Conservation and the Catholic Imagination

3,610 total words    

14 minutes of reading

In the 1940s, after praising the “frankness and restraint” of Aldo Leopold’s essay “The Ecological Conscience,” philosopher Max Otto shucked the husk of admiration to observe “I value even more a quality in your paper which I can only call spiritual. You have a philosophy of wildlife management which is itself part of a philosophy of life. . . . I wish religious people—church people, I mean—could see it to be part of religion to enlist in your cause.”[1]

In our present social arena, religion and science are too often pitted against one another, like cocks spurred to fight. As citizens, we lose sight of the common natural stage we share of awe, wonder, inquiry, imagination, concern, and service. Both sides fail to tap into the energies stored in the surrounding crowds. All that results are brief bursts of applause that fade quickly away. If we want to make lasting changes in ethics and conservation to preserve the planet’s abundance and livability, we need to release the cocks and bust out of the pit. We may have to lure the cocks out by learning more about them, calling them by name, and singing their songs.

In this new millennium, a Creation Care movement is breaking forth in faith communities and religious organizations around the world from the rigid boundaries of dogma and the status quo to spread inspired wings and soar on the winds of religious imagination. Aldo and Estella Leopold did this in their work to restore some degraded land near Baraboo, Wisconsin, Estella as a Catholic and Aldo as spiritual naturalist. He described their unusual family enterprise at the “Shack” land: “On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and ax, what we are losing elsewhere. It is here that we seek—and still find—our meat from God.”[2]

Identifying Untapped Energies

If you just look at the Christian population of the United States, you see the enormous potential for conservation care. Over 75 percent of the nation’s adults self-identified as Christians in 2008, with one fourth being Catholic. At the end of 2008, the global Catholic population (Eastern and Roman) numbered approximately 1.166 billion— approximately 17 percent, or one-sixth of the world’s population of 6.684 billion. Some regions are growing in Catholic numbers, as on the African continent, and others declining, as in Europe.[3] This is a valuable group to examine because historically, when the service-oriented imagination of Catholics has become engaged in a good cause, an enormous amount of work has gotten done—consider the creation of Catholic hospitals, hospices, schools for the poor, orphanages, and medical clinics that populate communities around the globe. So imagine the tipping point if even a small portion of this populace as a group could get publicly, physically, and passionately engaged in conservation works and activism.

 Now more than ever, this Catholic imagination is needed, not only to renew the world through activism, but for its own survival—for the inspiration to renew the Church itself. It needs a groundswell of new directions, new energies, and new ways to show meaningful, inspiring servant leadership in the world. Catholics are an untapped alternative energy source, and they need to be invited to the conservation table to participate not just as humans and fellow planetary citizens—as many are already involved for these reasons—but also specifically as Catholics. Presently, ecological teachings have been perceived as sideline issues rather than as core to whom Catholics are and dream themselves to be.

To involve them, the environmental movement has to understand them. Judeo-Christian thought and imagination have always seen the cradle of nature and humanity as a garden. With this centering vision, the early Christian Church and many of the “saints” who sustained it over the centuries looked upon creation, or nature, as the first book of God’s Word. They experienced God’s revelation in its contemplation and sought to know more about the Creator through natural scientific observation. In contemporary times, Pope John Paul II circled back to these beginnings when he observed that “Along with the revelation properly so called, contained in Sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the shining sun and in the nightfall. Nature, too, in a certain sense, is ‘the book of God.’”[4]

However, over the centuries in the West, with the integration of Greco-Roman Platonic thought, the “good” became associated with ideals that do not exist in nature; goodness climbed a ladder away from creation. Later, the scientific revolution dictated that life’s mysteries can be solved, and can be solved rationally. The Biblical notion of loving, God-like “dominion” or husbandry of the earth degraded into “domination”—humans creating their own values for their own reasons and living by them, “subduing” the world to fit their desires rather than abiding by and honoring the systems of the earth or of the values of the Creator (“And God said that it was good.”). Thus, Christians became increasingly associated with rationalizing a domination of the earth instead of a guardianship.

