Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Ecological Confusion among the Clergy

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Ecological Confusion among the Clergy

Article excerpt

Clergy and religious organizations increasingly take positions on environmental policy issues. By adopting a deviation-from-pristine-nature standard for judging human stewardship, they believe an environmental crisis threatens God's good garden. They call for government and society at large to take extreme measures to protect ecosystems and to end timber harvesting on tens of millions of acres of public lands. Such calls are based on a poor understanding of environmental conditions and demonstrate little grasp of the current state of ecological science. Green-minded clerics seem to be unaware not only that ecologists have abandoned the notion of natural harmony and balance but that the concepts of the ecosystem, ecosystem sustainability, ecosystem health, and ecosystem integrity remain vague and controversial. It follows, therefore, that such ecological misunderstanding and theological confusion would result in misguided policy pronouncements.


Increasingly, Judeo-Christian leaders and organizations take stands on United States public policy issues related to the environment, natural resources, and land use. Since God fashioned creation, they reason, it is sacred and must be protected. They argue that Americans sin by not adequately maintaining God's garden. Sinning takes many forms, but green-minded theologians routinely describe it in terms borrowed from ecological science. Sinful behavior occurs when the integrity, sustainability, and stability of ecosystems are negatively affected, or when conditions are created wherein the needs of ecosystems cannot be met, or when the presumed balance and harmony of nature are upset. The purpose of this article is to examine the use of ecological concepts among religious leaders in formulating environmental policy positions. My argument is that a faulty understanding of ecology often leads the clergy to make scientifically and theologically ill-informed public policy pronouncements. A striking example of this can be seen in an international effort by Catholic bishops regarding the watershed of the Columbia River, which, they allege, God intended to be a "sacramental commons."

The Standard of Judgment for Ecological Sin

The clerics' belief that we are in the grip of an ecological crisis leads them to conclude that humankind's sinful behavior is destroying the garden. In 1991 two dozen representatives of Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, and Native American churches and organizations met in New York City to formulate a response to this environmental crisis. The meeting resulted in the "Statement by Religious Leaders at the Summit on Environment" (hereafter, the Summit Statement), which employed crisis language to describe the current state of the environment. Thus, according to the Summit Statement, "Almost daily, we note mounting evidence of environmental destruction ... what God made and held good is under assault...." (1) The United States Catholic Conference (USCC) concurs with this assessment: "At its core, the environmental crisis is a moral challenge." (2) Similarly, the National Council of Churches (NCC) finds that "God's creation is being abused and violated ... [that] we are killing the earth ... killing the waters ... killing the skies." (3) The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) proclaims "the environmental crisis is a religious challenge." (4) The North American Coalition for Christianity and Ecology (NACCE) insists that "the ecological crisis and the host of actions contributing to it are best understood in the context of sin." Sinning occurs when people refuse "to act in the image of God" and thus do not "value and love the host of independent creatures in their ecosystems" as God does. People, they write, "relentlessly oppress the Earth and violate the integrity of creation." (5)

These clerical cries of crisis do not pass ecological muster. First of all, neither the earth, the waters, nor the skies are living things in their own right, which means that humans cannot be killing them, as the NCC contends. …

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