Author Archives: Christopher Thompson

Our Care of Creation

Talking Points on the Care of Creation:

In the beginning, in the state of original justice, God created everything and placed man in the paradise of His earthly creation. He blessed him with the vocation, among other things, to till and to keep His earth. With the introduction of original sin, man experienced the loss of original justice; an alienation emerged between God and man, between men and women, and within ourselves and with creatures.

Four things are important to keep in mind.

First, lower creation is not directly implicated in the fall; it is not corrupted by sin. The order of lower creation, its interdependence and beauty, remains intact for us even now and is a sign of God’s loving and provident care. “The nature of animals [and other creatures],” Saint Thomas says, “was not changed by man’s sin.” (ST I.96.ad2) Instead, all natural things may be considered “God’s works of art.” (ST I.91.a3) As a work of art reflects the mind of the artist, so, too, does the created order, our beautiful earth and the universe beyond, reflect the wisdom and love of God. For centuries the Church has pointed to the beauty of the earth, its “measure, form and order,” as a gift of God’s provident love for us. For from the very beginning, Saint Paul tells us, God’s invisible attributes of wisdom and love can be discerned in the things He has made. (Rom. 1:20) Today, for so many, the first experience of God begins in the experience of awe before the beauty of creation. The sense that God is present through creation lies at the heart of Saint Francis’ love and praise to the Creator for “his brother, the sun; his sister, the moon,” and shapes the foundations for such theological masterpieces as St. Thomas’ Summa theologiae.

Second, in the visible cosmos, only the human creature is directly affected by original sin. The church speaks of the loss of man’s original justice, or the loss of the praeter natural gifts: of infused knowledge of creatures and things, of reason’s control over the passions, and of immortality.

Third, the consequence of original sin is understood to wound, but not completely destroy, our original human nature and dignity. As Saint John Paul II says, “But no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away from man the light of God the Creator.” (Veritatis Splendor, 1) The light of the creator, God’s wisdom, continues to be reflected in man despite the lingering presence of sin. Through his intellect and will man’s desire for truth and goodness is never totally erased, as his conscience bears witness to the moral order in every age and circumstance. Even in his body, through the capacities and powers he shares with the animals, namely nutrition, health, reproduction, and his senses, the wisdom of the creator shines through and is able to be discerned, though with difficulty.

For these reasons the church has had great confidence in man’s search for the truth, his desire of a good life and his quest for beauty — in all of its varied cultural expressions — because man, though wounded by sin, is capable of expressing something of the original goodness of the creator’s will. In his body, too, the divine wisdom of the original creation is manifest, despite sin, which is why sin itself was so often described as “contra naturam,” or against nature. The natural law tradition is also built upon this fundamental conviction that there are tendencies or inclinations which are inherent in any healthy human person: the inclination to maintain one’s health, to procreate, to seek communion, to seek God. To act against such inclinations is to act contrary to man’s nature, and thus to sin.

Fourth, hearing the message of creation, of the creator, is now very difficult due to sin; whether in the beauty and order of His universe, one’s body, or in the depths of one’s conscience, we need the grace of Christ and his church, to teach us what it means to be a human being in this glorious universe of God’s.  As Gaudium et spes so eloquently put it: “Christ … fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” (22)

This is the reason why the church has understood herself to be an “expert in humanity,” (Veritatis splendor, 3) and “the authentic interpreter of the natural law.” For Christ shows us what is natural to man, indeed, he discloses the meaning of nature: “For everything was created through Him, all was created for Him.” (Col.1:16).

Our Dominion over Creation:

Our dominion over the earth, then, is not that of a master who stands over a broken world. Rather, our status is that of caretakers, as stewards of the divine household, called “to till and to keep the earth,” to use its resources in accordance with the intentions of its one owner: God, the loving Father of us all.

The church’s tradition of the natural law ethic is another way of reflecting upon this issue: how do we, as rational creatures with intelligence and free will, flourish within this divinely arranged cosmos in a manner that respects the wisdom of our Father – in our use of things, in our regard for ourselves, and in our care for our neighbor, especially His poor?

Limitations Upon our “use” of the earth’s resources:

When our use of creation involves the manipulation of the very structures and natural processes of living things, as in the case of the trans-genetic modification of creatures, such an enterprise ought not be undertaken except: in deliberate deference to the order and wisdom of creation of which the creature is a part; with utmost care and prudent circumspection; when proportionate goods are clearly identified and reasonably anticipated; and all other reasonable alternatives have been considered, including the modification of one’s lifestyle. Indeed, one of the surest ways we can overcome the indiscriminate exploitation of the goods of the earth is to modify our own lifestyles of limitless consumption.