However, in contemporary times, Christians, and Catholics specifically, are re-centering themselves in God’s own love of Creation. John Paul II, though few realized it at the time, planted the seeds of this old-but-new Scriptural vision throughout the teachings of his papacy. He taught that all Catholics, other Christians, and citizens of the globe required an “ecological conversion.” He explained:

It is the duty of Christians and of all who look to God as the Creator to protect the environment by restoring a sense of reverence for the whole of God’s creation. It is the Creator’s will that man should treat nature not as a ruthless exploiter but as an intelligent and responsible administrator. . . . The protection of the environment is not only a technical question; it is also and above all an ethical issue. All have a moral duty to care for the environment, not only for their own good but also for the good of future generations.[5]

As Aldo Leopold said, “When we begin to see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”[6]

But an ocean yawns between the spiritual and ecological wisdom in Scripture and the opinions and practices of the general Catholic clergy, religious, and communities of believers. That is because Catholics have not been fully nurtured in this aspect of their faith, nor challenged by their parishes, nor called upon by the public. Catholics need to be invited to the conservation table to participate not just as humans and fellow planetary citizens—as many are already involved for these reasons—but also specifically as Catholics. That is what John Paul II was doing, and far beyond this, he was presenting a radical transformation of Catholics’ view of themselves and their place in Creation. John Paul II tried to help people to see the connections between the physical and spiritual. As creation is all of one piece, physical laws parallel spiritual laws. That means the physical flow of energies through cosmos—which naturally incorporates life and death and recycles, reuses, regenerates, and restores—is mirrored in the spiritual principles of life and death, community sharing, mentoring, forgiveness, respect, love, and restoration in relationships.

How to Ignite the Catholic Imagination for Conservation and Creation Care

To build upon this perspective and work together to renew the face of the earth, conservation-oriented scientists, philosophers, ethicists, and activists—and the environmental movement as a whole—need to recognize the synergism between the Creation Care movement and the works of non-religious earth ethicists, such as Aldo Leopold and Thomas Berry.

Thomas Berry’s “New Story” for the earth resembles in many ways the spiritual ecological teachings that Pope John Paul II highlighted:

  • respect for all religions and cultures as part of the diversity of God’s creation;
  • the connection between nature and humans and their interdependence, or humans as part of nature;
  • the shift from humans as dominators to caretakers with the Creator’s dominion, acting for the Creator to protect what was proclaimed as “good”;
  • the necessity and dignity of work that participates in the ecology of each community;
  • the connections of poverty to degradation of the environment and war to environmental destruction;
  • the connections between education and leadership of women and protection of the environment and community strength;
  • the importance of protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and following their model of protection of Mother Earth;
  • the destructive links between greed and materialism and a culture of waste; and
  • seeing the fraternity of all species (John Paul II cited St. Francis of Assis ias a model, naming him as the “Patron Saint of Ecology”).

Steps to Incorporating the Religious Spiritual Imagination into the Conservation Movement

So how can the conservation movement work with Catholics to convert their pastoral communities to their Scriptural values when their own popes and bishops have thus far failed? The movement needs to reach out not just to Catholics, but to all religious communities, not through secular reasoning but through the windows of faith—the sacred reasoning of each specific faith tradition. Scientists and activists need to learn each religion’s language, listen to its Creation Care experts and Scripture, and base a plea for allied action and imagination on these platforms. This public call from outside a religious community for it to live up to its own best inner teachings makes that community look at itself in a new way, opening it up to its inherent energies and responsibilities, and its opportunities to grow and transform. The following steps may be particularly helpful in dialogue with the Catholic community:

Make Catholics in conservation visible, speaking out on issues by making the connection between them and faith.Have Catholic conservationists step into the limelight and speak out not just as humans and community activists, but calling themselves Catholics, and speaking to parishes and religious groups. Some Catholic orders teach Creation Care as part of their ministry, such as the Franciscans, Benedictines, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. But they, too, are on the sidelines.

Tell stories that dramatize the connections between people and nature: for instance, between care of the planet and care of the poor; between ecosystems and neighborhoods, ecology and economy, or places and species; between human and non-human species; and between Scripture and conservation. Though Catholic social justice teachings outline care for the earth, they come off as overly academic and political, unrelated to everyday life. But new development work, such as the Green Belt Movement, shows dramatically the connections between restoring a denuded environment and rebuilding poor communities—the Beatitudes in action. Or consider the Heifer Project, which combines education and empowering of women with micro-loans and the restoring of environments and educational opportunities for children. These are stories to tell that make the connections real.

Use Catholic sacramental language, family values, and the Bible to give reasons for conservation and ecological work rather than limiting the rationale to scientific reasoning or community good. Climate change activists, such as Bill McKibben and polar explorer Will Steger, are beginning to talk to faith groups, using the rationale of Biblical stories such as that of Noah’s Ark or Job. The Center for Humans and Nature’s Lowcountries Initiative in South Carolina is also conducting dialogues with religious communities. Obviously, this can only be done if one has a clear grounding in the Scripture and tradition oneself. But there is power here, as Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrated in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s by using the language and imagination of faith. Much of his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” could be studied to learn his technique of crossing boundaries and using others’ own heritage and experts to call forth better actions from compatriots in a common effort.

