Fragile World is the fourth volume in Cascade’s excellent Studies in World Catholicism series. The contributors are from all corners of the globe, including a large contingent from the Philippines. The chapters began as papers shared at a conference at DePaul University in April 2015, a number of weeks before the publication of Laudato Si’. Many of the final essays have since incorporated reflections on Pope Francis’s groundbreaking environmental encyclical, and this book thus represents an important—and geographically diverse—contribution to the rich and fertile discussion that has arisen since the encyclical’s publication in the summer of 2015.
Catholic Social Teaching
The first four chapters of Fragile World are grouped under the theme of Catholic Social Teaching, and they set the stage for what follows. A reader who is new to the topic will be greeted with a historical framing of ecology in Catholic thought and a clear sense of how the momentum around these issues has been growing for decades in the papal writings.
More particularly, the first chapter, “Turning Over the Right Rocks: Finding Legacies of Catholic Environmentalism,” excavates a forerunner of the kind of action called for in Laudato Si’. The writer, Christopher Hamlin, displays some strange anti-Protestant tendencies, but his work offers a fascinating exploration of the many initiatives in the twentieth-century by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, where “we have the key themes of Laudato Si’ long before Francis” (31).
In “Ecology, Justice, and Peace: The Perspective of a Global Church,” Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson frames Francis’s ecological teaching in the light of broader Catholic social teaching, especially as seen in the writings of the pope’s two direct predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This address, written before the publication of Laudato Si’—which Turkson helped to draft—demonstrates how the call to be “revolutionaries of tenderness” (48) is embedded in the Catholic tradition.
Celia Deane-Drummond reminds us at the opening of her essay, “Catholic Social Teaching and Ecology: Promise and Limits,” that under Benedict XVI, the Vatican became the planet’s first carbon-neutral state (49). In keeping with the emerging argument of the book, she insists that it is a misreading to imagine that Laudato Si’ represents a startling innovation within the tradition. It is, rather, the pinnacle of a developmental movement that has been building since at least 1971. Deane-Drummond explores the limitations of the tradition when it comes to the environment before offering seven suggestions regarding how Catholic teaching on the topic might fruitfully engage with conversations in the wider, secular world.
Michael A. Perry then takes the reader on a long journey across the centuries in his effort to bridge the divide between Francis of Assisi and Francis of Buenos Aires. Perry’s detailed consideration of Francis of Assisi’s famous first canticle provides excellent insight for considering Laudato Si’. Both teachers point the church to the need to realize “the interrelated nature of all things, their connectedness, that enables—even requires—all people to assume full responsibility together for the fate of our common home” (86).
Cry of the Earth
The second part of the book investigates the kinds of environmental damage we habitually cause, primarily in the context of our extractive industries. Luis Alfonso Santos Villeda, bishop emeritus of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, offers a chastening overview of the consequences of malignant industry on his home and on his land. His tale is one of woe, featuring a checklist of the worst excesses of globalized capitalism: rapacious foreign corporations, vast levels of pollution, political pressure to deregulate, exports of natural resources and profits, and the buildup of security and policing infrastructure at the expense of basic social needs. It is easy to see why his call to place the preferential option for the poor at the heart of any human ecology carries force.
Peter Hughes, of the Society of the Holy Cross, draws on his fifty years of experience working in Latin America to sketch the risks posed to the Pan-Amazonian ecosystem. He begins by reminding us that for “every five glasses of water a person drinks and every five breaths that person takes, one of each is provided by the Amazon basin. Its destruction will mean much less water and oxygen . . . it will literally take our breath away” (98). His claim that the “developed North is the other jungle” (104, italics in original), a counterpart to the natural diversity and abundance of the Amazon but constituted by the lines of logistical supply, trajectories of growing profits, and vast appetites of consumer sentiment is apt and illuminating. But rather than leaving readers paralyzed by the sheer scale of the challenge of preserving the Pan-Amazonian region and its indigenous people, Hughes point to signs of hope, most notably the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (known by its Spanish-language acronym REPAM), which is a grassroots initiative to amplify the voices of indigenous people and lobby the powers that be to enact changes that will halt the devastation wrought by extractive industries.
