The following article is extracted from Stratford Caldecott’s book The Radiance of Being (Angelico Press, 2013). It forms part of a chapter entitled Saving the Planet, in which the author explores “the relation of ecology to the Christian notion of redemption.” In this passage, the way he deals with humanity in relation to the animal kingdom shows the fruitfulness of the dialogue Caldecott was engaging in between metaphysical concerns and the issues raised by ecologists.
In the history of the Latin Church, it is, of course, not only the Franciscans who have contributed to the development of Christian ecological awareness. The Celtic saints and the Benedictines are often mentioned in this connection.[i] But Pope John Paul II made St. Francis, not St. Benedict or St. Columba, the patron saint of ecology in 1979, and he did so for understandable reasons. One might ask, however, why more saints and teachers of the Church have not been obvious candidates for this position. Deborah Jones, in her book The School of Compassion, points to the disconcerting indifference if not hostility towards the non-human creation on the part of many Christian teachers and authorities, for whom animals and the rest of nature were merely for man’s use and would have no part in any resurrection. This applies even to the great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure. In the Breviloquium, where he treats of the resurrection, he argues that the animal and vegetable creation will be saved only in man, who “has a likeness to every kind of creature.”
Such a conclusion can be seen as the legacy of a misunderstood or imperfectly assimilated Platonism, or even a kind of Gnosticism that values the spiritual at the expense of the corporeal. Rather than criticize the tradition along these lines, however, I prefer to remember that the Church is like “a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Historical circumstances and the challenges that arise may provoke a development of doctrine.
In fact there are at least three areas where it is pretty obvious that Catholic teaching is currently undergoing development. One is the “theology of the body” (the term popularized by John Paul II in his series of Wednesday talks concerning gender, marriage, and sexuality); another is over the question of religious pluralism and the urgent dialogue between traditions of faith, and the third concerns nature and the environment. In my view all three are related, and they each require a “return to metaphysics”; that is, to a renewed appreciation of ontology and symbolism. But this time around, we must find a place for the rest of nature in our philosophy, in the spirit of St. Francis himself, whose instinct was to make special provision for the feeding of birds and cattle on Christmas Day.
The Revealing of the Sons of God
In Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:18–23), the Apostle writes:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.[ii] We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
This passage is quite dense, and has been much commented upon. It seems to imply, first, that the “revealing of the sons of God” will liberate the natural creation as a whole from entropy, death, suffering, and decay, and, next, that this revelation of the sons of God is equivalent to our "adoption as sons” and with the “redemption of our bodies.” But what is the link between adoptive sonship and the redemption of our bodies, and how can a spiritual process like this affect the whole of creation? I don’t have time here to explore all the eschatological implications of the passage, or the intriguing questions raised by the notion of a “cosmic fall.” My emphasis will be on spiritual anthropology. I will interpret the “revealing of the sons of God” in terms of humanity’s role as microcosm and mediator.
This idea has a long history. Right up until the time of Francis and Bonaventure and indeed the age of industrialism, the world was viewed as an organic whole, ordered from within, possessing a sacred and spiritual value by virtue of its creation by God and the continued divine presence within it. The stars were thought to be angelic creatures, the movements of their dance helping to determine the pattern of events unfolding below. The physical elements themselves were imagined as conscious beings, participating in a cosmic intelligence. It is quite in keeping with this ancient tradition for the Bible in the Canticle of Daniel to call upon all of creation to bless the Lord, including the sun and moon, stars of the heavens, clouds of the sky, showers and rain.[iii] The animals, plants, and minerals, the stars and elements, can be said to “praise” their Maker, either simply by their very existence, or else through man, who gives them a voice they do not possess in themselves. (This is in fact the tradition to which Bonaventure appeals when he describes man as containing the essences of all other creatures.) In this view, the human being occupies a central place in the universe, but he does so as a microcosm containing all the elements of nature, and faculties or powers corresponding to both animals and angels. Adam’s role in the cosmos is a priestly and mediatory one, radically compromised by the Fall, but restored in Christ, who by assuming human nature assumed the whole of nature by taking on a body.[iv]
St. Francis is the “patron saint of the environment” partly because he spoke to the birds and was kind to animals, but also because he understood and lived this mediatory role. The particular originality of his approach was to address not only the animals but even the elements of nature as his brothers and sisters; a spirituality expressed in the Canticle of Brother Sun, and exemplified in the way he spoke to Brother Fire and the other elements on various occasions. This was no mere sentimental romanticism (though he was certainly extremely romantic). His espousal of poverty brought him into the closest contact with the physical elements, and made him intensely aware of his dependence on them, under divine providence. He was conscious both of the presence of God within and through them, and of their infinite difference from God as mere creatures.