Connect care for planet to the full spectrum of all life issues. John Paul II stated his basic ecological ethic and pro-life principle: “This implies that life must be handled with care, including animal life and all of animate and inanimate nature.”[7] In addition, he noted the problems of overpopulation and limited resources, and he called for responsible parenthood in terms of family size, advocating the education and leadership of women and natural family planning to slow population growth and strengthen communities. He urged moving from a culture of waste and death to a culture of life.

Refer to Catholic saints and role models throughout the ages who valued nature for the gift it is, starting with Jesus. The incarnation itself casts a new light on the significance of nature and of humankind’s right relationship to it. From this perspective, creation is all the more precious and in need of contemplation and care. Jesus is only portrayed in the Gospels in the desert and wilderness, by and on the lake, in the garden, and at meals with friends. He referred to how deeply his Father loved even the lilies and sparrows of the fields, and despite the taboos of his time, he spoke to and taught women and non-Jews. And Catholic tradition is rife with the many saints who saw the spirit of God in nature, such as Francis, Claire, Benedict, and Augustine. Athanasius says: “The firmament with its magnificence, its beauty, its order, is an admirable preacher of its Maker, whose eloquence fills the universe.”[8]

Work with Catholics to intertwine prayer, contemplation, and enjoyment in the great outdoors in any conservation efforts to encourage the experience of God within nature. To teach and understand the sacramentality of all life, one must be willing to integrate aspects of prayer within activities indoors and out, especially the Mass. To honor creation and observe its principles and flow is not to worship it, any more than to honor saints, as Catholics do, is to adore them. It is more to admit a participation in the larger cosmos, built upon complex and integrated laws beyond limited human knowledge or control.

Inspire Catholics with hope and joy and stimulate their imaginations about service and local projects. Connect to their faith and to the Beatitudes, partnering with them to experience the connections between care for the earth and care for the people in the community, while integrating prayer and Catholic liturgical symbology into the projects. Join with them on the projects they already have at work.

Of course, such a task—to engage the Catholic populace and imagination—is far from simple. It is beset with difficulties, beginning with the present tensions and problems in hierarchical accountability and responsibility and lack of diversity within the Catholic Church itself. But perhaps if Catholics had a better sense of their own early history and ecological vision, they might be able to apply this wisdom to their present problems and structures for renewal. For Catholics to change from the inside out, they need to be educated about their Scriptural heritage and earth ethic and what it comes from—to engage, embrace, and celebrate their communal and personal imaginations so they can feel called by Christ to their own spiritual, ecological vocations, as Catholic communities and as individuals. Pope John Paul II called Catholics and all citizens of the planet to remember their original nature as creatures, and he urged fellow residents on the planet to seek out “an ecological conversion.” “A radical cultural change is necessary,” he wrote; “there must be a ‘conversion’ from the indiscriminate exploitation of [the earth’s] resources to a responsible stewardship of the goods that God gives us in creation.”[9] To do this, a full reorientation toward the interconnectivity of social or life issues would be needed. John Paul II put this in more specific terms to his Plenary Council in 1999: “The question of the environment is closely related to other important social issues, insofar as the environment embraces all that surrounds us and all upon which human life depends.”[10]

Leopold put it even more simply: “To change ideas about what the land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for.”[11] Consequently, in the 1940s, he reminded us that “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched the foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it.”[12]

In 2003, John Paul II stated a similar spiritual and moral necessity:

A solution to ecological challenges demands more than just economic and technological proposals. It requires an inner change of heart that leads to the rejection of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. It demands an ethical behavior that respects the principles of universal solidarity, social justice, and responsibility.[13]

With the spread of the Creation Care movement, religious people are beginning to hear of these ideas, but they need to hear much, much more. Now is the time to find ways to actively engage Catholics and the Catholic imagination, and to do the same with other Christian denominations and faith communities. As Leopold states, “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”[14]

Now is the time to utilize the bridges left by Scripture, John Paul II, and so many other Catholic leaders and saints. John Paul II himself would approve: I hope that your discussions will bring about concrete ideas for the spread of an ecological culture. May the earth flourish again as a garden for all.”[15]


Marybeth Lorbiecki, M.A., is Adjunct Professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She spent a year at the University of Essex, United Kingdom, as an International Rotarian Scholar. She is author of the biography Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire (Falcon, 1996; 2nd ed. 2005). She has several books in process, including Mending the Earth, Minding the Soul: John Paul II’s Ecological Teachings and Their Dynamic Relevance for Individuals and the World; Green Hope: An Ecological Action Plan from the Teachings of John Paul II; and Our Beautiful Endangered World: John Paul II’s Counsel for Youth and the Hopeful of Heart.


