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Can Thomism and environmentalism benefit one another?

Christopher Thompson’s The Joyful Mystery takes a risk in outlining “Green Thomism” and seeking to unite environmentalist ideas with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Does it succeed?

(CNS photo/Narendra Shrestha, EPA)

Christopher Thompson’s The Joyful Mystery aims to “recover the joyful mystery of the cosmos and thus set in motion the only conditions in which a renewed, authentic Catholic culture can emerge.” (xiii) The only conditions? That seems pretty bold. And maybe it is an overstatement. But there’s a solid line of thought here, which suggests this is an important book.

The book outlines “Green Thomism,” which is, roughly, an attempt to unite environmentalist ideas with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Thompson writes, “Thomists…could profit from the engagement of modern cultural movements such as the rise of environmental concern, and environmentalists… could benefit from a deeper reflection on the implications and impact of their decisions regarding life on this beautiful earth.” (9) This marks Thompson out as another in a long line of Catholic thinkers looking to update St. Thomas’s thought with input from the contemporary world. This is a risky strategy. The transcendental Thomists of last century, for example, tried to unite St. Thomas with Kant, and came up with a confused mish-mash that didn’t help with anything at all. But Thompson does better. He doesn’t call on Green Thomists to undermine the foundations of Thomism, but simply to think a little more broadly about what Thomism naturally involves.

He writes, for example,

Green Thomists insist, among other things, that the human person is an embodied, spiritual creature dwelling in a cosmos of created natures, intelligently ordered by God and capable of being intelligibly grasped by human reason; they insist that the wisdom of creation is something prior to us, given by God and discovered through intelligence; and they insist that despite original sin, the original wisdom of the Creator still permeates creation and provides norms for its care as well as human flourishing. (23)

Each point leading up to the last is indisputably Thomistic. And the last—that the Divine Wisdom provides norms for the care of Creation (as well as for human flourishing, but leave that aside for now)—seems to flow pretty clearly from the others. It’s hard to imagine a Thomist denying it, but one doesn’t often find really serious examinations of norms for the care of creation in, say, the grand old Thomistic textbooks. (That’s not a swipe. I’m a big fan of the grand old Thomistic textbooks!) So this is more or less what I mean when I say he wants us to broaden our Thomistic thinking, but while remaining firmly Thomist.

“Integral ecology” is a central notion here. Thompson makes a fairly persuasive case that integral ecology can be more or less educed from traditional Natural Law thinking. It is “the intentional practice of those principles of human flourishing that emerge from the reasoned pursuit of a hierarchy of goods to which we are spontaneously inclined, a pursuit that we enact alongside every other creature of the universe, a pursuit that is happily ordered towards goods that are perfective of us as creatures within a common home,” (57-8) I wouldn’t think there would be anything very shocking or controversial about any of this, but as we’ll see in a moment, evidently there is.

While Thompson is drawing in the previous quotation from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, rather than from St. Thomas, but he could just as easily be drawing from Wendell Berry, whose classic The Unsettling of America includes a withering treatment of the remnants of Christianity in the US.

…the life of the spirit is reduced to a dull preoccupation with getting to Heaven. At best, the world is no more than an embarrassment and a trial to the spirit, which is otherwise radically separated from it. The true lover of God must not be burdened with any care or respect for His works. While the body goes about its business of destroying the earth, the soul is supposed to lie back and wait for Sunday, keeping itself free of earthly contaminants. While the body exploits other bodies, the soul stands aloof, free from sin, crying to the gawking bystanders: “I am not enjoying it!” As far as this sort of “religion” is concerned, the body is no more than the lusterless container of the soul, a mere “package,” that will nevertheless light up in eternity, forever cool and shiny as a neon cross. (112)

Berry’s certainly on to something here. A Christianity that hates the material world, or through contempt or simple indifference acts like it does, is hardly worth the name. How, then, could Christians treat the material world with the kind of offhand disregard that leads to horrific environmental degradations? Needless to say there are complications connected, for example, to St. Paul’s teaching on the evil of the world, the flesh and the devil. I take it for current purposes that Catholics already understand that St. Paul’s views, however they may at first glance appear, do not commit us to denying the goodness of creation!

On that point, let me turn to a greater mind than either Pope Francis or Wendell Berry. G.K. Chesterton’s classic study of St. Thomas Aquinas, surely one of the great works of the 20th century, masterfully places the master: “Now, nobody will begin to understand the Thomist philosophy, or indeed the Catholic philosophy, who does not realize that the primary and fundamental part of it is entirely the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.” The Thomistic philosophy arose in the midst of the crusade against the Albigensian heretics who were, as Chesterton saw them, merely the latest incarnation of the ancient Manicheans—haters of the material world. But this heresy can show itself in doctrine or in feeling. And one needn’t be a Manichean intellectually to be one emotionally.

