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Book Review: "What Catholics should know about Church Teaching on the Environment" by Dr. Chris Thompson

Stewardship of Creation: What Catholics Should Know about Church Teaching on the Environment by Marie George. Indianapolis: Saint Catherine of Sienna Press, 2009. Pp. x + 144.  $14.99.
If you’re like me, you’ve been searching for a resource that takes both our Catholic faith and the issue of environmental stewardship seriously. Ideally, it would be a user-friendly book that is accessible to the ordinary person, not too technical, something that might serve in a parish setting or small group seminar as a prompt for good conversation. It would lead us through questions and faithful reflections that we might not have considered before, while keeping the conversation decidedly focused on our Catholic doctrinal tradition. The book should be relatively short, reader friendly and available. 

Seek, and ye shall find! 
The book is Stewardship of Creation: What Catholics Should Know about Church Teaching on the Environment by Marie George.
George is a Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in New York where she teaches Environmental Ethics and Science & Religion – all that according to the back cover. Not mentioned is the fact that she received her training in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas at the Laval University in Québec.  Insiders know that Laval was famous for emphasizing the importance of the natural philosophy of Aristotle within the theological work of St. Thomas. Translation: the questions surrounding the meaning of the natural order and our place within it go very deep in George’s outlook. Readers are spared the technical issues lurking at these deeper academic levels; instead they are provided a reliable and thoughtful tour of the fundamental questions at stake. These are not the musings of a disaffected Luddite; but of an accomplished Catholic philosopher-- in a very accessible format. Each brief chapter includes a synoptic “Take Home Message,” as well as discussion questions. In the hands of a competent parish Catechist, the book could be put to great use.  

Chapter One opens with a standard trope: the reference to Lynn White’s now classic article which appeared in Science in 1967, “The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis.” Though White’s conclusion is itself somewhat tamer, the argument he made there has forever established the essay within the canon of literature on the environment and the Christian faith. White suggested then that the Christian faith is itself in large measure to blame for our environmental crises. The charge has stuck ever since and has become the standard point of departure for virtually every discussion of the matter. Professor George adds to this perspective the “contra mundum” spirit that has pervaded Christian tradition, the reductivism of Enlightenment science, human sinfulness and the issues of population. It’s a healthy potpourri of reasons why environmental concern may want to be spontaneously dismissed from “serious Catholic” considerations. 
Chapter Two takes up the defense and provides an overview of the some of the central texts in Scripture (specifically Genesis) that point to an alternative position regarding human beings and their place within the natural order. The Professor turns the reader’s attention to key passages of The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. George provides an important service by directing readers to this somewhat over-looked but important resource in Catholic conscience formation that was produced at the request of John Paul II by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004. That said, if I had one reservation with her presentation here it would be the too frequent references to too many competing resources within a single chapter (e.g., The Compendium of Social Doctrine, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and then also The Compendium of the Catechism). The effect may be confusion rather than illumination of what the Church invites us to consider. 
Chapter Three turns to the questions surrounding environmental stewardship directly, and mentions three principles that help provide the context for further reflection. First, there is the principle regarding the “universal destination of goods,” a somewhat enigmatic (to me) expression that nonetheless seeks to establish the right of every human being to the resources necessary for his or her development and well-being. The principle, George says, “is not referring to anything other than the goods of the earth,” but does not sufficiently spell this out in her treatment. Does this mean natural resources or the human artifacts of agriculture? As an introductory text the matter is perhaps best left reserved for a fuller treatment elsewhere, but it begs for further reflection given its importance in providing the fundamental context for a consideration of the use of earth’s resources. 
The second principle points to the moral imperative that human beings show respect to creation (including individual creatures) insofar as it exists, reflects the Divine wisdom, and gives glory to God. This claim about the capacity of creation to reflect the Divine wisdom is not merely some pious sentiment expressed about nice things; rather, it is a doctrinal conviction about the meaning of creation and the human mind’s capacity to come to an affirmation about the existence of God. I have written elsewhere on the subject and am pleased to see George mention this, if only in passing. 
The third principle, the “precautionary principle,” is perhaps the most vague of the three, but it nonetheless speaks of the importance of a prudent restraint that is necessary when dealing with complex questions concerning environmental stewardship. 
Chapter Four, the largest section of this brief book, develops further some of George’s own prudential reflections on the matter. The reader is encouraged to adopt an “attitude of gratitude;” is reminded of the importance of our responsibilities as pilgrims on the way to resurrection; and is encouraged to address the problems of laziness and intemperate consumption. One of the more fascinating questions is treated briefly here: what, precisely, is the role of the material creation in the new kingdom of the resurrection. The received tradition is flexible here, and points to one of the most important under-developed conversations still yet to be taken up within Catholic circles of environmental stewardship. “In any case,” George notes, “the fact remains that this earth now reflects God’s wisdom and power and is to be shown due respect for this reason.”  
In sum, this beginner’s volume will prompt in the reader some of the most important sets of questions facing us as Catholic stewards today. More than just questions, however, the work provides the beginnings of an outline of a positive, Catholic stance within God’s creative work.
Dr. Christopher Thompson is a NCRLC board member and the academic dean at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minn. He teaches moral theology to seminarians and lay students at the University of St. Thomas and has written on moral theology, psychology, marriage and family, and the importance of the environment, with particular interest in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
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