This section closes with the Jesuit Peter Knox, who highlights one of the chief facts of climate breakdown: that its impact will be felt most acutely by the poor even though they have contributed far less to the problem than the rich. Knox’s chapter is an excellent introduction to the important idea of planetary boundaries, and he clearly articulates how the challenge we face is not just scientific or technical but epistemological. What is the good life if not the life of affluent Westerners? Knox suggests that Westerners’ receptivity to traditional wisdom will be necessary if we are to engage in human flourishing that resists further transgressing the earth’s natural limits.
The Nigerian theologian Stan Chu Ilo opens the theological section of the book with the story of a stream, Ahuruma, that runs through his ancestral home of Adu Achi in eastern Nigeria. The myth that surrounded this brook generated practices which encouraged generations of people to cherish and care for the river and its environs. However, the changes in thinking and living brought about by modernization have led to the river running dry; the sustainable practices were dropped once the skeletal stories of Enlightenment rationality prevailed.
Ilo lays out six ways that indigenous myths can inform Catholic thinking. As he relates these items, he writes that creation is not intrinsically fragile but that it has been made vulnerable because of human brutality. This is especially illuminating in the context of his larger claim about the fragility of African communities. He calls for an African solution to the global problem and suggests the Zimbabwean Association of African Earthkeeping Churches as one example of an initiative that is prototyping locally appropriate responses.
Perhaps the finest chapter in the collection comes from the theologian Daniel P. Castillo. He compares the self-indulgent consumption habits of the global North to Judea before the exile. Castillo argues that our “culture-ideology of consumerism” (154) generates an almost religious trust in the myth of progress. Relying on Walter Brueggemann, he translates the monarchical impulse at play in 1 Samuel to the apathetic death drive of our day. Grief is the natural response to such devastation, but our mourning must be disciplined into lament, which he positions as an apocalyptic mode of prayer. Castillo’s argument is nourished by a keen reading of the Scriptures and is directed toward one of the major problems facing contemporary environmentalists, which is the almost irresistible pull toward hopeless nihilism. Instead, our lament can breed a righteous “fury” that aligns with God’s action in the world. Thus, our hope is not based in technocratic or agrarian optimism but in the faith that “it is the forces that destroy the earth that will be destroyed” (161).
The Colombian theologian Germán Roberto Mahecha Clavijo closes the theology section of the book with a chapter that locates the conversation between the church and ecology about our fragile world in the lives of the poor. They are disproportionately impacted by climate breakdown and, he suggests, through a form of generational resilience, they may be unusually well-placed to survive the onslaught of weather chaos that may become commonplace. When compared with the immediately preceding chapter from Castillo—arguably the strongest piece in the entire collection—this chapter is more roughly sketched and less precisely argued than readers may like. The chapter offers interesting details concerning the Colombian policy of defining poverty with minimum wage as a ceiling rather than a floor (168), but the whole never quite sharpens to a point.
The fourth section of the book focuses on ethics and begins with the concept of anthropogenia, which is similar to the concept of the Anthropocene in Anglo cultures. Edward Obi, a Missionary Servants of the Word priest, describes this concept as the “cumulative impact of an apparent hegemony of the humanum, in which everything is subjected to and determined by human beings and our need, or the value we place upon it” (176, emphasis in original). The time we might call anthropogenic is when all sense of ecological virtue is dislocated by the drive for profit under a technocratic rationale. The proposed remedy, which Obi sketches in relation to the oil and gas industries of the Niger Delta, is a new theo-ethic of rationality based around relationality rather than individuality. How such appeals are fleshed out remains an open question given that the “community” in general, rather than the specific community called church, is the imagined location for this transformation.