Our Life in Christ: from Stewards to Sons and Daughters:

In Christ, we are no longer mere slaves of a master, or mere stewards of the earth, but adopted sons and daughters of the one Father, the Creator of the heavens and earth. In Him we have an eternal destiny and thus an unsurpassable dignity. Through our honest labor, especially in the Eucharist, we glorify the Father and offer our first fruits back to the Him in gratitude. And so our dignity as stewards of the earth is not an occasion of boasting, but a call to serve Him, for while all things on this earth may be ours, Saint Paul says, “we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”

God, grant me the grace

to love the Lord and keep His earth,

to use it wisely and share it always.

For in giving more, and using less

I care for others

And love You today.


The Nature of the Saints

Thompson: The Nature of the Saints

Comments Delivered at the “Human and Natural Ecology” Conference

In my introductory remarks yesterday, I noted that the encyclical ought to be situated against the broader horizon of Catholic doctrinal tradition and alluded to the Manichaean and Albigensian heresies as instances in which the church had to defend an understanding of creation and our place within it against rival interpretations of the cosmos.

I would like to return to the general project of placing the church’s engagement with environmental concerns in a broader doctrinal context, because I believe that much of the rather frenzied reaction to the encyclical of both a liberal and conservative bent seems driven by a considerable amount of ignorance about the church’s engagement already undertaken. The alarm and general hyperbole that has marked the reception of the encyclical is animated to a large extent by an ignorance about the church’s repeated efforts to address the question.

Our contribution as stewards of our faith tradition will be to help others receive the Holy Father’s reflections in a broader and more appropriate context. I am delighted to offer the following remarks by way of contextualizing the encyclical.

Josef Pieper, in an essay entitled “The Philosophical Act,” speaks of the difference in meaning when we speak of something in a “location,” something in an “environment,” and something in a “world.”[1] What differentiates proper usage, Pieper argues, is not a consideration of the object’s ambient circumstance; rather, it is the distinct capacities of the object itself. Thus, we speak of the “location” of rock, the “location” of shale, or the “location” of oil because rocks, shale, and oil are rather simple in their operations, their activities. But when it comes to plants and animals, we speak not only of their location, but now of their environment, because plants and animals do not merely occupy a position; they inhabit a place and interact with the elements surrounding them, drawing their ambient resources into their more complex operations.

But there is only one kind of creature, Pieper suggests, who occupies a world, a cosmos, and it is precisely the human person. The human person, with his or her capacity for intellectual comprehension and understanding, occupies not merely a location, not merely an environment, but a cosmos. And it is this unique spiritual capacity which renders all conversations about “humans and their environment” potentially inadequate.

This unique spiritual capacity of the species differentiates us from the rest of the created order and it grounds our position in a world—as more than creatures dwelling in an environment. To be human, Pieper writes, “is to know things beyond the ‘roof’ of the stars, to go beyond the trusted enclosures of the normal, to go beyond the ‘environment’—to the ‘world’ in which that environment is enclosed.”[2]

Thus, to speak of humans and the environment[3] without any reference to our status as intellectual creatures within an ordered cosmos, is to reduce the human person to a mere animal among creatures. It is to deny the spiritual capacity of the human person as that intellectual being capable of unifying in a single intellectual apprehension, an ordered whole, a unified world. And so our first task in promoting the work of the encyclical will be to defend the importance of the environment, without reducing the dignity of the person to its confines and conditions.

To be sure, reminding our peers about the immaterial aspects of the human person is very much a worthy undertaking. But this too, runs the risk of a distortion; and here we too can often add to the contemporary confusion with a kind of over-correction of a spiritual sort. We can sometimes run the risk of supposing that the Church’s only interest in developing a proper understanding of the human person is to defend the immateriality exclusively. What can be lost in such a one-sided portrait are precisely the embodied dimensions of what it means to be a human being– and all that goes with embodiment, especially the vocation to steward the goods of the earth. In an attempt to defend a notion of the person against the reductive materialisms of Enlightenment modernity, one also has to guard against an over emphasis on the spiritual aspects, thereby creating a kind of post-Cartesian angelism in Catholic guise.