Lorbiecki Article: Text box 1 of 2:

Principles of a Christian Ecological Vision (based in Scripture)

  • Christ is present in Creation and all of nature.
  • “And God saw that it was good”: Genesis is a moral mandate to act as caretaker for God’s Creation in God’s image—to value as God values.
  • The earth belongs to God, and we are its humble creatures and tenants, responsible to pass the land on in good or better shape than we received it and to share its abundance, caring for the poor.
  • Creation is based in diversity and interdependence, which must be honored and preserved according to the covenant with God and other species (this includes a respect for the Divine in all religions and cultures).
  • Work is an act of daily dominion/caretaking for God—co-creatorship and partnership with others, especially the poor.
  • Rest is mandated for proper dominion and is an ecological principle.
  • Wilderness is a spiritual necessity—part of the tithing of land to God and leaving places for contemplation and other species.

Lorbiecki article Text box 2 of 2

Brief Biblical Highlights of Creation Care (there’s so much more!)

Judeo-Christian Scripture, from Genesis and the Garden of Eden on, emphasizes that what God made in creation is good (Genesis 1). Humans, made in God’s image, have been given the unique responsibility to act for God in this world—to value as God values, to love as God loves, to care as God cares (“Love others as I have loved you.”). They were given the intimate and loving task of naming all the animals as their first act of caretaking.

But because of disobedience, Adam and Eve were sent from the garden. Disorder came and people were at odds with nature.

God then lovingly bound people and the animals into a covenant with the animals after the great flood, placing the rainbow into the sky as a promise for all, linking the animals and people again (Genesis 9: 8-17). As the people survived and multiplied, they endured slavery and longed for their own lands. So God, through Moses, led them through the desert into the land of Canaan, flowing with milk and honey.

But God reminded them that they do not own the land, that they are merely God’s tenants (Leviticus 25, Matt.21:33-43). If they don’t respect the earth, which was given in common to be shared, and if they don’t respect his command for Sabbath to give the land and the animals and themselves periodic rest, the people shall be doomed to massive destruction (Leviticus 26, Hebrews 4:4-11).

Later, in the Christian testaments, Christ comes to renew and redeem Creation, to show people once more how to value as God values, live in ways that would bring back the harmony of the garden. Christ gives his followers examples of prayer, praying in places of solitude with nature—in the garden, by the seashore, in the wilderness, in the desert. And he reminds his followers of His Father’s great care for all of creation, especially for people (Matthew 6:26-29).

St. Paul reminds followers that Christ is in all creation (Colossians 1:15-23) and that the nearness of the end times is all the more reason to be vigilant with carrying out one’s duties before Christ (Hebrews 13:11-12). 1 Corinthians 12 extols the strength of diversity and interdependence. Revelation reminds followers, “hurt not the earth, neither the seas, nor the trees,” (7:3) and that those who destroy the earth, God will destroy (11:18).

[1]. C. Meine, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 500.

[2]. A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine, 1970; 2nd ed. 1990), xviii.

[3]. Wikipedia, “Demographics of the United States According the U.S. Census Bureau”; “Catholics By Country,” taken from the 2010 Annuario Pontificio, (Pontifical Yearbook,; “World Population of Catholics Still Rising,” Catholic News Service, February 24, 2010.

[4]. John Paul II, General Audience Address, August 2, 2000, available at

[5]. John Paul II, Post Synod Apostolic Exhortation, “Ecclesia in Asia,” 1998, available at

[6]. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, xviii.

[7]. John Paul II, Address, Representatives of Science and Art, Vienna, Austria, September 13, 1983, available at

[8]. John Paul II , General Audience, January 30, 2002, available at

[9]. John Paul II, Angelus, November 10, 2002, available at

[10]. John Paul II, Message of the Holy Father to the Members of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the Occasion of Their Plenary Assembly, November 4, 1999, available at

[11]. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 74.

[12]. Ibid., 12.

[13]. John Paul II, Common Declaration on the Environment, June 10, 2002; Message of John Paul II to the Ecumenical Patriarch Batholomaios, May 27, 2003. Both available at

[14]. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 210.

[15]. John Paul II, Address, National Congress of Young Proprietor Farmers, January 9, 1988, available at

  • Marybeth Lorbiecki

    Marybeth Lorbiecki, M.A., is the director of Interfaith Oceans (formerly the Interfaith Ocean Ethics Campaign -- IOEC) -- a multi-faith effort to awaken religious people to the damage to the oceans (and its peoples and species) and the call of faith to restore and protect all of God's creation.

More Stories & Ideas

Scroll to Top