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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Catholic Earth Sprituality

Air Date: Week of

- Spring is the season when life mysteriously remerges out of the cold winter soil. For Christians around the world, spring also means Easter: the celebration of Jesus' ressurection. A growing number of Roman Catholics are making conscious connections between these two events--linking their faith and their concern for the earth. But as Richard Schiffman reports it's not always easy to reconcile age-old religious traditions and a new environmental consciousness.


RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph. Spring is the season when life mysterious re-emerges out of the cold winter soil. For Christians around the world, Spring also means Easter, the celebration of Jesus's resurrection. Now a growing number of Roman Catholics are making conscious connections between these 2 events, linking their faith and their concern for the Earth. But as Richard Schiffman reports, it's not always easy to reconcile age-old religious traditions and a new environmental consciousness.

(Church bells ring)

WOMAN: We confess, O God, that we have not kept your laws, but have abused your gift of creation. (Congregation murmurs a reply) We confess, O God, that we have risked permanent damage to your handiwork...

SCHIFFMAN: At St. Mary's Roman Catholic church in Islip, Long Island, about 50 people gather to discuss a recent leak of radiation from the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratories, a nuclear research facility.

(People milling)

MANISCALCO: Recently, myself, Bill McNulty and a few others, have been having a vigil in front of the Brookhaven Laboratory, and it's kind of interesting...

SCHIFFMAN: Pete Maniscalco is a city planner turned environmental activist who goes weekly to Brookhaven to protest high levels of radiation discovered in nearby groundwater. He tells the audience that his Friday vigil is for him a religious act.

MANISCALCO:... service for us, my going to vigil, and I don't claim that I'm all right. But this is my way of defending and protecting what I see as sacred. Long Island as my sacred mother.

SCHIFFMAN: Brookhaven physicist Mike O'Brien, a Roman Catholic, has been invited to the meeting to give the lab's position.

O'BRIEN: Let me start out by saying that I personally feel very offended by being accused of being an immoral person and crucifying the Earth by participating in the nuclear program. And I'm offended by that because...

SCHIFFMAN: O'Brien feels that Brookhaven's research has been, in his words, a moral boon to humanity, leading to medical breakthroughs which have saved thousands of lives. But it's clear that not everyone in this audience agrees with him.

WOMAN: We're saying that this water that we have is from God. It's a gift, and all life stems from that water. And you're willing to risk it because you think that somehow you're doing more good. And we don't believe that.

SCHIFFMAN: In many ways tonight's forum is similar to environmental debates all over the country. What sets this discussion apart is that it's framed largely in religious terms. The meeting was organized by the environmental prayer group of St. Mary's Parish, a group of Catholics who thought a lot about the ties between religion and the environment. For the last 2 years they've combined political action with prayer for the healing of the Earth. They meet weekly over dinner.

(Wind and clinking utensils)

WOMAN: We're grateful for the wonderful gifts of Earth that we're being offered to eat, and we pray for the grace to be willing to be food for others. Amen.

GROUP: Amen.

SCHIFFMAN: Tonight, group members talk about their sometimes ambivalent relationship to the church.

WOMAN: I find church difficult. I don't attend all the time. They don't preach that the Earth is spiritual. They don't preach that everything living has a spirituality.

WOMAN 2: You went to the church for sacred things. And then the world was where all the other bad stuff happened.

SCHIFFMAN: But these Catholic environmentalists say they now believe that God and the world are not completely separate, as they once were taught. In their study group they've been learning about a new Earth-based spirituality, which says that the natural world is the primary revelation of God. And Ferrara says it's revolutionized the way she understands her religion.

FERRARA: The idea that the universe is the primary revelation. That for many of us was shattering. It was shattering because we were so focused on the Bible, on the Gospel. In other words, that was for us the word of God. One of the suggestions Thomas Berry makes is that we put Scripture and the dictionary on the shelf for 20 years.

SCHIFFMAN: This suggestion is all the more surprising because it's being made by a Roman Catholic priest. Father Thomas Berry is regarded as a modern-day prophet by some and as a maverick by other Catholics. He doesn't reject the Bible or the Church traditions, but he says that the universe itself is telling a story every bit as profound as the account in Scriptures. Only, 20th century humans don't seem to have the ears to hear it.

BERRY: I say that my generation has been autistic. An autistic child is locked into themselves, they cannot get out and the outer world cannot get in. They cannot receive affection, cannot give affection. And this is, I think, a very appropriate way of identifying the generation that's lived through the 20th century in relationship to the natural world. We have no feeling for the natural world. We'd as soon cut down our most beautiful tree, the most beautiful forest in the world. We cut down for wood, for timber, for board feed. We don't see the tree, we only see it in terms of its commercial value.

