[Editor’s Note: In a message for the September 1 World Day of Prayer for the Care for Creation, Pope Francis urged governments to show the “political will” to take drastic steps to deal with climate change and says it’s time to abandon dependence on fossil fuels. Jason Adkins has served as the executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference since 2011. Charles Camosy spoke to Adkins about the ecological projects taking place with the Minnesota bishops in light of the pope’s call to do better in taking care of our “common home.”]
Camosy: September 1st was the World Day of Prayer for the Care for Creation. What did you guys do to mark this day?
Adkins: The Minnesota Catholic Conference is rolling out companion materials to our educational resource, entitled, Minnesota, Our Common Home, which was released earlier this year in February. The companion materials include a study guide, homily helpers, and an ecological examen.
The intention of Minnesota, Our Common Home is to bring into clearer focus the central teachings of Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’. While the encyclical itself is a groundbreaking document, it is very long and covers a lot of ground. We felt that taking its key messages and then translating them into a local context would help people here in Minnesota understand how Laudato Si’ and its call to integral ecology apply to their own daily lives.
Ultimately, we believe both the increasing environmental consciousness of people everywhere and Pope Francis’s encyclical are an important evangelical opportunity for the Church. Pope Francis says that the Church’s activities must be understood in a missionary and evangelical framework, and that is the way in which this resource should be understood: a tool for evangelization.
Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something to protect creation; and if we want to counteract the many environmental, cultural, and spiritual crises impacting the human and natural ecology, we must start in our own homes and backyard.
I have more questions about the specifics of implementation, but first can you say more about what you mean by integral ecology?
One of the main goals of Minnesota, Our Common Home is to connect the dots between questions of the natural ecology and questions of the human or social ecology and root the discussion within the framework of integral ecology and right relationships.
We begin the document with a “head-level” and “heart-level” discourse in theological anthropology – why and how we were made from the abundance of God’s love – because , as the pope himself said, “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.” A strong foundation in solid theological principle is important so we can apply those principles to concrete issues. You can’t explain to others what you don’t understand yourself.
The first two sections of Minnesota, Our Common Home lay the groundwork for what Pope Francis means when he uses the term “integral ecology.” Integral ecology is an ethic that respects both human and natural ecology and does justice to both. Everything is connected. As Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’, “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”
The concept of integral ecology, that everything is connected, is evident in the Church’s public policy. Every policy issue, from abortion to carbon emissions, is woven into the web of relationships in which we live. We would all do well to consider the public square something of a “political ecosystem,” acknowledging that no one issue stands or falls on its own.
That said, the “life issues” necessarily take a certain priority in the Church’s civic engagement because they speak to our human nature and often involve intrinsic moral evils. Yes, protection of life at all stages is the foundation of the house. But we want life to flourish as well. To put it another way, if we want to be salt and light for our culture, we need a consistent ethic of life that informs how we think about every issue, rather than zeroing in on just one or two. That’s why the imagery of ecology and ecosystems is so important for thinking about Catholic social teaching and what it is exactly that the Church is proposing.
For example, in recent years, political discourse in the state of Minnesota has focused a lot on environmental policy. There have been high-intensity debates in our state over new pipelines, hydraulic fracking, mining projects, and water quality, to name a few. Often, these debates are framed as a zero-sum game between jobs and environmental protection, with the two sides digging in.
Similarly, there has been no shortage of controversy over difficult social questions related to marriage, sexuality, and life issues from conception until natural death.
Although it may seem like these issues sit at either end of a political spectrum, they all bring to the forefront one key theme of discipleship: Our stewardship of creation. Both sets of issues are ultimately about restoring right relationships—with the earth and one another, but especially with God.
When we are in right relationship with the Creator and have an awareness of our identity in Him and our mission to be stewards of creation—including our bodies—then our actions will receive all that comes from Him as gifts to be stewarded, not raw material to be manipulated at will. The soil, the water, our marriages—all of it; our attention must extend from the marriage bed to the garden bed.
And there are interesting connections, because everything is connected! What effect, for example, is there on our waters from years of contraceptive hormones trickling into both the water supply and our lakes and rivers? A certain false dominion over our bodies leads to harmful consequences in the natural ecology.
It is one thing to have high-minded and abstract ideas, but quite another to put them into place in a meaningful way in a local context. What are you guys doing to make it matter in the lives of actual people?
Minnesota, Our Common Home is written primarily for the person in the pew. It is for people in the Church who have perhaps never considered how faith relates to the natural environment, as well as for those who want to see more clearly how our Catholic faith speaks to our responsibility to care for all of God’s creation, even in the context of legislative advocacy.
Part Three of the document offers more practical suggestions, both for home life and for public policy. Although it does not always give definitive answers to the challenges we are facing on a state level, it teaches the relevant principles needed to form one’s decisions and actions. It shows how the message of Laudato Si’ can speak to us as Minnesotans in the face of challenges related to the environment, agriculture, sexuality, human life, and human nature itself.
Ultimately, it’s not about telling people what to do, but getting them to a deeper sense of the “why” behind Pope Francis’s encyclical and its call to ecological conversion. We are children of a good Father who gives us the abundant gifts of creation. It is a blessing to be His children, and it is in that identity as sons and daughters of the Father, and stewards of His gifts, in which we discover a better sense of ourselves, and our purpose in the temporal order—a purpose and mission to which the person of Jesus Christ brings even greater clarity (cf. Gaudium et spes 22, 24).
That being said, we are in the final stages of developing more concrete resources – a small group study guide and an ecological examen – to give parishes practical things that they can do together to promote and live ecological stewardship. We hope that ecological stewardship becomes woven into the fabric of parish life, and even that there may come about a healthy competition on matters of environmental stewardship.
We cannot fail to see the evangelical opportunities inherent in such a development, especially with young people who expect their faith communities to be leaders on creation stewardship. That’s another reason for Minnesota, Our Common Home, namely, to speak into this evangelical moment and inspire others to get engaged on these questions—for the sake of the Gospel.
One of the great things about having local state Catholic conferences is similar to one of the things that’s so great about having U.S. states more generally: They serve as laboratories for strikingly creative and hopeful ideas. How can others who want to mine your ideas and resources do so?
Others are welcome to take freely from our resources—like an evangelical commons or open source. State Catholic conferences have a healthy collegiality where we borrow and learn from one another on a regular basis. Already, California has developed its own local Laudato si’ resource, and other states are engaged in these conversations as well.
The question at the level of policy is how much dioceses or local churches want to wade into specific policies or practices, or should they focus their approach at the level of principle and let lay people translate those into the specific concerns and debates in their local context.
We hope that others don’t lose the central focus of Laudato si’ by getting hung up on specific issues or policy debates. It’s about ecological conversion. By helping people better understand their relationship with creation, they will consider more deeply their relationship with the Creator. If we want others to respect the earth, we can’t ignore that right relationships with the land begin with right relationships with God. Conversely, our relationship with the Creator is incomplete if we are indifferent to protecting His creation.
Knowing Jesus and being in communion with the Blessed Trinity is the fulcrum around which everything turns. We hope more people encounter the living God through this document, and that people elsewhere are inspired to think creatively and in an evangelical way about creation stewardship.
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