linnaean system, which is still used in biology, begins with the widest category called Biota (all life). The next step up is known as Domain. In that category we are Eukarya  since we are composed of eukaryotic cells. In terms of Kingdom we come under Animalia or animals. We fit into the Phylum  of Chordata. On the next step up we come under the Class  of mammalia or mammals. We are of the Order of primates, of the Family of Hominidae, or hominids, and the Genus Homo or humans. Finally, in terms of Species we are Homo sapiens.   Humans are at the end point of this evolutionary process which emerged over 3.8 billion years ago. The latest  research indicates that modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago and migrated out of Africa about 125,000 years ago.[20] Yet, the term “human ecology” claims that every facet of the evolution of life above, plus other aspects of ecology, such as the relationship between the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and atmosphere are subsumed by the term “human ecology” even though modern humans are probably less than 200,000 years old.

This notion seems totally at odds with what we know from the various sciences which is that the earth is almost 5 billion years old and that life on earth is about 3.8 billion years old. There were fully functioning ecosystems in the Lower Carboniferous period from 354 to 324 million years ago. At that time there were no flowering plants or birds, but there were giant horsetails and ferns and an array of creatures, most of which are now extinct. In religious terms I am sure that God would have spoken the Genesis words, “it is good” over this and other phases of the evolution of life on earth. God would not be waiting for home sapiens to arrive over one million years ago to give meaning to the broad sweep of creation. It is important theologically to remember that God has a history with nature which is independent of His/Her relationship with humanity.

In developing its teaching on the Earth the Holy See would do well to incorporate many of the insights from Bishops’ Conferences around the world, going back to the first pastoral letter on the environment entitled, What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land? that was written by the  Philippines Bishops as far back as 1988.  The Australian Bishops’ 2002 Social Justice Statement: A New Earth, The Environmental Challenge, contains a lot of insightful material. In 2007, the Committee on Domestic and International Policy from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops produced, Faithful Stewards of God’s Creation: A Catholic Resource for Environmental Justice and Climate Change.

In 2009, the Irish Bishops’ Conference wrote a Pastoral Reflection on Climate Change.       In dealing with issues such as “solidarity” that document avoids the homocentric language of Vatican documents. On page 21, it reads “As Christians we cannot consider ourselves or our obligations in isolation from others or from the endangered earth and its creatures. Further on in that paragraph they state, “ this responsibility extends to the whole creation and to all the finely balanced life-systems of our world, which may be threatened by even marginal changes in the earth’s climate.    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, liturgies, 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.

Promote the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

Some practical suggestions. Religious congregations should support the FSC. This is an independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. The FSC label provides a credible link between responsible production and consumption of forest products, enabling consumers and businesses to make purchasing decisions that benefit people and the environment as well as providing ongoing business value. FSC’s forest certification standard is recognised as the global gold standard for responsible forest management.[21]   The Vatican and all religious congregations should pledge that they will only use FSC certified lumber in any building programme.

The REDD Debate


REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) has been part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for over a decade.  It is seen as vehicle to lower CO2 emissions since forest degradation accounts of 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from the carbon sequestration dimension of REDD, it  has the potential for reforesting countries, such as the Philippines, which had been denuded during the 20thcentury.  REDD could deliver multiple benefits in the area of climate change, protecting biodiversity and securing a sustainable agricultural base for many countries, where food security is becoming a major issue.

The recent UNFCCC conference in Cancun Mexico earmarked $60 billion dollars for REDD initiatives. I have suggested that Catholic Development Agencies such as Caritas Internationalis, CAFOD and Trocaire to get involved in REDD.  I think the Justice, Peace Ecology office of Religious and Missionary congregations might also monitor REDD.

Religions must support for the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CDB)

The Convention on Biodiversity emerged from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  It objective is to protect biodiversity and to ensure that there is a fair and equitable distribution of any financial benefits derived from biological and genetic resources.  The Nagoya meeting wrestled with these questions and ratified the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits (ABS). Initially, governments from the global North and especially Northern biotech and pharmaceutical corporations were opposed to sharing the benefits of biological resources with countries from the global South where the biological and genetic resources originated. They feared that lawsuits might be brought against them for some products which they developed based on biological resources from countries in the South.  Under the Nagoya Protocol a multi-billion dollar fund will be set up to compensate countries in the Global South for any benefits which accrue from the commercial use of their biological resources. The Protocol is potentially worth billions of dollars to countries which are rich in biodiversity and could act as an incentive for them to protect the biodiversity of their forests and marine resources.

The Nagoya meeting also drew up a strategic plan to conserve biodiversity in the period between 2010 and 2020.  The delegates from the 193 countries agreed to protect 17 percent of the land area of the world and 10 percent of the oceans by  2020.  At the moment, about 13 percent of the land area of the world and only 1 percent of the oceans are protected areas.  Details of the roadmap to achieve the above targets by 2020 are quite vague and critics say that the targets are not ambitious enough.

Unfortunately, the United States, the richest country on the planet, has not signed the UN Convention on Biodiversity.  Organisations of civil society and Churches in the U.S. need to lobby their government so that it signs the CBD immediately.

Despite claiming to be a pro-Life Church, the Catholic Church has very little teaching on biodiversity.  Biodiversity only merits one half of a paragraph in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the concern is completely homocentric.  No 466 states that, “the environmental value of biodiversity, (which) must be handled with a sense of responsibility and adequately protected, because it constitutes and extraordinary richness for all humanity.” Eight hundred years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that each creature has the ability to represent the goodness of God in a unique way. Therefore the extinction of species does not merely impoverish the biosphere, it also diminished our understanding of God. Today the vast majority of creation theologians argue that species have intrinsic value, in other words value in themselves and not merely because they can be of benefit to humankind. In responding to the present ecological crisis the Catholic Church urgently needs to develop a viable theology of creation.


[1] James Astill, “Seeing the Wood,” The Economist,  September 25th to October 1st 2010, page 4

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Veritas, page 220-221.

[5] Our Trees: A Guide to Growing Ireland’s Native Trees in Celebration of A New Millennium, 2002, page 44.

[7]  John Feehan,  Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, Walsh Printers, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, page 304.

[8] Ibid

[9] Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, Volume II, Sancti Columbani Opera, ed. G.Sl M. Walker, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1957 page 65.

[10]  John Montagues (ed.) The Faber Book of Irish Verse, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, pages 57-58.

[11]  Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 2004, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

[12]   John Feehan, 2010, The Singing Heart of the Universe, Creation, Evolution and Faith, Columba Publications, Dublin, page 86.

[13]  Ibid page 76.

[14] Ibid 76. “Creavit in coelo Angelos, in terra vermiculos, non superior in illis, non inferior in istis, Sicut enim nulla manus Angelum, it nulla posset creare vermiculum. “ Augustin, Liber soliloquiorum animae ad deum.

[15]  Ibid, page 110.

[16]  Bill Davis and George Session,   Deep Ecology and Living as if Nature Mattered,  Salt Lake City, Gibbs-Smith, 1985, page 64.

[17] Dr. Donal Dorr, Theology, the Economy and Ecology, edited by James Noyes and Adrian Pabst, forthcoming this year (2010), SCM Press, London

[18] Mary Mulvihill, “Humane hanging and other stories,” The Irish Times,  June 27th 2009, page 6.

[19] Aristotle, Politics, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985, edition. Page 79

[20] Ian Sample, “Out of Africa, 55,000 years early? Human migration backdated,” The Guardian, 28 January 2011, page 11.


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