Chesterton writes that “many medieval men, who would indignantly deny the Albigensian theory of sterility were yet in an emotional mood to abandon the body in despair; and some of them to abandon everything in despair.” It’s precisely here that Catholic dogma becomes so important. The western hermit, Chesterton says, might indeed feel like an eastern fakir, but he could not think like an eastern fakir, because he was Catholic, and hence accepted the goodness of Creation. In other words, the goodness of Creation is not just compatible with Catholic thought: it is absolutely central to it.

Wendell Berry speaks out against our current Albigensians as strongly as St. Thomas spoke out against his. Berry’s foes in the long quotation above are American Protestants who have lost track of the thought that Creation is good, and have started simply viewing it as a temporary holding cell, which it is our purpose to escape unsullied. But we American Catholics don’t stand apart: enculturated as we are, this attitude has come to infect us, as well. And so, Thompson is right first in bringing us back to St. Thomas Aquinas as the greatest expression of the Catholic philosophy, and second in insisting that St. Thomas’s thought provides a base for some thought that lines up surprisingly well with modern thinkers who do indeed praise creation.

Now, one trouble with so many of these modern thinkers is that they don’t know that Creation really is a Creature. This failure is not a minor one: as Pope Francis points out, “there can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” (LS 118, quoted by Thompson, 59) We can’t get our integral ecology correct until we understand human beings correctly. So modern atheistic environmentalism is doomed to failure. For this reason, we’ve got to properly grasp what is really at stake in the exchange between St. Thomas and environmentalism. We Thomists need to be teaching environmentalists to understand themselves and their world as creatures. We need to be teaching them some of the implications of that status. For example, as Pope Francis also wrote, “when we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” (LS 117, quoted by Thompson, 56) So one might say, when the environmentalists are willing to trample on innocent human beings, they actually betray their own pretentions to care about the world. As Thompson puts it, “announcing the gospel of creation can once again place our lives at the service of humanity and allow us to be a lumen gentium, a light to peoples who are currently mesmerized by the environmental movement.” (76)

I am rather prickly about the notion that the Church needs to learn from the world. The teaching runs in the opposite direction. But that doesn’t mean that we as individual churchmen might not be able to learn something from the world, in cases where we’ve avoided learning from the Church. And I think that might be the case for many of us in the matter of ecology. For example, many Catholics—at least, many Catholics who would be interested in reading this publication—are very solid on the nature of the marital act and the sinfulness of interfering with its primary end. But we don’t recognize that this respect for the order of Divine Creation ought to be mirrored in our treatment of the earth. Perhaps we could stand to learn a bit from environmentalists who resist GMOs or the abuse of synthetic herbicides or pesticides. (And perhaps they could learn from us, since they will no doubt be dosing themselves with poison in the form of birth control pills.) “What else does ‘integral’ mean if not a holistic outlook and practice in the full panoply of choices I face as a graced creature of this glorious earth?” (108)

Many of my readers—people who might be described (leaving aside the propriety of the description) as “conservative Catholics”—will bridle at the dependence of Thompson on Francis’s thought, and frankly at his endorsement of environmentalism in any form. Let me take a relatively recent case for example. Jeff Mirus, whose work I admire, has excoriated the Canadian bishops because of their statement in defense of the idea that clean drinking water is a right. Mirus considers this a perfect example of the secularization of the Church. I think there are some serious flaws in Mirus’s analysis of the statement in question, but I don’t mean to enter into that dispute here. I mean to use it simply as an example of the kind of thing I’ve encountered many times since the publication of Laudato Si’—namely, a response that says “with all the stuff going on in the world today, with all the problems the Church is facing, do we really need an encyclical about plastic in the ocean?” And of course, many of us are inclined to be rather suspicious of anything coming from the pen of Francis anyway, regardless of subject matter.

If that’s your response, then you need Thompson’s book. Yes, when New York State and others are in the act of making infanticide safe for murderers, it can be difficult to turn our gaze elsewhere. But, then, we do. You’re reading this review, for example. If you have time to read this and think it through, then you’re finding time to do other things than resist the rise of infanticide. Maybe you can find a minute to think about whether you really need the heat set at 77 all winter and the AC set at 65 all summer, or whether you ought to be eating that McDonald’s hamburger made from factory farmed beef, or whether it’s worth spending a few extra minutes to separate out recyclables from your trash, or what have you. Everything is connected. A throwaway culture is a throwaway culture. We don’t make exceptions for babies. But we didn’t start with them, either.

The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism
By Christopher J. Thompson
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017
Hardcover, 216 pages


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About Dr. Patrick Toner 4 Articles
Dr. Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas...and Norman Rockwell. He earned his master's in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.

2 Comments

  1. Just as there is sound and unsound reasoning, so there is sound and unsound environmentalism. Unsound reasoning embraces every argument that corresponds to our inclinations, and unsound environmentalism embraces every initiative that make us feel good (“virtuous”). It seems to me the proper link between Thomism and environmentalism would start with evidence, and test the evidence, before making a judgment. In the course of my environmental career, I’ve witnessed regulatory initiatives where this was not done and significant resources/energy were applied to projects that accomplished little, or even produced a net “burden” on the environment.

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