Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew: God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. . . . The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility

October 28, 2017

From Fr. Richard Rohr

Science and religion should be natural partners when it comes to caring for our common home. As Christians, we have a clear mandate to steward Creation (see the invitation to “cultivate and care for” the earth in Genesis 2:15).

Yet with real perversity, much of Judeo-Christian history has preferred the earlier verse, “fill the Earth and subdue it” (1:28), as license to exploit this world—and even other peoples—in an entirely selfish way. The Catholic Church’s tragic “Doctrine of Discovery” even supported the conquest, oppression, and destruction of indigenous people and their lands. Once we feel free to objectify anything, we are no longer inside the life of the Trinity, which is always and entirely a subject-to- subject way of relating. Yet it is the same Church which teaches us this loving way of relating!

For decades, since the first World Climate Conference in 1979, we have known that the globe is warming due to increased carbon emissions. Pope Francis has affirmed that climate change is real and is primarily “a result of human activity.” [1] Scientists, he says, “speak very clearly.” [2] Oil and gas companies don’t want us to stop using fossil fuels, so they have fabricated their own “science” to deny climate change. [3] The debate has become politicized, and people create their own preferred reality, all evidence to the contrary.

Today we are no longer simply theorizing about, but actually witnessing intensified and more frequent hurricanes, coral reefs dying, glaciers rapidly melting, and sea levels rising. So many people and creatures will suffer and face extinction if we do not quickly change our lifestyle. Let us work together to creatively find solutions, to reduce our carbon footprint, to live more simply and sustainably on this, our only home. Humanity and the earth really will live or die together. The health of the planet and our continued existence depend upon our choices and actions.

Pope Francis urges us:

Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it. [4]

Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it. [5]

To rebuild spirituality “from the bottom up,” we must turn the valuable information of science and theology into transformation, change of heart, mind, and being. I invite you to learn about and connect with the suffering of someone or some place and discern your own part to play in healing our collective brokenness.

[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 23, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

[2] Pope Francis as quoted by Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis says DACA repeal not ‘pro-life’ and refutes climate change deniers,” America Magazine, September 11, 2017, https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2017/09/11/pope-francis-says-daca-repeal-not-pro-life-and-refutes-climate-change.

[3] These resources describe the politics of climate change: pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/timeline-the-politics-of-climate-change/; wnyc.org/story/united-states-of-anxiety-season-2-podcast-epiode-2/. For reputable and peer-reviewed science, see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ipcc.ch/report/ar5/index.shtml.

[4] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 45-46. Emphasis mine.

[5] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 18.

This September on the World Day of Prayer for Creation, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew offered a moving joint statement:

The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning,” God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. . . . The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end,” all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.

However, “in the meantime,” the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behavior towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets—all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. . . .

The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work toward sustainable and integral development.

[We] offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and . . . pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labor in vain if the Lord is not by our side (Psalms 126-127), if prayer is not at the center of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. . . .

We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service. [1]


I believe that the Trinity is the very shape of the universe. Reality—like God’s own self—is a flow of mutual giving and receiving. [1] God as Relationship, or Trinity, can actually allow our scientific and spiritual cosmologies to finally operate as one, because we are inside of a flow instead of a prison.

Spiritual intuitions are almost always on some level correct. Only when we literalize them and make them wooden, mechanical, and fundamentalist do they lose the flow—and the flow is where the life always is. Show me a single example of life where there is not movement, growth, and change. What we could know as a Divine Wave, we have for the most part related to as a static particle god. This demotion made a whole bunch of Christian dogmas appear to be about magic—purely transactional exchanges with a later reward only for an exclusive few. Our “good news” was no longer catholic, or universal, but merely ethnic, cultural, and earthbound.

The “Perennial Tradition” (gathering common and recurring themes in all the world’s wisdom lineages) invariably taught some version of “as above, so below,” as Huston Smith insisted. “God in heaven” was usually seen to mirror any ideal “earth below.” We see echoes of this reciprocal language in the Lord’s Prayer: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). If we update this language for the quantum era—moving from the “Great Chain of Being” to the “Nested Holarchy of Being,” as the philosopher Ken Wilber puts it [2]—we can also speak of as within, so without. If all reality is a holon and has a fractal character, as physicists tell us, then each part contains and mirrors the whole. If the cosmos as we know it originates from a “Big Bang”—from a “Let it be”—that means that one point explodes with life and gives birth to the many lives. And the original DNA somehow remains intact.

