In favor of a Green Church

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

In the encyclical Laudato Si, pope Francis had called for a “green conversion” (n.216 to 221). The call was heard, to say the least, as it gave in to a multitude of spoken interventions, promoted and encouraged notably by the Church in France which made this green conversion one of the main axis of its action. In this way, a short time ago, during the closing speech of the fall plenary assembly of the French bishops Conference, Sunday 10 November 2019, Mgr Éric de Moulins-Beaufort gave it a lot of importance as part of the overall conversion which must be the one of the Catholic Church in France today. Next to that, were also mentioned the establishment of true relation with the victims of sexual abuse, the renewal of the Church through synodality and collegiality, and overcoming social tensions (islamic head scarf, immigration).

On this occasion, one noted the new and substantial presence of lay delegates, every bishop having come to Lourdes with two persons of its diocese: if the synodality took shape, it would be due to the necessary conversion to ecology, just as the president of the episcopal conference said in the discourse aforementioned: “We are happy to have lived like this in a stronger collegiality with pope Francis, in the light of his encyclical Laudato Si and in a certain type of synodality, by working with the representatives of all of the people of God”.

The “green Church” label

But, in reality, what is this green conversion about?

Out of this enthusiasm for Laudato Si and out of this promotion made by the Church, the label “Green Church” is most typical. Ecumenical, this label, if it was created in September 2017 on the occasion of the 10th year anniversary of Creation day, presents itself on the internet (egliseverte.org, meaning green church) under a double patronage, both COP 21 and the encyclical Laudato Si, both dating back from 2015.  

It caters to parishes and movements, more widely to all groups recognized by the Council of Churches in France and – in the logic of management tools which are becoming more present in the religious field – it intends to be a tool having for a goal to evaluate the true respect of creation and to incite people to be more involved. The survey or query – called “eco-diagnostic” – which presides to the acquisition of this green label (it must renewed every year), starts by a quick pick of propositions questioning whether the “theme of creation” is present in the celebrations, homilies and catechesis. With that, it is hard to qualify the tool of Christian; rather, it is a secular tool that is being applied to Christian groups. The question of the exact kind of targeted conversion is then an issue.

Especially since, thereafter, the survey is largely concerned with buildings (from the insulation up to the recycled paper for bathrooms, from compost pile to bicycle racks), grounds (is there a garden and are vegetable and fruits grown?), local activism (projection of movies, meeting with local representatives, car-pooling, vegetarian menu or vegan, short food producer to consumer channel) global activism (fair trade, lenten campaign of the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development – CCFD), and ways of life (the 4 “R”: Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle; plus, personal and ethical community savings, environmental audit including carbon assessment and “energy positive families”, prevention of the overconsumption of emails and internet in reaction to the energetic cost of computer data storage). The management tool, in its dynamic, appears to be for Christian communities an instrument of conversion to ecology. And this very well seems to be the principal intension of this conversion to ecology, mainly practical, where ecology takes all precedence.

Certainly, it is good, whatever the times we live in, to discover and to further acquired attitudes such as temperance, sharing, priority of being and of relations versus having, etc. The ecological thematic can be, without difficulty, the opportunity for that. Though, its virtues are not properly ecological. In Christianity, they have ancient and fundamental ties and fall under asceticism and charity. There is an embarrassing ambiguity when they are not differentiated from the context or circumstances in which they are currently being promoted. Ambiguity when, for example, in a speech, Mgr de Moulins-Beaufort, using an almost established expression, speaks of “joyful simplicity”. In this expression, either the substantive nor the adjective poses an issue, to the contrary, but it can’t be ignored that their association, the joyful simplicity, carries the ideas of Pierre Rahbi, the Algerian novelist-farmer, thinker of the farming-ecology movement, and who has, if not created, definitely popularized the expression: neo-ruralism and back to the land, de-growth, anti-globalism – any of which themes we could agree or disagree. We will have to, as some point, reconsider this reuse of concepts that came a bit from afar…

Environmental related sins

But the present environmental dynamic in the Church, if it is practical, though rather plain sometimes, is nonetheless supplied, in parts, by a problematic state of mind. One proposition of this eco-diagnostic (prop. D22, which allow for “Yes”, “No”, or “Not sure yet” answers), actually lost in the middle of technical or concrete propositions, deserves being quoted: “In prayer, our community presents to God our failure in regards to the wounded creation and ask Him to continue through us the path of liberation towards the “promise land” “. It is like Man is recognized as guilty in relation to a personified creation. This empowerment of “sister Earth” had striked a few at the reading of Laudato Si. In this logic, the final document of the recent synod on the Amazon has recently proposed to define an “eco-sin” as an “action or omission” against God, our neighbor, the community and the environment” (n,82), idea raised again by Francis: “We must introduce  – we are thinking about it – in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the sin against the environment, the eco-sin against the common house”; and to employ even the term of “ecocide” (Speech to the participants of the World Congress of the International Association of Penal Law, 15 November 2019). 

John Paul II, the first pope so it seems, who had used the expression of eco-conversion (audience of 17 January 2001), certainly spoke of sin, but of a sin against God, since the man of modern societies, an impious man who neglects wisdom and the divine glory manifested in the creation and revealed in the Holy Scripture, abuses the management which was entrusted to his care and, thus, the divine kingdom of which it is the source. Nothing different from a classic theology on creation, created for man, placed under his dominion and submission (cf. Gn 1,28).

The emphasis is rather different at the beginning of the encyclical: “This is why, among the poor the most abandoned and mistreated, our oppressed and devastated land is, which groans “as in the pains of childbirth” (Rm 8,22); also different it is when the following opinion is put forward, taken from Teilhard de Chardin: “The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things (…) The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things” (n. 83). This has allowed the philosopher Fabien Revol, during the assembly of the bishops, to affirm: “We must find again the sense of the proper and intrinsic values of creatures. They are not made to serve human beings. They have their own dignity.”

To be in harmony with the ideas of the world

From approximations to slips, creation theology was associated, during the synod on the Amazon, to animist beliefs: who has not heard about the Pachamama?  In the Western countries, it goes along with holistic and gnostic theories, those of radical ecology (deep ecology, as it is called). An equality or a similitude is then established between Creation, our sister mother Earth (saint Francis of Assisi) and the mother goddess Gaïa. Nature, not only acquires a full autonomy, but man becomes the one to blame, he is guilty, not because of his bad usage of the goods but constitutively. If the thinking is radical, and thinks of itself as such and because of that remains marginal, nonetheless it grows to become more influential: violent aggressions against butchers or statements against having children eventually find complaisant ears. More secretly, a consensus find its existence based on the apparent culpability of man against an innocent autonomous reality, Nature.

The subject of Creation theology would deserve yet a coherent philosophical and theological reflection: it falls within a moral of virtues, eventually even a mystic (in the manner of, for example, saint Bonaventure translating the Franciscan experience in the scheme of the triple way: purgative, illuminative and unitive). But addressed as it is today, it also falls within the history of ideas and more precisely invites us to wonder: the emphasis put on ecology in the discourse of the Church, doesn’t it resemble the covers of other worldly ideas, eventually fashionable, in a desire to bring the Church closer and into a dialogue? Thus, John Paul II, in the beginning of his pontificate strived to show that the Human rights were part of the Church, that their true source was the gospel: the Church, in dialogue with the world, could give to what was common to both a new vigor. Before, in the first half of the XXth century, many personalities and organizations, of which the most emblematic were the catholic action movements and worker-priests, welcomed with open hands marxists, and not just in regards to practical matters. Maybe, we should go as far back as the “Ralliement” to the Republic imposed by Leo XIII to French Catholics.

In that time, a variety of emphases were made. But didn’t these tentatives have in common an illusion: one that a semantic proximity and potential practical collaborations could lead to a convergence of thoughts, to an evangelist unity of spirit and heart of the non-believers and also a pacifying unity of social relationships? Leo XIII would warn himself, if you will, in his anti-liberal encyclicals; Madeleine Delbrêl was one of the men and women who contested the possibility of a beneficial union with the communists. Didn’t we have to wait till recent years, with the legalized social evolutions, to finally come to understand the incompatibility between the gospel and the ideology of human rights?

Will it evolve any differently in terms of thinking, of conversion to Christ and of peace, with the present movement?

Father Jean-Marie Perrot