Rolando A. Tuazon, a Vincentian theologian from the Philippines, then reflects on Francis’s call in Laudato Si’ to strive for human integrity as the means to achieve ecological integrity. Tuazon conceives of this as a virtue project, and in an interesting move, he seeks to describe the habits and values required for this challenge by means of interviews with environmental activists. I question whether this methodology, which aligns a series of disparate accounts of virtue—Buddhist, indigenous, Christian—and then seeks to build a consensus in the face of profound difference without acknowledging that difference, will achieve “this gargantuan task of virtue formation” (209) that the author envisions.
The scientist Christie Klimas closes this section with an original consideration of Christmas from an environmental perspective. Drawing on economic literature around the “deadweight loss” arising from unwanted gifts, Klimas lays out the stark excesses that mark our celebration of the birth of a baby born into poverty who would soon become a refugee. In ordinary time, so to speak, we already vastly overconsume in proportion to our share of the planet’s resources, but our consumption at Christmas can be five times what it is usually. This leads Klimas to suggest that “from a Christian standpoint” it is hard “to justify the environmental cost” and “the opportunity cost associated with the way we spend our money” (213). Reading this essay as a Presbyterian in Ireland, I was beginning to hear echoes of the ancient voices of the Scottish Reformation whose earnest intentions to follow Christ led them to go so far as to cancel Christmas. There are gospel stories that seem to celebrate deadweight loss—who wants to find themselves on Judas’s side when we read of the anointing at Bethany?—but Klimas does not fall into the Judas trap. She thinks neither that a chastened Christmas celebration would be a cure for our ecological ills nor that it would resolve global poverty. She proposes it as a humble step toward a different attitude to ownership, a “low-hanging fruit” (214) in our efforts to enact Francis’s call to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. This is a path, she argues, not toward canceling Christmas but fulfilling it, a chance to consider “our moral obligations to others during Christmas, not just those for whom we purchase gifts, but also for those who made those gifts and those who were affected by gift production (including other species)” (216).
Emmanuel Katongole opens the fifth section, which offers a pastoral response to the ecological discussion. Taking up Francis’s discussion of the ecological wound in terms of sin, Katongole argues that our commitments to modern myths have blinded us and disconnected us from our creational connection to the dust of the earth, which is both the source of our livelihoods and the substance of our living matter. For Katongole, the ecological crisis is an apocalyptic opportunity, a “kairos moment for the church in general and the church in Africa in particular” (220). He uses the example of his home village, Malube, which is on the edges of Kampala, as an example of how the promises of modernization were deeply impoverishing in ways that do not necessarily show up in calculations of Ugandan GNP. Yet the church invested in these Western concepts of progress and thus “has missed a great opportunity to affirm our intimacy with God, which is related to our intimacy with the land” (225). Katongole directs readers to Genesis 2 as the scriptural ground we must plough to harvest from this fertile moment in time and points us to his Bethany Land Institute initiative, a biointensive model farm and training center that aims to provide a context for reforestation and the cultivation of local markets, as an example of how all this works out in practice.
Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record, made landfall in the Philippines on November 7, 2013, resulting in the displacement of over four million people and the deaths of more than six thousand. Events such as this are becoming more common. In the fifteenth chapter, the theologian Agnes M. Brazal shares her research on the aftermath of that disaster, research that investigated cultural and religious beliefs around the disaster. Brazal’s interviews with survivors offer fascinating accounts about why the typhoon occurred and why it was so devastating. Her writing on the lamentation heard from “dead spots” (241) where bodies were piled up awaiting burial in the chaos of the cleanup is deeply affecting. She argues that the church must go beyond being the center of relief efforts and must seek to serve as a mediating presence, allowing the wisdom of indigenous memory to sit in harmony with the knowledge of modernity. This is a call to a distinctive theodicy, which she sees reflected in the work of the Redemptorists in the city of Tacloban and which she defines as “post-Liebnizian liberationist” in nature (251).
