Creation Matters

4 Oct

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most beloved saints in all of Christendom, and now the patron saint and inspiration of our new Holy Father.

No religious figure is as closely tied with nature as St. Francis. He is the patron saint of animals, zoos, ecology, the environment, and peace, among other things. When we think of him, we’re more likely to call to mind “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” and not an apologetics debate or Church politics. I like to think there’s a little St. Francis in all of us–hence the recurring joke that even God doesn’t know how many Franciscans there are in the world.

So today is a great day to look at some of the issues that resonate with our “inner Francis.” For example, where do we stand as Catholics when it comes to going “green”? And what about animal rights? PETA surely seems to be over the top, but don’t we condemn cruelty to animals? What principles should form our approach to the environment? To the animal kingdom? WWSFS? (What would St. Francis say?)

Well, we know from Scripture that “in the beginning” God created the entire world out of nothing, and we are repeatedly told in the opening verses of Genesis that is creation is “good” (Gen. 1:1, 4, 12, 18, 21, 25). God’s creation of the world reached its climax on the sixth day, when He created man and woman in His own image and likeness. At that point, we read that God’s creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:26-28, 31).

God entrusted His creation to Adam and Eve–and consequently to all of us. The Lord of all creation gave us the awesome responsibility to care for the created world, both for ourselves and for generations to come. Therefore, the world is not a hostile environment from which we seek refuge. Rather, God’s people have always considered creation as an object of praise, as it reflects the goodness and might of our heavenly Father.

While the world has been touched by sin, it’s also true that all creation participates in the redemption won by Christ. As St. Paul says, the created world still awaits its full liberation from corruption (see Rom. 8:19-22), which will be achieved in the establishment of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1).

This brief biblical overview helps us to understand the Church’s positive, balanced approach to the environment. We understand our privileged place in creation and the right to use the created world for our benefit. Yet, we also understand that the seventh commandment puts appropriate limits on our use of the world’s resources and summons us to approach the environment with profound respect (see Catechism, no. 2415). Our stewardship and “dominion” cannot be separated from our moral responsibilities toward the created world and our neighbors, including future generations (see Catechism, no. 2456).

Meanwhile, when it comes specifically to the animal world, the Church’s approach is beautifully summarized in Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 507:

“People must treat animals with kindness as creatures of God and avoid both excessive love for them and an indiscriminate use of them especially by scientific experiments that go beyond reasonable limits and entail needless suffering for the animals.”

Here again we see the Church’s balanced teaching, which rejects an extreme approach that would always consider it improper to use animals for food, clothing, and medical research. Part of the problem is the failure to recognize man’s special dignity, which can result in treating animals as having the same dignity and rights (and sometimes more!) as humans (see Catechism, nos. 2417-18).

At the same time, we are called to treat animals with kindness, taking our lead from saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, realizing that God delights in all His creatures.

For a fuller treatment of the Church’s teaching on the environment, see Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, chapter ten (nos. 451-87).

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