I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is well known for its progressive culture, and many programs dedicated to uplifting the poor and saving the Earth. One such program is St. Mary’s Center, a courageous beacon of light in Oakland that promises a better, healthier life to the homeless, recovery for the addicted, and food for the hungry. Another project is the Ecology Center in Berkeley, which for decades has been a resource for a broad spectrum of ecological concerns, including making wholesome food available through community-supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ markets. Yes, good work—both social and ecological—continues to take place in Oakland and Berkeley, and now in many others towns and cities around the country and beyond, as well.
There is a long and noble Catholic tradition focused on the care of the poor, homeless, and hungry. Religious communities of women, especially, have dedicated their lives to the care of the anawim—the most poor, the powerless, and those without a voice in society. A response to the cry of the Earth has been a less significant priority for most Catholics. However, in recent years, a few voices have begun to arise. Fr. Thomas Berry, CP, priest and scholar of cultural history, sought to bridge the divide we have maintained between the human and other-than-human worlds. With a courageous and prophetic voice, he proclaimed, “You can’t have healthy people on a sick planet.”
Berry’s often quoted phrase “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects” speaks directly to his vision of an integral ecology. In this statement, he emphasizes how we exist in relationship with the Earth, as people of the Earth, and stresses the depths and interconnection in all our relationships. This spiritual-physical communion can be understood as foundational for integral ecology.
Another leading voice is that of Leonardo Boff. In The Cry of the Earth, the Cry of the Poor, he unites his concern for those overwhelmed by poverty in the barrios of Brazil with his concern for the parched, arid lands of his home country. The first to use the term “integral ecology” in print, he writes about the need to connect our spiritual vision with the needs of the people.
The work of Berry and Boff is foundational to the vision of integral ecology named by Pope Francis in his letter to the world, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home.” In his encyclical, he writes, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” And he says, “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach … so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Integral ecology implies a departure from the prior emphasis on social over ecological concerns, and instills a new relationship between society and nature that will hopefully result in the preservation of the planet.
As I contemplate the words of Pope Francis, I look back on my own personal journey and how I explored social and ecological justice through my own writing. When I first was introduced to Thomas Berry’s creation spirituality and the new cosmology, I was confronted with a challenging question: how could I integrate my background in community development and organization with what I was learning about the universe and the three dynamics principles named by Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry? These three principles are differentiation (nothing in the universe is the same) communion (everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent), and interiority (there is a deep subjectivity in each expression of creation).
I coined the term geo-justice to represent the dynamic integration of my past experience with what I was discovering about spirituality and cosmology. Specifically, differentiation became the context for justice in the local here-and-now of our lives; communion became the global dimension of our planetary reality; interiority became the psycho-social component. I went on to develop the geo-justice vision and ground it in additional components of dialogue and theology. I called this further development engaged cosmology, borrowing from the vision of liberation theology and the Catholic Action method of “see, judge, and act.”
Geo-justice provides an opportunity to explore what we observe going on in the world through the eyes of the Christian gospel. This reflection can lead to actions through which we are able to heal the discrepancy between our vision and our practice, to heal the divide between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be, between the social and the ecological.
Pope Francis writes, “We are part of nature.… It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems…. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
The tenets of integral ecology forecast in the writings of Leonardo Boff and Thomas Berry have now been powerfully announced to the world by the pastor of the planet, Pope Francis. We have reason to hope and anticipate a time when the poor can be fed and housed and the natural world protected and celebrated. I envision a time when Rachel Carson’s “silent spring” bursts forth in song, when the melodies of the winged ones transform that spring into symphony of song, when children of every species prosper and our love renews the face of the Earth.
It will be new time of conversion at every level, a time of spiritual, theological, structural, and organizational construction. A new world will become possible—a world where we experience “God in all things, and all things in God”; a world that is inclusive, interdependent, and interrelated.
(originally published May 24, 2016)