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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Integral and spiritual ecology

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A statue of St. Francis of Assisi, patron of animals and the environment, is pictured in a garden at a community in Austin, Texas, in 2021. Photo: OSV News photo/CNS file, Bob Roller
A statue of St. Francis of Assisi, patron of animals and the environment, is pictured in a garden at a community in Austin, Texas, in 2021. Photo: OSV News photo/CNS file, Bob Roller

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP’s Catechesis on ‘Integral Ecology’ for World Youth Day 2023 at the Jardim da Avenida João Branco Núncio, Lisbon, Wednesday 3 August 2023

Lately there’s been plenty of talk about UFOs, aliens, and interstellar travel: a former US official has even claimed under oath that government is in possession of a non-human spacecraft with some intact alien biological material! I don’t pretend to know the rights and wrongs of all of this, but I wonder what an alien species would make of a million plus adolescent humans from every place on earth, suddenly gathering in one place, singing and dancing, silently adoring, and the rest?

Is it like birds or salmon or other creatures that migrate great distances once a year or every so many years and end up swarming in some location? Is it a call of nature to a lovely place for feeding or breeding purposes? That might be the alien scientists’ conclusion; the popular media is often just as clueless.

Well, why we are here? Answering “it’s World Youth Day” doesn’t take us very far: there’s a deeper reason you’re all here, one personal to each of you, one that goes beyond all the external stuff: one way or another, God has called you here, and you have responded. He wants you to insert your story in His big story, He wants you to be in loving communion with Him and the saints, He wants you to be part of the supernatural ecology.

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For beyond natural ecology that we’ve been considering today is a supernatural one, that includes God, angels and devils, souls awaiting resurrection, and our souls already capable of extraordinary things. God the Creator of all things visible and invisible, the source of all that is, has loved you from all eternity. He nourishes your soul with word and sacraments, much as he nourishes your body with fruits of earth. In the process he makes you part of three ecologies: the natural order, human society, and the communion of saints. He has personally called you into all three.

He has offered you a life greater than anything culture offers or you could imagine. A life more than gadgets and apps, fads, and material things: a life of joy that is everlasting rather than fleeting, that runs so much deeper than superficial appearance, a total joy that is everlasting.

In his message for this World Youth Day, the Holy Father said: “To experience the presence of the risen Christ in our own lives, to encounter him alive, is the greatest spiritual joy, an explosion of light that can leave no one untouched.”

As Jason from South Africa said about original sin and our brokenness, our need for conversion, our need for Christ—so we get rather deeper into the intergalactic observer’s question about why on earth you are all here… And God’s call to a place recalls that we are bodily beings as much as spiritual, that we inhabit a space and live through a life-cycle (if we are lucky) and depend upon the world around us to survive and thrive.

Today we’ve heard a lot about essential interconnections between the non-human and human ecologies—our survival depends upon both: food, water, clothing, housing, education, work, leisure, culture—all depend upon non-human and human working together; droughts can lead to starvation, as can trade blockages.

Human actions can have positive or dire effects on environment; nature can have positive or dire effects on humans.

God is the ultimate ground of both non-human and human environments and has entrusted care of both to us, as both constitute our common home.

If we over-exploit or trash the natural world to maximise our short-term wealth or comfort, we fail in sharing with the poor and may effectively be stealing from those in greater need. We steal also from future generations who should be left opportunities at least equal to ours. We sin against the beauty and goodness of creation and demean ourselves in the process. We show disrespect for creation and for God: as the patron saint of science St Albert the Great said, “Irreverence toward the creation is irreverence toward the Creator.”

But caring about baby plants or animals while not caring about human babies is illogical and demonstrates perverse priorities.

We must care at least as passionately about the human ecology as the non-human; some people apparently regard human beings as intruders in natural world, or as pollution, that we need to clear away to ensure a pristine environment for a few to enjoy. The Christian insight is that the natural world is for our benefit and that we should care for our common home as we do for our domestic environment, so it benefits all, including future generations.

So, we care passionately about the issues we’ve discussed today, such as climate, soil, water, biodiversity, pollution, and the rest, but we also care passionately about unborn and newborn babies; we care deeply for the poor, the disabled and the elderly; for refugees, victims of human trafficking, and all of those who suffer because of the “throw-away culture.” No-one should force us to choose between caring about people or about the natural world: we care about both. That’s the wisdom of an integral ecologism—one that integrates faith and science, both natural and human environments.

If human and non-human ecologies are interconnected in various important ways, so too there are the natural and supernatural ecologies. How we behave on Earth and towards Earth and all who live on Earth affects our eternal destiny. St Francis famously cared about the poor and about nature, he was a model of communion with and between human and non-human worlds. To care about the environment but not about God is to lose sight of the grounding and goals of our care. St Thomas Aquinas wrote on the many ways the natural world informs our understanding about the existence and nature of God, and our own nature informs our understanding of morality (“better self-choices,” better policies and regulations); conversely, our understanding of God colours our understanding and relationships with creation and our fellows. Awe and reflection on the wonders of creation should lead us to ask why it’s so good and beautiful, why it’s so well ordered, why there is anything at all: science tells us a lot about the “what” of creation, but to make any sense of the “why” we need faith.

But a drought of faith can be as deadly for our souls as a drought of water for our bodies; a failure of communion with God, the saints, and the church is more dangerous than a failure to collaborate on climate or other concerns; if we mess ourselves up with sins and vices, bad thinking and false beliefs, and other kinds of spiritual pollution, we will damage our supernatural ecology just as surely as the natural ecosystem.

We must have an integral and spiritual ecologism, living in union with others and with creation, for God’s sake and for common good of humanity. One that celebrates diversity and interconnections and sheer beauty of creation and of human persons; one that checks our egocentrism and selfishness, our uncontrolled anthropocentrism, as if we were the centre of the universe; one that makes space for God and for others, especially for weak, and not just on level of theory, but in how we live family and friendships, education and work, society and culture, leisure and worship.

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