All Catholics, Christians, and people of good will are called to spend our lives caring for God’s creation. But what does that mean? How can we spend our days caring for God’s creation?
What has the Catholic Church said throughout the centuries about caring for God’s creation? What have Pope Francis, Saint John Paul II, and other popes said about this? And why does this matter for your life and your vocation?
Caring for God’s creation: Saying creation is more than saying nature
Let’s start with the word “creation.” Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si’, writes: “The word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature,’ for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance” (LS 76).
His Holiness continues: “Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection” (LS 77).
Caring for God’s creation: human beings are God’s collaborators in creation
What exactly is the role of human beings in caring for God’s creation? Human beings are part of creation. The world does not belong to us, it belongs to God the Creator. We ourselves, by being part of creation, belong to God, although sometimes we forget this. In the words of St. John Paul II:
“In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the Earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day.
“Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the Earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray.
“Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him” (Centesimus Annus 37).
In the Book of Genesis, we are called to till and care for the garden of the world (Gen 2:15). “’Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (LS 67).
Our fulfillment as people, as Catholics, and as Christians, depends on the relationship of care that we establish with the world. Thus, the commitment to our common home is not optional; we are all called by God to be caretakers of creation.
Caring for God’s creation: Jesus led by example
We must follow the example of Jesus, who looked at nature with affection. His gaze was capable of discovering the divine message of things. All this led him to live in harmony with creation. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, countless people have made caring for God’s creation and all creatures a fundamental part of their time on Earth.
The hermits who lived far from urban centers since the fourth century maintained an intimate and harmonious relationship with the natural environment and animals, a way of life that has been documented in hundreds of stories and expresses an appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation.
An indelible example of a saint who spent his life caring for God’s creation is St. Francis of Assisi. For him, the world was a community of God’s creatures, mutually interdependent, existing for the praise of our Creator God.
WATCH: A Commitment To Ecological Conversion
St. Hildegard of Bingen (12th century) was a mystic, theologian, poet, composer and church leader. She knew how to discover the mutual relationship of created things and the healing power of nature by applying it to bodily and spiritual health.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha (17th century) was a North American who, faithful to the worldview of her people, lived her faith with a deep respect for creation. She recognized the presence of the Creator Spirit in nature and used her knowledge of plants for healing purposes.
Commitment to caring for God’s creation is inseparable from social commitment to the impoverished. This was the experience of Sister Dorothy Stang, a missionary who was murdered in 2005 in the Amazon jungle for defending the rights of the peoples of the Amazon.
WATCH: Sr. Judi Clemens shares her moving story about Sr. Dorothy Stang
Popes have also raised their voices to care for creation
St. Paul VI showed his concern for the environment in an address to the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture in 1970. Environmental degradation is a matter for the whole human family (Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens 21).
For St. John Paul II, authentic human development cannot simply be identified with economic development, industrialization, and consumption, nor can creation be treated as a repository at the service of unlimited economic growth (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 34). Subsequently, he stressed the intimate relationship between social peace and peace with creation in his inspiring message for the 1990 World Day of Peace.
For Benedict XVI, creation is a gift of God and not mere matter left at our disposal (Caritas in veritate 48).
God’s salvific action began with creation, and in it, God’s goodness and beauty are manifested. Our gratitude cannot be other than our responsibility to care for, conserve, and cultivate God’s work, said Benedict XVI. Pope Francis, of course, dedicated an entire encyclical to the question of caring for God’s creation.
WATCH: About Laudato Si’
Caring for God’s creation: the urgent ecological conversion needed
The climate emergency and biodiversity crisis have become gravely serious in our time, but the act of caring for God’s creation has been lived by many people before us. They were people capable of a deep relationship with God as creator and who lived in communion with God’s creation.
In contrast, the domineering and destructive position that has disrupted the balance of creation has resulted in the climate crisis we are experiencing. This crisis is not separate from the spiritual crisis, as Pope Francis explains in Laudato Si’:
“A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the Earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality” (LS 75).
Pope Francis makes clear that the urgency of the climate crisis calls us to a profound ecological conversion. We need to change our way of seeing and relating to the world, for the integrity of creation is in question. This conversion is both personal and, above all, communal.
“Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds… The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion” (LS 219).
A new relationship with creation “also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings” (LS 220).
How to get involved caring for God’s creation: