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Pro-Life Environmentalism & Dogma

NCR’s editorial on the environment as a pro-life issue has certainly generated a great deal of comment. The Huffington Post commented favorably on the editorial as part of a larger piece on the pro-life aspects of environmental concern. Conversely, conservative priest-blogger Fr. Zuhlsdorf has chastised NCR, characterizing our editorial as an “attempt by the catholic [sic] Left to distract us from abortion by rattling the shiny object of care for the Earth.”

I have never understood the conservative attitude that abortion is an issue of such significance that it should be made to stand alone. I believe that abortion is of such significance that it should not be made to stand alone but should be linked to a variety of other concerns on which people who do not share our Catholic pro-life concern for the unborn might be made to question why their empathy does not extend to the unborn. I am a tried and true devotee of the seamless garment. But make no mistake. The seamless garment approach was vilified from the moment it was articulated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. I know an auxiliary bishop who used the phrase in a talk and got a call from his ordinary the next day, instructing him that “we do not use that phrase.”

The seamless garment, or consistent ethic of life, invites political empathy from those who do not currently share our convictions about the inviolability of life in the womb, or in the nursing home, or on death row. We can look at someone with whom we have just shared a fast or a political gathering or a prayer vigil on behalf of the undocumented and say, with unique credibility, “God bless you for your concern for the undocumented. I hope someday you will extend that concern to the unborn.”

Setting up abortion as a kind of litmus test has exactly the opposite effect. It says to those whom we need to convince and persuade that they are not really kosher, that what we perceive as their inconsistency is so obvious it must be rooted in malevolence, that only those of us who already care about the unborn are worthy of any kind of political or legal or moral common effort. Certainly, as a matter of political strategy, we can now conclude that the litmus test approach has failed. This is merely to state an historical fact.

The left appears delightfully surprised to find the Church as an ally in the cause of environmental stewardship. Their caricature of our faith, however, presents its own limits. They are glad to welcome us Catholics on to their bandwagon, as if the bandwagon began in the 1960s and not in the thirteenth century when Francis took a walk around the hillsides of Assisi. (Our Catholic concern for the environment actually began earlier – more on that in a moment.) The left even says that they want to make moral arguments for environmental protection policies, and who better to make moral arguments than us Catholics! But, make no mistake, the Left would be quite content to have us along as chaplains, blessing the troops, but certainly not invited to the table where decisions are being made. We might bring our dogma with us and who wants that?

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I do. In fact, I would argue that the proper answer to the conservative critics who worry we are trying to distract from abortion and to the putative allies on the left who want our help but only on their terms is simply this: We must insist that our Catholic concern for the environment is no mere moral concern. It is dogmatic.

All was created in Him. All was created for Him. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is the basis of our specifically doctrinal concern about the environmental health of the earth. We must state this clearly and unequivocally. Our canonical text, in one of the most beautiful hymns of the early Church, makes a very large claim in asserting that all was created in Christ and for Christ. Certainly, if we believe those words, and we must, then we should view this creation we call the environment with a degree of reverence and concern that is, in the strictest sense of the word, transcendent. Yes, we are convinced by scientific evidence that urgent action must be taken to protect the earth. Yes, we have a clear and unimpeachable moral case to make for environmental protection. But, at its root, as the principal source of our commitment, we must be willing to state clearly that our concern for creation is inseparable from our love for Him in whom it was created.

Next Sunday, at Mass, look at the care with which the priest cleans the chalice and the paten after the distribution of Holy Communion. Those vessels have just held His sacred body and blood. If we believe as Paul encouraged the Colossians to believe, that all is created in that same person, Jesus Christ, surely we should treat the environment with a similar care and attention. We should clean the earth as we clean the chalice and the paten, thoroughly, reverently. And, if we are seen to care for the world with such attention and devotion, will not those we encounter ask us why? Will we not create an opportunity to evangelize? Will we not find moments, appropriate moments, to explain that our concern for the air and our concern for the ozone is rooted in the same doctrinal claims that lead us to be concerned for the unborn and for the undocumented? Are not our critiques of laissez-faire capitalism, and of socialism before it, rooted in this same concern for the transcendent dignity of God’s creation?

I believe we Catholics are called to protect the environment. I believe we Catholics are called to protect the unborn. I believe we Catholics are called to protect the undocumented. I believe we Catholics are called to protect the marginalized. I believe we Catholics are called to protect the poor. I believe we Catholics are called to protect the elderly and the inform. No amount of scientific data or economic theory or legal reasoning can persuade me that any of these concerns can or should be set aside, for the simple reason that I believe what Paul wrote: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.” We should not leave this dogmatic belief at the door when we enter the counsels of the left. We should not set limits on the reach of this dogmatic belief to conform to the political agenda of the right. This is no mere moralism. This is no mere politics. It is long since time that we Catholics act and speak and behave and vote and fund and write as if we believe what Paul wrote. 

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July 18-31, 2014

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