Saint Francis of Assisi - the pope's namesake. Painting by Albert Chevallier Tayler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I was raised Catholic and followed the protocol closely up through Confirmation and into my teenage years before I lapsed. My current relationship with the Church is like the one you might have with an old friend who lives far away. I don’t pretend it’s deep or current. When we occasionally talk on the phone, we sometimes run out of things to say. Sometimes we say something and the other one thinks: that doesn’t seem like my memory of who you are. But there are moments when we share brief approximations of that former closeness, often around the holidays.
Keep the Christ in Christmas, they say. And so I write today as a Catholic, albeit one with baggage. I write to evoke Jesus, the son of God – a little country boy born in a bed of earth and hay in a barn surrounded by animals.
I write to evoke the leaders of the church, who for the last 50 years have been calling for greater environmental awareness. In 1971, Pope Paul VI wrote: “Due to an ill-conceived exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming, in turn, a victim of this degradation.” A decade later Pope, now Saint, John Paul II warned of “seeing no other meaning in the natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” A decade after that, Benedict XVI advocated “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”
This brings us to the current Pope, Francis, who has made care for the environment a central plank of his papacy. In 2015 he wrote a near 100-page encyclical letter entitled: On Care for Our Common Home. It was largely portrayed as a treatise on climate change, which was a central tenet. But the document is much bigger than that. Parts are an unequivocal reckoning with past positions the church has taken toward the environment. He states, directly, that the Genesis account that grants man dominion over the earth is “not a correct interpretation of the bible.” He rips into (in the manner of a gentle 81-year-old) individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market. He reminds us to recycle and reduce water consumption and turn off unnecessary lights. But the main gist is that a mathematical or biological understanding of nature is not enough. Intellectual appreciation and economic calculation are not enough. We need love to be at the core of our environmental consciousness. The same kind of love that binds us to our partners and children – the kind where we put their needs in front of our own and, contrary to all logic, it makes us feel good. He also pays homage to the old tropes awe and wonder. As adults we can be quick to dismiss them as romantic and superficial, but he challenges us to get over this. “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder,” he writes, “if we no longer speak the language of the fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitudes will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”
I know that most of you reading this aren’t Catholic, and that many don’t trust organized religion, which in a lot of cases, honestly, is fair. But there is something here that transcends denomination. There’s something base here to remember in this holy season no matter who you are.
I was talking to someone from state government the other day about landowners and forest management plans, and he was talking about this odd phenomenon where someone owns a parcel of land for 20 years and it’s just a passive asset, just a chunk of real estate, and then suddenly they wake up one day and want to know more about their woods. They want to work with a forester. They want to learn about what lives there. They want a management plan. They subscribe to Northern Woodlands. “Something just clicks,” he said.
Francis speaks of an environmentalism based on learning to give, not just give up. When we learn to give, forestland becomes more than a spreadsheet. When our management goes from passive to active, we find that we get as much or even more joy from practicing good stewardship – spraying barberry, building a skidder bridge, releasing a stand of maple – than we do from the gifts we receive from the land: the timber revenue, the venison, the nice place to take a walk.
I think maybe that’s what’s happening here.