In my view, the single most important contribution the encyclical is likely to make is not so much on the level of policy and procedure (though that is likely to receive the bulk of the attention), but rather the unequivocal affirmation that the native habitat of the human person, precisely as a spiritual creature with an eternal horizon, is, nonetheless, the material cosmos of organic creatures, intelligently arranged by God and intelligibly contemplated by man. The human person, whose dignity lies within his spiritual destiny, is nevertheless a creature of earth, a living, organic being among living, organic beings, whose immortal soul by nature transcends the environment and yet by grace permeates it with eternal significance.  In this sense the encyclical signals the beginnings of a truly post-modern defense of physicalism. Not the physicalism of Descartes and Kant, or the reductive varieties they have propagated through the centuries, but the physicalism of the Saints: Laudato Si; Pange Lingua! It appears that St. Francis will serve at the portico welcoming us in; but I suspect that St. Thomas will be our guide. Or as Chesterton puts it: “It is best to say the truth in its simplest form; that they both reaffirmed the Incarnation, by bringing God back to earth.”[4]

Indeed, the new evangelization will come to naught if it does not include in its re-articulation of the gospel the unequivocal affirmation of the splendor of physis/natura upon which it depends. Christianity is not a philosophy, an abstraction nurtured in the intricacies of some curriculum; nor is it the private insight of a genius marooned on an island of self-preoccupation; nor, finally, is it a political agenda, nestled in the labyrinth of a peoples united to a cause. Christianity is, rather, the extraordinary exchange of one embodied person to another, the bold invitation of an eternal friendship between the Principium enfleshed in Jesus Christ and terminus of the human person. Our humanity is the instrument of our salvation; our embodiment, the hinge.

Christ, the Logos made flesh, is the One through whom all flesh, all things, are made. Made visible in the person of Jesus Christ, one and the same Logos remains veiled in His creation. The book of the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Nature are one, because the Divine Word is the serial author of each. Catholics cannot be indifferent to the preambula fidei writ-large that is our created universe, because we are not indifferent to the Word of which it speaks.   Christ, the Logos made flesh; Christ the Logos of creation. Christ the way of the environment.

Re-affirming the integrity of creatures and calling for the contemplative gaze of faith upon the world, the Church should find ready partners in many (not all) circles within the environmental movement. For seen in its best light, this movement is at its core the un-thematic revolt of conscience among those generations of post-modernity who intuit that something is deeply flawed in our posture before the natural order, that our habits of treating nature as a mere raw datum of purposeless matter is not consonant with the facts on the ground.

At the heart of an integral human ecology lies a natural philosophy of nature, an account of the cosmos as an order utterly dependent upon a provident, benevolent First Cause, whose causality extends to the operations of individual creatures and their relations. Against the vast and undifferentiated res extensa of modernist world views, a distinctly Catholic encyclical on the environment will need to defend the formally distinctive and finally ordered aspects of each creature, its species and habitats, its organic relations and symphonic character.

In such a realist world, the ordo of creation is understood to inhere in things. The formal intelligibility of living organisms as well as the finalities toward which they naturally tend are objectively constituted in reality and express “the design of love and truth of the Creator Himself.” Such an order “is prior to us and has been given to us by God as the setting of our life.” (CV, 48) It is not humanly derived from a set of clear and distinct ideas of a disembodied cogito (Descartes); it is not the apparatus of a transcendental reason (Kant); nor is it the mere force of human habit or custom (Hume). It is intrinsic to things and its apprehension by reason is an exercise in objective knowing.

Such a wisdom, written into the very order of things, is grasped not merely by a speculative exercise of intellectual cognition, but the moral exercise of beholding. One does not merely consider the world as good, but rather beholds it. The contemplative gaze of faith grounds our posture before the world as creation.[5] With the dawn of the new natura, modernity has finally come to an end. Being and goodness are re-united; the environment becomes a species of ethics.

We would do well to remember, moreover, that such an ordo is not directly implicated in the fall. The punishment of original sin, the loss of original justice, does not directly affect the lower orders of creation, specifically the animals, the plants, and inorganic matter. Rather, it is our grasp of the logos of creation that is now fleeting and fraught with error due to original sin. Already limited by its dependence upon organic experience, the human mind is further wounded by a disordered will; but what is wounded is the capacity to receive, not the nature of what is received.