Another Filipino theologian, Randy J. C. Odchigue, writes of the fascinating marsh ecosystem in the southern Philippines known as Agusan. The arrival of invasive new species, the development of commercial fish farms, and the cultivation of cash crops like palm oil have distressed the balance of this vast system. Pollution from mining and deforestation from illegal logging have exacerbated these problems. Almost a quarter of a million people call this territory home, and their livelihoods are threatened by this ecological decline. Odchigue challenges readers to consider how such fragile ecosystems and the communities embedded within them be preserved. He advocates for an intergenerational ecospiritual perspective, along the axes of justice and responsibility, that sees any distinction we erect between ourselves—either individually or communally—and the environment as illusory. “We pursue ecological well-being because the earth is us,” he explains. “We are ecology” (267).
The final section of Fragile World examines questions of eschatology and commences with the Vincentian Daniel F. Pilario who considers the different apocalyptic modalities found in environmental discourse. He begins by mapping the dominant responses to the climate crisis. His description of the denial movement as “cornucopian” (272) has the double benefit of being both generous and accurate, diagnosing how the movement at least assumes that creation is abundant and rejects the pessimism of Malthusianism. Similarly, his characterization of the majority position as “pastoral” (273) draws out the bucolic nostalgia, which sometimes rises to outright sentimentality, that can run through the environmental imagination. The third response to the climate crisis he outlines is an apocalyptic response. It is perhaps unfortunate that he understands this category in terms of dystopia and “imminent and cataclysmic end” (275). Such an impression is informed more by pop culture than by Jewish and Christian texts, which have always primarily seen apocalypse as a revealing, which implies a possibility, not a termination. Theologically, the apocalyptic has more in common with Kafka than the Left Behind novels of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, more like films such as Midnight Special than blockbuster movies like 2012, which the author references. Pilario draws on the work of Johann Baptist Metz, whose interruptive apocalypticism is read as a challenge to optimistic utopianism, particularly as he interprets Metz’s call to apocalyptic practical solidarity in the light of recovering from Typhoon Haiyan. His closing point arrives at a most interesting location: “Only apocalyptic language can bring out its [the moral intuition’s] urgency to act” (285).
The Anglican theologian Michael S. Northcott begins his chapter by recounting his experience of awaking one night to wild forest fires in Indonesia. The story he tells takes the reader from a time when the rainforests were inhabited as a common inheritance to the present situation, where they are understood legally as natural resources administered through corporately controlled concessions. It is a story in which vibrant biodiversity makes way for palm oil. Northcott suggests that environmental degradation can be explained by a formula in which deterioration is a function of population multiplied by consumption, which allows him to argue that the real tragedy of the commons is when “greedy people use the power of debt, of governance or kingship, or of inherited wealth and power, to claim too much of the earth and its products as their own personal fiefdom, their own private source of rent and capital” (291). If the first essay in this collection appeared ungenerous toward Protestant Christians, then this, the penultimate essay, might have framed its critique of Catholic ecological positions more sensitively. However, the challenges Northcott issues about population growth, climate denial, and what we might call the need for renewed synodality in the church (i.e., those ecclesial formations that encourage the active participation of all the baptized in decision-making) certainly have their place, and Northcott seems to land on a better note of humility when he grants that the Anglican Communion is hardly a viable alternative model to Roman Catholicism in the context of the ecological crisis (299).
The final essay again considers the Filipino context. Home to about fifty volcanoes and host to an annual average of twenty tropical cyclones, the Philippines is at a higher risk for natural disaster than most places on the globe. Moreover, poverty, corruption, and lack of infrastructural resilience mean that natural disasters there have very human-made tragic consequences. Reynaldo D. Raluto maps the ways in which human activity generates or exacerbates these disasters. Through an engagement with the natural sciences, he argues that what we see as climate chaos is the process of adaptation in which the biosphere regains stability, which he terms “homeostasis” (311). There is practical encouragement in this, because we can track our habits in line with these changes to discern a path toward sustainability. Drawing on Leonardo Boff, Raluto directs us to the hope that can be found in the coming struggle to change our ways. The Christian is called to “suffer and die rather than embrace, hopelessly, the darkness of frustration and despair” (318). Such a position, he argues, is only coherent when rooted in resurrection hope. It is a fitting close to a theological text about our present ecological challenge.
