Catholic Thinking – Creation, the Universe and Ecological Conversion

WelCom September 2020 Sr Patricia Powell rsm of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, delivered the following presentation to Catholic media at the Australasia…

WelCom September 2020

Sr Patricia Powell rsm of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, delivered the following presentation to Catholic media at the Australasia Catholic Press Association conference in Bathurst, NSW September last year. Sr Patricia’s presentation is re-published in WelCom in two parts, with permission.

Part 1

Sr Patricia Powell is dedicated to promoting a focus on ecological matters, the Universe and creation: ‘Of course, we need jobs and energy, but the planet is finite in its resources and some of the industrial advances that were great ideas in the past are now causing serious problems to our environment.’ Photo: Sam Bolt

The synchronicity of St Francis of Assisi responding to the call of Jesus to ‘Rebuild my House’ and Pope Francis responding to the signs of the times to ‘Rebuild our Common Home’ is striking. I have been reflecting on what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to speak to a room full of journalists, about an issue that is dear to my heart: reconciliation with creation. If we get that right, I believe other forms of reconciliation will fall into place too.

What do I mean by reconciliation? I mean right relationship. My Judeo-Christian tradition and other Human Rights Charters provide guidelines and a world view for thinking about right relationship among people. But what does right relationship with creation look like? That is actually the critical question confronting humanity at this time in history. And humanity is on a steep learning curve.

I grew up in post-World War 2 Orange, NSW. If anyone had talked about reconciliation with creation in that era, they would have been considered a bit flakey. We weren’t even talking about reconciliation with the Germans or the Japanese or Aboriginal Australians. And as for creation, that was just the backdrop against which we lived our lives. By and large we took it for granted. It was just so much stuff put there for our use, in whatever way we chose. Human beings were at the top of the hierarchy of being, and everything else was subservient to us. That, we believed, was the way God ordered it.

It’s difficult to talk about reconciliation with creation these days too – but for a different reason. Reconciliation implies a coming together of discreet entities. But deep ecology acknowledges only one entity: the Universe. In the unfolding story of the Universe, planet Earth is perceived to be a single living, finely tuned organism and the human species is the planet become conscious of itself, able to reflect on its existence and destiny, able to know that it knows. Reconciliation or right relationship in this context is about the whole: healing ourselves as planet Earth. In this story, the world view or way of thinking is that creation and I are one and the same. When I disrespect creation, I disrespect myself. This is a far cry from the story that informed my early relationship with creation. But not all environmentalists go this far.

In the biblical story of creation we were guided by a world view or way of thinking which instructed us (and I quote), ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth. See I give you all the seed-bearing plants that are upon the whole earth and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this shall be your food. To all wild beasts, all birds of heaven and all living reptiles on the earth, I give all the foliage of plants for food.’ And that section of Genesis concludes ‘And so it was’.

And so it was indeed. We humans have colonised the whole planet. Every other creature whether plant or animal lives in our habitat now and is at our mercy. We are indeed ‘masters’ of creation. And we have used the biblical story of creation to justify and rationalise our domination and exploitation of the rest of the natural world. Of course, the fault for the current state of the planet cannot be laid solely at the door of Genesis. Over the past two hundred years, industrialisation and our secular consumer culture and social philosophy of economic rationalism have a lot to answer for. 

However, in response to the obvious destruction and degradation that human activity has visited upon the planet, whether we view the planet as separate from us or one with us, and to which a literal interpretation of scripture may have contributed, our first course correction has been to shift our interpretation of Genesis to ‘stewardship’. We are called to care for the Earth like good stewards. That is certainly an improvement on any fundamentalist reading of Genesis. But in terms of right relationship with creation, is there more to be said? Obviously, I think there is, because I am only just getting started!

The biblical story of creation is our faith story. It reveals something to us about God and our relationship with God. Essentially it tells people of faith that ‘God made the world’ – as the little Green Catechism used to say. And when we read on further in Genesis we find that God is not some impersonal force, but the personal Source of all Being, who desires relationship with us. The whole Bible explores this theme of right relationship with God and derivative from this, right relationship with each other. People of faith receive this story as God’s revelation. It is not a story to be proved or disproved by science.

Our faith story operates on the level of myth or metaphor or allegory. The essential meaning of the story is carried in the particular genre. And there is a library of genres in the Bible. However, at one level, you could say our faith story relies on the observable data available at the time the story emerged. It implies a certain world view and world order. But when the observable data changes, as it did, for example, in the sixteenth century when Galileo with his telescope announced that the earth rotates around the sun and was not the centre of the universe, chaos, resistance by vested interests and fear of disruption to good order – both secular and religious, ensues. This discovery reinforced a shift in consciousness already beginning in Europe, when the Reformation challenged religious authority, monarchies were overthrown and the Age of Reason or Enlightenment dawned.

Let me put to you, that observable data has changed again over the last century, because of the availability of sophisticated instruments that allow scientists to see more clearly the world around us. As a consequence of this, we find ourselves living in a largely outdated world view and we still haven’t quite brought into focus the emerging new world view. We have shaped our meaning-making and sense of what is real on the premises of an industrial world view that is now crumbling before our eyes. We have built our societies on its foundations: unlimited progress based on infinite resources. All our security and prosperity is invested in this exhausted view of reality, so we are not ready to let go on it anytime soon. And there lies the crux of the crisis we earthlings are confronting at the moment.

We live at an extraordinary moment in history. I don’t just mean world history. I mean in the history of the Universe. Never before have we had access to the knowledge we have now about the universe and our planet Earth. This knowledge is pressing into our consciousness for the first time, changing the way we understand reality, creating in our psyches a new paradigm. I experienced this shift in consciousness that is moving me towards a different world view from the one I grew up in, very gradually. If what you see depends on where you stand, where I stand now in awareness of these new scientific discoveries and their implications, is starting to influence my understanding and expression of right relationship or reconciliation with creation.

As the New Millennium dawned, Pope St John Paul II in his General Audience of 17 January 2001 called the Church to ecological conversion. At the time, we Sisters of Mercy were discerning whether or not we should continue to retain our 4.7ha property, St Joseph’s Mount here in Bathurst or divest ourselves of it, since we no longer needed it for a novitiate or administration. Our main criterion for decision making was ministry. Was their some need for mercy that was not being met, that this property could serve? We had already been exposed to the extraordinary wonder and beauty of the universe and at the same time, we were becoming aware of the degradation of planet Earth, by voices raised about deforestation, desertification, extinction of species, poisoning of rivers, pollution of air quality, acidification of seas. So, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’ – environmental education. Anticipating by some ten years, Pope Francis’ proclamation of an Eighth Work of Mercy: Care for Our Common Home, the environmental ministry of Rahamim Ecological Learning Community, later to become Rahamim Ecology Centre, was born [at the Sisters of Mercy property in Bathurst, NSW].

Rahamim is a Hebrew word for mercy. With this ministry, the Sisters were expanding the reach of the charism of mercy beyond the seven traditional spiritual and corporal Works of Mercy for the human community, to embrace the planet, its life forms and life support systems. The education, demonstration, spirituality and advocacy programmes we developed at Rahamim, were a conscious response to Pope St John Paul II’s call to ecological conversion – though at that stage, we hardly understood what that meant. But we began to care for our degraded property differently, guided by regenerative practices and permaculture design. You could say this was our initial hands-on attempt to be reconciled with creation, to be in right relationship with the land. And when the frogs returned, it was like a benediction.

The second part of this article will be published in October WelCom.