This love of nature was different from pagan animism, as G.K. Chesterton writes in the second chapter of his biography of Francis. The Celtic saints and Desert Fathers, and the Benedictine monks, had prepared the ground, but St. Francis was the beginning of a new stage in our relationship with nature (one that, it might be argued, has not yet been totally fulfilled). Chesterton writes of a necessary “purge of paganism” in the early Church, until at last the flowers and stars could recover their first innocence, and fire and water “be worthy to be the brother and sister of a saint”:
For water itself has been washed. Fire itself has been purified as by fire. Water is no longer the water into which slaves were flung to feed the fishes. Fire is no longer that fire through which children were passed to Moloch. Flowers smell no more of the forgotten garlands gathered in the garden of Priapus; stars stand no more as signs of the far frigidity of gods as cold as those cold fires. They are like all new things newly made and awaiting new names, from one who shall come to name them. Neither the universe nor the earth have now any longer the old sinister significance of the world. They await a new reconciliation with man, but they are already capable of being reconciled. Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature worship, and can return to nature.[v]
What Chesterton leaves out of account here is the Eastern Church, which had become separated from the West, but preserved in its liturgical theology and in its iconographic tradition a cosmic vision that we must take into account. Our present historical age requires us to breathe with two lungs, if we are to have a hope of responding to the new post-Christian, post-religious mentality to which the West has given birth. And of the Eastern Fathers, St. Maximus the Confessor gave perhaps the most sophisticated theological expression to the view of man as mediator. Pope Benedict summarized the teaching of Maximus as follows:
God entrusted to man, created in his image and likeness, the mission of unifying the cosmos. And just as Christ unified the human being in himself, the Creator unified the cosmos in man. He showed us how to unify the cosmos in the communion of Christ and thus truly arrived at a redeemed world. Hans Urs von Balthasar,one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, referred to this powerful saving vision when, “relaunching” Maximus—he defined his thought with the vivid expression Kosmische Liturgie, “cosmic liturgy.” Jesus, the one Savior of the world, is always at the center of this solemn “liturgy.” The efficacy of his saving action which definitively unified the cosmos is guaranteed by the fact that in spite of being God in all things, he is also integrally a man and has the “energy” and will of a man. . . . Jesus Christ is the reference point that gives light to all other values. This was the conclusion of the great Confessor’s witness. And it is in this way, ultimately, that Christ indicates that the cosmos must become a liturgy, the glory of God, and that worship is the beginning of true transformation, of the true renewal of the world.[vi]
Balthasar’s book on Maximus, to which the Pope refers, makes the point that the Confessor overcame the tendency in Christian thought to make the corporeal world of nature merely a ladder to heaven that will one day be kicked away, by positing an indestructible relationship between spirit and matter, an “apologia for finite, created being in the face of the overwhelming power of the world of ideas.”[vii] The unity of the many depends on the parts and their relationship to each other. And since God is completely transcendent, the world of intellect takes us, in a sense, no closer to him than does the world disclosed by the senses.[viii] This opens the way for a much deeper, less timorous, appreciation of the beauty and goodness of nature in general.
The Blessed Earth
Ecology is therefore a serious business; a theological business. If (as I suggested) the animals are angels—not each cat or dog, centipede or flamingo a distinct angel, but each species or family of animals the fragmented instantiation of an intelligent, immortal angelic force, a constituent element in the cosmos—then surely we have to recognize a new seriousness in the heinous crime of extinguishing a species from the face of the earth: an angel is being thrust out of God’s creation by man.
In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God “saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good” (1:31). Here is the earliest and best refutation of the philosophical heresy of recent times (that of David Hume and others) that separates facts from values. Implicit in Scripture is the sense that there is something ontological about goodness: in other words, that it is an intrinsic attribute of being. If this means anything, it surely means that all creatures are worthy of love. They deserve it; it belongs to them. But at the same time we have to remember that in the traditional understanding of the word, to love something is not just to feel warm and friendly towards it: it is to will its existence, its life, its fulfillment. We are therefore obliged, as free creatures capable of having a moral obligation, to love the creation in something like the way that God loves it.
Animals are due that love, whether they are angels or not. But now we have to ask, can that “debt” be called a “right”—a right to be loved, to be respected, to be nourished and helped? Is there such a thing as “animal rights”?
It seems to be generally assumed by Christian and other philosophers that a “right” can only be possessed by someone who is capable also of assuming obligations. But it seems to me that it is always obligations, duties, and debts that in the first place create the “rights” which correspond to them. You have a right to the money I owe you because I have a debt to you, or an obligation towards you; I do not first have an obligation to pay the money because you have a right to it. My obligation to you is based on your prior gift to me (or simply your need for the money), coupled with my love for you that leads me to want your good. Gifts naturally evoke gratitude, and the desire to reciprocate. We are all creatures, receiving all that we have, including our existence, from a divine Source as well as from each other. We must recognize that we all start from a position of obligation, of gratitude, of love. Any subsequent debts we incur, as we receive more from each other during life, simply add to this fundamental indebtedness—and the whole moral life, inspired by love, is a joyful repayment of an endless debt.
