Stewardship of Creation as a Framework for a Sustainable Future
The Catholic Church is a 2000 year old institution. As such its beliefs and values are not only deeply embedded in the culture and the society that surrounds us on a global scale but also the way we interact with our surroundings. While the Church has many philosophies and teachings on the way the world is, and the values we should reflect, one of the more widely understood and appreciated teachings is that of the Creation story found in Genesis. This story details how God created the Earth and its inhabitants in 7 days, and that everything he created was good and a reflection of his grace and his image. This idea is succinctly expressed in the section of the Catechism detailing beliefs on Creation, which states,
“We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom, and goodness” (Paragraph 295, Catechism of the Catholic Church)
However, the image of the beauty of Creation can be extended far beyond that original story in the Holy Bible, to apply to our own daily lives as we encounter and interact with nature and our respective surroundings. This daily interaction with nature also has a connection to the Catholic view of the Earth and its natural attributes in a way that is often neglected by those striving to appreciate the creation story. This connection is a belief known as Stewardship of Nature.
To be a steward, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, is “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something.” But the Catholic understanding of what stewardship entails is much more nuanced than this definition can articulate. As Catholics, stewardship means to recognize the inherent value in all created things, such as the trees, animals and plants that surround us, and out of reverence and appreciation for these gifts bestowed upon us, to take care of and nurture them with as much thoughtfulness and discretion as we would our own bodies.
This sentiment has been expressed in more recent years in a more universal sense by Pope Francis, in his statements and writings on the importance of caring for the environment. One of his more widely known statements comes from an address he made to the European Union, in which he declared, “ Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us. This means, on the one hand, that nature is at our disposal, to enjoy and use properly. Yet it also means that we are not its masters. Stewards, but not masters” (Vatican Radio, 2014).
From statements like these, it is easy to imagine how such sentiments could provide an essential foundation for envisioning a sustainable future, with stewardship of nature as the goal and the focus. The use of phrases such as “personal responsibility” and “precious gift” call to mind an image of a vast expanse that has been gifted to us to enjoy, but with a mindfulness of our impact on its beauty. While the beauty is for all to share, we are each obligated to the treat each piece of this cohesive natural beauty with reverence. To do so would not only increase our individual appreciation for nature, but would also prevent exploitation of what Linda Booth Sweeney identifies as a systems thinking principle, the Commons, where “shared resources on which we depend and for which we are all responsible” (Sweeney, 1995) are available to everyone.
So what would that sustainable future look like, with stewardship as the guiding principle? To understand this vision, its helpful to understand that an inherent part of the concept of stewardship within Catholic theology is a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of nature as created, but also a harnessing of that wonder to implement philosophies and that preserve the integrity of each aspect and form of creation itself. If a future can be based on this idea of preserving the inherent integrity in all things and an appreciation for beauty of nature that can be truly awe-inspiring, sustainability is likely to fall into place quite easily.
This is the case because once humanity has an understanding of what preserving integrity means on a smaller scale, such as treating the animals in your backyard with care and respect, applying this idea on gradually larger scales becomes a habit that requires no coercion or forceful rhetoric. If the beauty of nature, as it was created to look, feel, smell, and sound like, is preserved by small actions of respect aiming to preserve the inherent goodness in creation, than the sense of wonder needed to inspire others to follow suit will soon spread and become commonplace.
At the end of the day, a background in Catholic tradition or theology isn’t needed to care for nature, or to be a steward by any of the definitions found in the dictionary. Stewardship is ultimately about caring, and showing that care for each piece of creation with each and every action that we perform out in the expansive, awe-inspiring, magnificent and beautiful multitude of small gifts that we call nature.