Instead, for their part, Aquinas says, “all natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art.”(ST I.91.1) Divine providence continues to extend to the communities of creatures, even in this post-lapsarian state; for the nature of animals, he explicitly states, was not changed by man’s sin. (I.96.1) Their habits of being are precisely now what they would have been prior to the fall; for it is only the intellectual creatures, the angelic and the human, which are immediately caught up in the drama of sin.

In contrast to our checkered history, each creature of lower creation has always born the vestigia dei, indeed the vestigia Trinitate (ST I.45.7). They lead us to God (I.65.1ad3), and precisely through their hopes give witness to the Divine Intellect at work (ST, I-II, 40.3); they are said to be perfect and the first perfection of God’s handiwork (I.70.1.ad5; I.73.1), are produced by the Word of God (I.71) and, taken as whole, “participate the divine goodness more perfectly.” (I.47.1) Indeed, Aquinas’ entire architecture of the praeter-natural gifts bestowed upon man are due, in part, to his indefatigable defense of the gift that is lower creation.[6]

This thesis that the integrity of lower creation remains intact throughout the drama of our salvation history is one of the most important aspects of our Catholic theological tradition and seems to be increasingly beclouded in Catholic intellectual circles. It would be a monumental achievement if the upcoming encyclical affirmed this doctrine. For the loss of confidence in integral natura-as-gift, as the medium through which divine wisdom is discerned, hobbles our capacity to not only build an integral human ecology, but to (re-) build a vibrant Catholic culture.

For it follows that if it is we who are caught up in the drama of sin and creatures are not, a certain docility to their intelligibility would be the only prudent measure to take. Before we propose to modify creatures to suit our expectations, it would be wise to consider how our own ways of acting may be in need of modification. Before we ignore the form and finality of living things – the distinctive principles of organic life, we might pause to consider how our modern biases have lent themselves to reducing the creature to an artifact of our productions. The deliberate, genetic modification of a naturally occurring creature is not just an exercise in human ingenuity; it is a recasting of the divine creature as a mere product of human making. If unchecked by habits of humility, natural piety and the norms of prudence,[7] such practices run the risk of deforming creation, whose original wisdom is our norm, of transforming the creature into a “resource” whose value is to be merely to be “used.”

When our “use” of creation involves the manipulation of its very structures and natural purposes, as in the case of the trans-genetic modification of creatures, such an enterprise cannot be undertaken except in deliberate deference to the order and wisdom of Creation of which the creature is a part, with utmost care and prudent circumspection, when proportionate goods are clearly identified and reasonably expected, and all other reasonable alternatives have been considered, including the modification of one’s lifestyle.[8] It is not a question of using creatures for the benefit of man and the glory of God. It is rather a question of the norms for such use, norms which are not only written in the human heart, but written into creation itself from the beginning.[9]

It means that a new kind of ecological casuistry in which the creature is granted standing will be necessary in order to guide consciences in matters of the prudential use of creation. We, as a church, are woefully unprepared in this regard. It will not be a matter of simply turning to the “scientific community” for the answers, for in many ways the mechanistic reductions that have given rise to our scientific achievements are the very origins which have given rise to the looming catastrophes. Ecological prudence is more than mere efficiency. It will require a host of virtues, including scientific competency for sure, but also faith, a natural piety, humility, temperance, simplicity and justice.

The recovery of a robust “natura” will mean much more than a passionate defense of green practices, though it is certain to include them. Embedded in the repeated calls for an “integral human ecology,” lies the re-appropriation of the natural law as the rational creature’s participation in this divinely ordered cosmos. Such participation unfolds in a distinctively human manner; in other words, as an embodied creature of earth. The natural law, at its core, is the summative answer to the question: how do I as an organic, albeit rational, being flourish within this cosmos.

The rediscovery of natura may also serve as a catalyst for the further development of the theology of the body — to blossom into a full fledged theology of embodiment – a theology of the body from the skin outward, of an enfleshed, organic creature among organic creatures, in which the body is not merely the medium by which the person expresses a gift of self, but is the welcoming threshold through which one receives the originative gift of being in all its splendor. Aligned with the trajectory of Humanae vitae, the defense of omnis vita will complete what is lacking in the body of Christ.