Rights, then, according to this line of thought, are entirely secondary. They are a way of describing and, ultimately, codifying our debts, both as individuals and as members of a group. To the extent that they enter into positive law, then it can certainly be said that “I owe you because you have a right.” But that is only because this is the way we have defined our obligations. Having done so, rights are used to remind us of our duties under the eternal law of God and existence.
From that it seems to follow that there may be creatures that (unlike humans) have rights without having duties—simply because they generate obligations in us by their very existence. If that is the case, it would after all make sense to talk about “animal rights.” But we are not talking, yet, about rights in law. The codification in law of animal and of human rights might look very different. Animals, and the rest of the natural world, do not enter into legal arrangements, and here the reciprocity that is attributed to rights and duties comes into its own. To the extent that rights are contractual, animals are not eligible for them. Perhaps there is a case for keeping the word “rights” for these contractual or positive relationships only. Yet I can’t help wondering if “animal rights” might still be a way of describing part of the general obligation we possess towards the world to maintain and preserve it, its integrity and beauty, both for its own sake (as having intrinsic value) and for the sake of our own distant neighbors and unborn descendants.
After all, though animals may not enter into a contract, they do enter into a covenant. To be specific, they enter into the “rainbow covenant” that God made with Noah as high priest of creation (Gen. 8:20–22) and with the birds, cattle, and beasts of the earth (Gen. 9:9–17). According to the terms of that covenant, God would not destroy the earth again with a flood like the one that had just taken place. The terms of the covenant also specified that the life of man was sacrosanct, whereas animals were given to man to eat. Vegetarians might quibble with this, but it does at least mean that animals are included as partners in an agreement: for their part, they are required not to attack man (9:5). While the covenant does not assign rights to the parties, it imposes duties. The fact that animals are given to man for food also implies that they are not for abuse. They now come under his stewardship in the way the vegetable world did before: as entrusted to his care. He may use them for his bodily needs; but nothing is said of his luxuries. The Bible does not envisage the grotesque abuse of animals, for example in cosmetic experiments.
So what do we conclude? The other day my friend’s pet was put down, after it became too ill to survive and was living in constant pain. The same night I slapped a mosquito that was keeping me awake, and squashed a spider that would have frightened my children (in fact it frightened me). I put antiseptic on a cut to kill any lurking germs. Did these creatures, large and small, have a right to life? They certainly had a right not to be treated cruelly, or killed without reason. But nothing I have said actually implies that they have a right to life in the absolute sense: the sense in which we rightly apply it to an innocent human being. The reason for this surely lies in the intrinsic difference between the animal and the human. The animal is worthy of love, but love must respect the nature of the creature in question. If the goodness in things is “ontological,” it is proportioned to their being, and to their level of being. A dog or a spider is not in itself a person, even if the species, or the angel of the species, is one. A human being is not merely the instantiation of a species, but a unique individual with a unique destiny. He or she is made “in the image of God,” not in the image of an angel, and the sacredness of human life (even in the womb) is correspondingly of a different order. Moreover humanity has a “dominion” over the rest of creation that it was simply not given over its own nature, this being reserved to God alone. All of this we see reflected in the rainbow covenant.
However we misuse it, our dominion over the animals and over the whole earth in some way persists. The fact that the very survival of the earthly ecosystem is now threatened by industrial and military technology demonstrates the fact. For better or worse, it is not “speciesism” but realism to locate human beings at the center of the world, as microcosm. But that centrality, far from implying careless disregard and selfish irresponsibility, implies the exact opposite. That is our fundamental obligation which we are now massively failing to fulfill: the obligation to “dress and keep,” to “till and cultivate” the blessed earth which sustains all our lives and speaks to us continually of the glory of God.
Stratford Caldecott MA (Oxon.), STD (hc), the founding Editor of Humanum, was a graduate of Oxford University, where he was a research fellow at St Benet's Hall. A member of the editorial boards of the international Catholic review Communio, The Chesterton Review, Magnificat (UK) and Second Spring, he is the author of several books including Beauty for Truth's Sake, Beauty in the Word, and The Radiance of Being.
[i] John Carey’s book A Single Ray of the Sun discusses this neglected strand of Celtic and Irish thought in the legends of the saints, the writings of Augustinus Hibernicus, In Tenga Bithnua, with its prophecy of a resurrected earth, and Eriugena’s Periphyseon.
[ii] Literally: “. . . the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
[iii] Daniel 3:57–88, 56.
[iv] Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 7, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2003), 45–74.
[v] The passage ends rhetorically as follows: “While it was yet twilight a figure appeared silently and suddenly on a little hill above the city, dark against the fading darkness. For it was the end of a long and stern night, a night of vigil, not unvisited by stars. He stood with his hands lifted, as in so many statues and pictures, and about him was a burst of birds singing; and behind him was the break of day.” G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works, vol. II (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 44–5.
[vii] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 239.
[viii] Ibid., 172.