SCHIFFMAN: Father Berry's call for a new creation affirming spirituality has struck a responsive chord with a group of Dominican sisters in Amityville, New York.

(Geese honk)

SCHIFFMAN: There's a flock of geese on the park-like grounds of the mother house: a green refuge within the suburban sprawl of Long Island's South Shore.

CLARK: We've planted garlic, which you can see coming up here. It's doing very, very well.

SCHIFFMAN: Sister Jean Clark points to some newly plowed ground with a few green shoots poking through the late winter soil. Growing an organic garden is just one of the ways the Amityville sisters are reconnecting with nature. They perform outdoor rituals on the winter and summer solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes: ancient Earth festivals which some Catholics still regard as Pagan. And recently, they passed a resolution which expands the definition of their religious community to include the land and its nonhuman inhabitants.

CLARK: It's really the thought of Thomas Berry, where I first heard about thinking of the other members of the community. The human community is not the only sacred community, but the sacred community really is the community of all of life, including these geese here, the birds you hear singing. The insects. Animals.

SCHIFFMAN: Sister Jean and her fellow nuns are part of a growing chorus of Catholic voices: lay, religious, and ordained, calling for ecological responsibility. The US Bishops' Catholic Conference has started an environmental justice program for parishes, including a video exhorting viewers to become good stewards of the earth.

(Music and dove calls. Child: "We didn't have, like, anything to do with making it, so I think it's the Lord's Earth." Woman: "The Lord's Earth. A beautiful and mysterious environment. Called in a special way to cultivate and care for the Lord's Earth, men and women bear a unique responsibility before God to protect this world, and by their creative labor...")

SCHIFFMAN: Father Kenneth Himes is a professor of moral theology at the Washington Theological Union.

HIMES: The papacy, the American bishops, have all issued important statements on the environment. Probably in just about every parish by now at some point or another in a homily, reference has been made to an environmental issue or an environmental problem. It may not be a steady drum beat every Sunday, but I suspect people are beginning to see that there is or there ought to be a connection between their faith life and environmental awareness in the same way that there ought to be a connection between their faith life and their work place or their faith life and family life.

SCHIFFMAN: Exactly what that connection should be is the subject of dispute among Catholics. Some conservative thinkers, like Robert Royal of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, warn against the dangers of nature worship.

ROYAL: There are no ways to go back to a kind of a divinization of nature that will solve the difficulties that we living in modern 20th century industrialized societies have. I think it's a pipe dream to think that there's going to be a rollback of industry and technologies. And I think that the very spiritualization of nature that many people call up for not only is ineffective but is quite dangerous, because it distracts people from the really hard thinking and self-examination that they would have to do if they truly want to engage what are going to be the environmental problems over the next 40 or 50 years.

SCHIFFMAN: Royal also feels that in their love for the natural world, Catholic environmentalists sometimes give short shrift to human needs like jobs and economic development. The US Catholic conference talks about putting humans back into the environmental picture. They've been especially aggressive in advocating for poor Americans who suffer disproportionately from pollution and other ecological abuses. Their environmental justice program makes seed grants to local projects throughout the country, which address a wide range of environmental ills.

(Paul Winter Consort's Missa Gaia opening: wolf howls, man echoes: "Kyrie Eleison")

SCHIFFMAN: Ritual forms are changing, too, as Catholics make then connections between their environmental work and the ways they pray and worship. The legendary friend of wolves and birds, St. Francis of Assisi, has been declared patron saint of ecology by Pope John Paul II. St. Francis's feast day in October is a kind of religious Earth Day in many churches, including a yearly ecumenical celebration at New York's huge Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine. Here, Episcopal and Roman Catholic bishops in their finery, ochre-robed Hinduswamis, and Zen Buddhist monks parade down the aisle with the real stars: a veritable Noah's ark of elephants, llamas, chimpanzees, even bluegreen algae, marching or lovingly carried past the great stone altar to be blessed.

(Missa Gaia continues)

SCHIFFMAN: The mood in the world's largest cathedral is exalted during the soaring Kyrie of Paul Winter's Earth Mass. Religious environmentalists say that how we worship has a big impact on how we think and how we act in the world. And they hope that the moral force of church teachings together with the power of new life-affirming rituals like this one will help inspire the faithful to cherish and protect the Earth. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.



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