In his introduction, William T. Cavanaugh suggests that what binds this collection together is “interconnection” (1). Indeed, while the writers come from across the continents and often write with deep affection for specific, small patches of land, their writing is clearly part of a whole, just as our many different ecosystems reside within a single environment. Cavanaugh argues that “the modern neglect of creation comes from our neglect of God and God’s Word” as well as our neglect of our neighbor (2). Making interconnections between theology and ecology is an essential step to remedying these mistakes.
This book is indispensable for theologians, especially Catholic moral theologians, who are interested in environmental questions. It is accessible enough to be enjoyed by the interested lay reader. Particular essays would surely serve as appropriate reading material in later undergraduate courses or introductory postgraduate courses. Its lasting strength is in the breadth of topics covered, the diversity of voices featured, and most importantly, this sense that the environment is not a thing out there, apart from us, subject to our objective gaze. Fragile World resonates with the finest recent environmental writing—I think here especially of Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life—in that it challenges us to embed our thinking into this interconnected context so that we might better address the problems already upon us. Moore writes about how what we idiomatically call “nature” is an interpenetrating weave of “human organization; extra-human flows, relations, and substances; and the web of life.”1 Likewise, this book shows how the church, which Cavanaugh proposes as “perhaps the only truly international grassroots organization” (8), should be enmeshed fully in all conversations about how to care for this world we have been gifted.
The array of voices from around the globe harmonizes with the concern of Laudato Si’ to avoid that form of “green rhetoric” where “professionals, opinion makers, communications media and the centres of power” strategize while “far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.” That this year’s Synod of Bishops will meet around the theme of “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for Integral Ecology” indicates that the church has realized that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”2 Spurred on by Laudato Si’, the church’s thinking on these issues has deepened significantly. The Synod will focus on the environmental devastation of the Amazonian basin as well as internal population displacement, the destruction of indigenous cultures, and the legacy of colonialism that implicates the church. Echoing the essays in this book, the Synod explicitly declares that to understand the global challenge of climate and biodiversity breakdown requires a local attention.3 When the church puts the voices of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon at the center of its discourse, a climate change of seismic proportions is clearly in process.
Laudato Si’ announced that “doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (§161). Environmental instability has already become dire for many, and it may rapidly worsen. While taking this seriously, A Fragile World for the large part avoids this miserable horizon that is coming increasingly into view. This is fitting for a work of theology. As bad as things are, “all is not lost” (LS §205), and with initiatives like the upcoming Synod, there is a concerted effort among Christians to develop “a prophetic and martyrdom-based spirituality” shaped by the challenges we face.4 Francis closes Laudato Si’ by reminding us that ecological devastation is not the end. “At the end,” he says, “we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God” (§243).5 A Fragile Hope will inform that hope so that we can face the wasteland we have created and yet not despair.
- Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital(London, UK: Verso, 2015), 12.
- Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015, no. 49, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_ enciclica-laudato-si.html. Italics are in the original.
- See Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology: Preparatory Document of the Synod of Bishops for the Special Assembly for the Pan-Amazon Region, Holy See Press Office, June 8, 2018, preamble and no. 2–3, especially this: “We begin with a specific geographical area in order to build a bridge to the other important biomes of our world: the Congo basin, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the tropical forests of the Asia Pacific region, and the Guarani Aquifer, among others” (preamble).
- Francis, Laudato Si’, nos. 161 and 205, and Amazonia, no. 15.
- Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 243.