The Need for Environmental Spirituality

A scene from one of the author's hiking adventures in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Growing up Catholic, I’ve sat through hundreds of homilies. Being from the conservative South, the topics spoken on ranged from the extreme disavowing of abortion to gentle breakdowns of the day’s reading. Ever since I started college, I have waxed and waned with my commitment to the Church and it’s teachings, as many of my friends and fellow millennials have done and tend to do. But as I’ve progressed through my 20’s, and slowly began taking Ignatian spirituality more seriously, I found that a mantra that always pulled me back to my Catholic roots was the classic Jesuit idea of “finding God in all things.”

This simple thought has helped me and many others to see the connection between nature’s awe, magnificence, and beauty to the idea of an intelligent creator called God. 

Bethlehem Farm, pictured above, is a Catholic non-profit in West Virginia that works to change lives through service with the local Appalachian community and the teaching of sustainable practices. (Photo by Matt LaBorde)

Now, in 2019, the Catholic Church again finds itself embroiled in clerical sexual abuse scandals that continue to unfold into a seemingly never ending nightmare. The Jesuits, a sect of the Church that I assumed were untouchable, intelligent, and compassionate, have paid out the largest amount of court settlements for sexual abuse cases among any Catholic order.

So again, I find myself falling away from Sunday mass, from participating in the ritual, from building a relationship with Jesus and God. Many Catholics, including myself, have decided to weather the storm. Many have abandoned the church, justifiably. And again, I’ve found for myself that the steadfast teachings that are still able to inform my spirituality so beautifully are the Church’s social teaching on environmentalism and what the Church calls the “Care for Creation.” 

But I rarely heard about ways we could care for the earth in Sunday mass. I heard about plenty of well deserving causes like the care of the poor, commitment to charity and good works, and the importance of prayer. But now as environmental issues are becoming more closely tied to social justice for the most vulnerable of our society, it is critical to reinforce how important it is for Catholics to include environmental justice issues into their spirituality and more fully embody those beliefs into their daily practice of the faith.

If you are skeptical that issues of the environment are beginning to encroach more visibly on the poor and vulnerable, take heed to the latest U.S Climate Assessment, which is the fiercest warning to date that climate change will significantly impact the quality of our lives. This issue of climate change is no longer an abstract liberal rallying cry, it is a distinct problem happening right now.

Catholic leaders have spoken loudly on these issues for years. In 2015, Pope Francis released his second enclycical titled “Laudato Si’” (translated, “On Care for Our Common Home), where he calmly and meticulously critiques the current state of our world, both environmentally and socially. The writing is so clear, scientific, and to the point that I’ve always wondered why more Catholics didn’t actively discuss this work when it was published: 

“There is a growing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet… Our goal is … to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (#19)

Since it’s release, we have only seen the decline of the environment intensify. You could also argue that our social climate is declining as well, as we’ve seen more documented hate crimes, and razor sharp political polarization. Pope Francis continues:

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet… The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor.” (#48)

We are seeing this mutual degradation play out painfully in the hills of Appalachia, where hundreds of former and current coal miners are dying prematurely of Black Lung Disease, or progressive massive fibrosis, from years of working in the mines to further our nations reliance on coal-powered energy. NPR and PBS Frontline recently joined forces in exposing that coal companies and federal regulators knew of the health risk posed to mine workers, but failed to properly address them. This unfortunate manifestation of disease among some of our nation’s most poor and vulnerable populations isn’t new, and in fact, people of faith living in Appalachia have been speaking of Black Lung Disease, the over-reliance on coal, and environmental degradation ever since coal companies first arrived in the resource-rich region many decades ago.

The Catholic Bishops of Appalachia published a pastoral letter in 1975 where they paint a horrific picture of a tragedy unfolding among the rolling hills. In “This Land is Home To Me: A Pastoral Letter on Powerlessness,” the Bishops describe how multi-national coal companies came to dominate the region, drilling into mountains and delivering millions of dollars of profits to their shareholders and company executives, all while leaving the citizens of Appalachia abandoned, sick with disease, and unable to make a living wage. It described a time before the coal companies, where people, “knew how to dance and sing, sat in mystery before the poet’s spell, and felt our hearts rise to nature’s cathedral.” 

But as the coal companies continued to strip the region of it’s resources, so too did the social environment begin to degrade. Now we are left a region that is considered to have some of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the nation. The bishops describe how the regions’ people were stripped of both economic and spiritual power:

“It would be bad enough if the attack only tried to take the land, but it wants the soul, too. When it has its way, the poet is silent. Instead comes noisy blare and din, the chatter of a language empty of meaning, but filled with violence.”

Surely, the Catholic Bishop’s 1975 letter was not the first warning of such tragedy, and Pope Francis’ encyclical will not be the last. But will we heed their warnings by being more conscious and mindful of our own environmental actions? Will we include the appreciation for the environment as a integral and necessary aspect of our spirituality, in hopes that it makes us more compassionate to the earth and its riches? 

Now that there is consensus on this issue in both scientific and religious circles, it presents a rare moment where the two typically opposing camps can come together to address a daunting problem. But unfortunately, the call for environmental activism rarely trickles down to the neighborhood parochial churches. It is up to us to reclaim environmentalism, to call for eco-friendly changes in our churches, and to finally acknowledge the environmental and social degradation happening around us.

Photo by Matt LaBorde

About Matthew LaBorde

Matthew is the coordinator of a vocational center at a homeless services non-profit in the Washington D.C area. For the last four years, he has worked with a wide range of poor and low-income individuals and families on the goal of finding meaningful employment. He is interested in topics like psychology, feminism, spirituality, and music. Matthew graduated with a communication arts degree from Spring Hill College, where he also served as the Editor of the student newspaper for two years. (Casa Maura Clarke, Los Angeles 2014-2015)