Religious by Nature: A Franciscan Environmental Activist Recycles Some Ancient Traditions for Modern Use

U.S. Catholic, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Religious by Nature: A Franciscan Environmental Activist Recycles Some Ancient Traditions for Modern Use


The editors interview Keith Douglas Warner, O.F.M.

Hundreds of years before the environmental movement, St. Francis of Assisi recognized God in creation and changed his life. Today one of his spiritual sons, Keith Douglass Warner, O.F.M., is encouraging Catholics to do the same.

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But while Warner holds up St. Francis, patron of ecology, as a prime example, he doesn't expect 21st-century Catholics to live in a cave for half the year, survive on nuts and berries, or preach to birds. We need to regain the "sense of enchantment" that St. Francis had, Warner says, and we can do so by gardening, taking a walk in the park, changing our diet, and praying.

How exactly can prayer solve complex issues like climate change? The problem, Warner says, "is more fundamental. The most important problem is that we go to church and hear all of these teachings, but it doesn't affect us because we've so fractured our identity."

So yes, experiencing God in nature is not only the Catholic thing to do, but it is also the first step to caring for creation. "I have the privilege of living at a rural retreat house, so I get to see beauty and a whole host of God's creatures every day that I'm at home," he says. "That prompts me ever more fully to love and express gratitude to God for the gift of creation."

What's the single most important thing that Catholics can do to protect the environment?

Practice contemplative prayer. The fundamental problem is that we are alienated from God, ourselves, and the earth, and it's through prayer that we can come to understand where we belong.

It's our apathy, our consumerism, and our materialism that distract us from what's most important, and it's in that context of prayerful reflection upon our relationship to God that we can grow and accept our responsibility.

Is Catholicism really a nature-friendly religion?

Creation has been very important throughout the history of Catholic thought and teaching, but the current emphasis of both Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, on creation comes as a surprise to many Catholics. Somehow we've allowed our thinking about creation to be more influenced by our culture than by our Catholic tradition.

To love the earth is a sacred responsibility, but this idea has been lost. It's not just Catholicism that has lost its awareness of the importance of creation. This has been part of a broad erosion across religions, at least in the West.

Are we just throwing holy water on a secular environmental movement?

I don't think so. What people have talked about in the U.S. Catholic Church, especially the bishops in their 1991 letter Renewing the Earth, has been the notion of a distinctly Catholic environmental approach.

What makes it distinctly Catholic?

It has a much stronger emphasis on ethics rather than on individual issues. You are more likely to have tactical influence on the political process if you are issues driven, but I think most Catholics prefer to have a broader moral vision and are trying to understand what it means to live a more holistic life.

Catholic environmentalism also focuses on its integral connection to our vision of humanity in society. We've added environmental justice, the idea that the poor shouldn't bear an unfair burden of environmental degradation, as a theme within Catholic social teaching.

While this is important, I would say that it needs to be complemented by a spirituality of care for the earth, of love, gratitude, and prayerful relationship with the earth. That is what I think is most needed and most missing.

I think that so many people are repelled by the secular movement because they see it as driven by anger, not love. It makes people feel guilty rather than grateful and energized. That's a real challenge because if you just look at the data, it's really grim, verging on apocalyptic.

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Religious by Nature: A Franciscan Environmental Activist Recycles Some Ancient Traditions for Modern Use
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