It may allow the philosophical anthropology of the human person to take root once again in its native soil, namely, cosmology, and overcome the temptation to circumscribe the analysis of the human person within the horizon of interiority alone. Advancing an integral human ecology, a conception of the human person as the substantial union of soil and soul, might help us overcome the staggering lacuna in our broader educational institutions: namely, that of the 244 Catholic colleges and universities here in the United States, not a single one offers a program of instruction in agriculture. And it may inspire a generation of Catholic bio-ethicists to consider in their analyses the 99% of the bios that isn’t human.

Who knows what will happen if we begin to ask what on earth are we doing for heaven’s sake? But I am hopeful that the encyclical will set in motion the conditions in which a renewed, authentic Catholic culture can emerge. For here and only here, squarely in this temple of creation, a Catholic culture takes root, the good news of Jesus Christ moves from its conceptual power to its cultural expression, heaven and earth are wed in the sacred body of the believer, the sacred body of believers. We would do well to remind each other on the eve of the encyclical that at the core of our theology of the environment is the simple notion that the Word took flesh and dwelt among us and we behold his glory.

Christopher Thompson

Saint Paul, MN

[1] The essay forms the second half of his famous Leisure, The Basis of Culture. See Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), 98. Ironically, it was Sigurd Olson, the Minnesota naturalist, who first alerted me to this insight of Josef Pieper. For an introduction to Olson’s works, see Sigurd F. Olson, The Meaning of Wilderness: Essential Articles and Speeches, ed. David Backes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). To what extent Olson studied Aquinas directly is not known, but historians have noted that Olson’s copy of Pieper’s Leisure was heavily marked.

[2] Pieper, Leisure, 94.

[3] The very fact that we speak in the singular, “the environment,” points to the conceptual power of the person to unite what is diverse into an intelligible whole.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas (New York: Image Books, 1956) 11.

[5] “The vision of the Church Fathers lays foundation for a worldview, in which environment is considered as part of human responsibility, as opposed to the positivist and dualistic idea that it is a passive matter that can be used merely to satisfy human needs.” Oleh Kindiy, “Salvation of the Creation: The Teaching of the Church Fathers on the Environment,” at

[6] Cf. ST, I, 72, ad. 6. While it is tempting to expect that our pre-fallen world as one devoid of poisonous or injurious creatures, Aquinas (citing Augustine against the Manichees) suggests that such an attitude reflects the ignorance of one who, upon entering a workshop filled with sharp tools and a blazing forge, erroneously concludes that such things ought not to have been made. “And thus some people presume to find fault with many things in this world, through not seeing the reasons for their existence. For though not required for the furnishing of our house, these things are necessary for the perfection of the universe.”

[7] Because I appeal to the exercise of prudence, it precludes the notion that the deliberate, genetic modification of lower creatures is, strictly speaking, intrinsically disordered. At the same time, prudence would demand the greatest circumspection in such an instance. Because “we are not yet in a position to assess the biological disturbance that could result from indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous development of new forms of plant and animal life, to say nothing of unacceptable experimentation regarding the origins of human life itself,” (Compendium, 458) it is only wise to counsel against such practices.

[8] “Thomas understood that by resisting some practices of a developing profit economy, he was defending the very notion that reality is penetrated by divine reason.” Franks, He Became Poor, 184.

[9] Compendium of Catholic Social Thought, 458, 459. Also, “Science and technology must be put in the service of the divine design for the whole of creation and for all creatures. This design gives meaning to the universe and to human enterprise as well. Human stewardship of the created world is precisely a stewardship exercised by way of participation in the divine rule and is always subject to it. Human beings exercise this stewardship by gaining scientific understanding of the universe, by caring responsibly for the natural world (including animals and the environment) and by guarding their own biological integrity.” International Theological Commission: Communion and Stewardship: The Human Person in the Image of God, (2002): 61.

Pope Francis on The Holy Spirit and Creation

“The Holy Spirit whom Christ sent from the Father, and the Creator Spirit who gives life to all things, are one and the same. Respect for creation, then, is a requirement of our faith: the “garden” in which we live is not entrusted to us to be exploited, but rather to be cultivated and tended with respect (cf. Gen 2:15). Yet this is possible only if Adam – the man formed from the earth – allows himself in turn to be renewed by the Holy Spirit, only if he allows himself to be re-formed by the Father on the model of Christ, the new Adam. In this way, renewed by the Spirit, we will indeed be able to experience the freedom of the sons and daughters, in harmony with all creation.”

Pope Francis, Pentecost, 2015