When does this many cease to be one? When did this one ever not contain the many? Never! This is what the relational pattern of the universe is teaching us, from Godhead to geochemistry and everything in between. The shape of the cosmos—quasar to quark—is a reflection of the Trinitarian God.

How do we learn to recognize and participate in this flowing reality? Scientists and mystics alike tell us: Be present! Experiment! Stay curious. This is Contemplation 101. Let go of what you “think” is your mental center—it is normally too small to understand the atom, galaxies, or the energy that births and animates all existence. Such momentous truth can occasionally be caught but it is not easily taught. We relied far too much on verbal education instead of full- bodied transformation. Moses’ burning bush was not an intellectual exercise, nor did Teresa of Ávila’s ecstasies happen in a classroom. We rightly speak of faith as a “gift” as opposed to any reasoned conclusion. You fall into it more than reason toward it.

We’re standing in the middle of an awesome and major Mystery—life itself—and the only appropriate response to this is humility. If we’re resolved that this is where we want to go—into the Mystery, not trying to hold God and reality but to let God and reality hold us—then I think religion is finally in its proper and appropriate place. Anyone who has undergone God is humble; in fact, they are the most humble of all.


God comes into the world in always-surprising ways so that the sincere seeker will always find. Is sincere seeking perhaps the real meaning of walking in darkness and faith? It seems to me that many scientists today are very sincere seekers. In fact, today’s scientists often seem to have more in common with the mystics than do many religious folks who do not seek truth but only assert their dogmas and pre-emptively deny the very possibility of other people’s God-experience.

The common scientific method relies on hypothesis, experiment, trial, and error. We might even call this “practice,” just like many of us have prayer practices. Yes, much of science is limited to the material, but at least the method is more open-ended and sincere than the many religious people who do no living experiments with faith, hope, and love, but just hang on to quotes and doctrines. They lack the personal practices whereby they can test the faithfulness of divine presence and the power of divine love.

Most scientists are willing to move forward with some degree of not-knowing; in fact, this is what calls them forward and motivates them. As new discoveries are affirmed, they remain open to new evidence that would tweak or even change the previous “belief.” Many religious folks insist upon complete “knowing” at the very beginning and then being certain every step of the way, which actually keeps them more “rational” and controlling than most scientists. This is the dead end of most fundamentalist religion, and why it cannot deal with thorny issues in any creative or compassionate way. Now I know why Paul dared to speak of “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13). Law reigns and discernment is unnecessary, which means there is little growth or change in such people. When you do not grow, you remain an infant.

The scientific mind today often has more openness to mystery than religion does!  For example, it is willing to speak of dark matter, dark holes, chaos theory, fractals (the part replicates the whole), string theory, dark energy, and the atomic structure of all material things, which seems totally counter intuitive. Scientists “believe” in many things like electromagnetism, radioactivity, field theory, and various organisms such as viruses and bacteria before they can actually “prove” they exist. They know them first by their effects, or the evidence, and then argue backward to their existence. Isn’t this how good theologians have often tried to “prove” the existence of God?

Even though the entire world was captivated by the logical cause-and-effect worldview of Newtonian physics for several centuries, such immediately verifiable physics has now yielded to quantum physics, which is not directly visible to the ordinary observer at all—yet ends up explaining much more—without needing to throw out the simple logic of Newtonian physics in the everyday world. True transcendence always includes the previous stages, yet somehow also reshapes and expands them—just like mysticism does with our old doctrines and dogmas.

It feels as if the scientists of each age are often brilliant, seemingly “right,” but precisely because they are also tentative and searching—which creates a practical humility that we often do not see in clergy and “true believers.” A great scientist will move forward with a perpetual “beginner’s mind.”

Thus many scientists end up trusting in the reality of things that are still “invisible” and secret. It keeps them on the search. This feels like faith to me, whereas what many church people want is perfect certitude and clarity before every step forward. This does not create great or strong people