In the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Christ initiates the ministry of the apostles by way of a miracle:
And it came to pass, that when the multitudes pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Genesareth, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And going into one of the ships that was Simon’s, he desired him to draw back a little from the land. And sitting he taught the multitudes out of the ship. Now when he had ceased to speak, he said to Simon: Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said to him: Master, we have labored all the night, and have taken nothing: but at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had done this, they enclosed a very great multitude of fishes, and their net broke. And they beckoned to their partners that were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they were almost sinking. Which when Simon Peter saw, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was wholly astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken. And so were also James and John the sons of Zebedee, who were Simon’s partners. And Jesus saith to Simon: Fear not: from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And having brought their ships to land, leaving all things, they followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)
Jesus knew that to fishermen such as these, there was no more certain or profound way to move their hearts than to show them what the Son of Man — the very author of nature Himself — could do. A night’s mortal labors spent in vain could be eclipsed in an instant by a divine word. But the apostles did not choose this moment to murmur gratitude to the mysterious newcomer and hurriedly haul their impossible catch to the market for sale; they instead left “all things” — including their unexpected bounty — and “followed him.”
In the 21st century, the only catch-related news from the lake of Genesareth (known also as the Sea of Galilee) is that it has been over-fished. In 2010, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development issued a two-year ban on fishing the waters once worked so diligently by Simon Peter, James, and John. And this is to the good, for proper care of the world we live in and the resources at our disposal are an appropriate manifestation of our gratitude to God for what has been given to us. From God’s placement of Adam in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it (Gen. 2:15) to the Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30), we are reminded throughout public revelation that stewardship of Creation is one of man’s great responsibilities.
But in our modern world, it has become a common practice — particularly among those who have replaced the real transcendence of God with an imagined transcendence of nature — to transform stewardship from a cultivated virtue into an esoteric idol. It is a dogma of this perverse ideology that Creation — a gift given to man for his use — should now be elevated above Man, even at the cost of human lives or their immortal souls. What is forgotten — or perhaps more honestly, rejected — is the reality set forth by the Divine Hand: Man was meant not just to tend and keep the Garden, but to “increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth” (Gen 1:28). The newly-minted apostles at Galilee understood then what we seem to have lost sight of now: the fish in their nets were important, but only insofar as they were useful to men. The soul of one man, however, was of far greater worth than boatfuls of nets filled to bursting.
Christ was full of earthy metaphors and parables, directed at a people who lived outdoors, who tended animals and plants and used their hands to work the soil. Because of their connection to the land, they understood what it meant when He told them that “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” that grew from something tiny into the “greatest of shrubs” (Mt. 13:31-32). It made sense to them when He taught them to trust in Divine Providence for their basic needs of food and clothing by way of reference to the unearned bounty enjoyed by birds and the unrivaled beauty of wild flowers (Mt. 6:26-33).
Their familiarity with nature also helped them to unpack the meaning of His words about good and evil. Sin entered the world by the illicit taking of fruit from the tree at the center of the Garden of Eden, and Man himself is to be judged, according to Our Lord, by the same criteria we would apply to fruit-bearing flora under our own care (Mt. 7:16-20).
In another instance, Our Incarnate God likens Himself and the faithful to grape-laden vines, reminding us that the branches which offer no bounty will be pruned and thrown into the fire. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself,” He tells us, “unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (Jn. 15:1-6)
The Bible offers so many parables drawn from observations of the environment that I could not hope to adequately summarize them here. These images of plants and gardens, flowers and fowl, fruit and trees and wheat and weeds create a tapestry of theological thought that could rightly be described as the “ecology of salvation.” Far from encouraging an understanding of nature as sacred, however, Christ uses these illustrations of His followers’ close acquaintance with the natural world to elevate their understanding and illuminate sublime and supernatural realities. It is His purpose to convey by ecological allegory the importance of Man at the center of all Creation – and his ultimate purpose, which is eternal beatitude. The “grass of the field,” Christ says, “is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven.” This is offered not as a lamentation of combustion-based emissions, but as a point of contrast to the soul of Man, which will never die, and is far more precious than these things of the Earth.
Indeed, as He breaks from parable and makes clear to us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mt. 24:35)
It is undeniable that Mankind and Creation are inextricably intertwined. We were not merely placed in this world, but were in fact formed from its substance (Gen. 2). And yet, we are told time and again that it is Satan who is the ruler and “god” of this world, (Jn. 12:31, Jn. 14:30, 2 Cor. 4:4, Eph. 2:2, Rev. 13:2) and that Christ’s “Kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). We should enjoy the rich, majestic beauty of our temporal abode, but we should at the same time cultivate a healthy instinct of caution about communing too closely with nature, inasmuch as ours is fallen and the world’s is under the dominion of our mortal enemy.
We are caretakers of a world that is transient, that is both a heavenly creation and a “vale of tears.” It is not our final destination, but a temporary exile from the lesser paradise of Eden as we traverse the via dolorosa and ascend to the greater, golden shores of eternal felicity. Despite the transitory nature of our earthly existence, we are not at liberty to squander what we have been given. We must show gratitude as pious caretakers of our material environs, much like the Benedictines, whose rule of life dictates that they “regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” But we must also be on guard that in so doing we do not become materialists, concerning ourselves more with stewardship than with salvation; with provision than with Parousia. We must avoid the danger of so busying ourselves with the needs of the moment and the care of our surroundings that we become immanentists, for it was Mary, not Martha, who chose the better part. (Lk. 10:38-42)
We must also avoid arrogating to ourselves a false impression of our own power over Creation. This is the path to hubris. We will not succeed in dismantling our world where nature has failed to do so. The Earth has weathered millennia of forces far greater than mankind has yet mustered; the Earth has been rocked by tens of thousands of volcanic explosions, bears the scars of landscape-altering ice ages and floods, has survived the impact of asteroids the size of human cities, and has endured earthquakes and tsunamis and tectonic shifts. What we have thrown at it through our consumption and creation has been relatively little, and this for but a scant period of time.
We should also remember a certainty that works against an undue preoccupation with conservation: the world will be destroyed, but not by our hands. This is a truth divinely revealed, and we may be certain that it shall not come to pass until the time willed by nature’s God. And it is not His desire that we concern ourselves too deeply with preserving the Earth from ruin, but rather that we apply our utmost care to the sanctification of our immortal souls:
They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:5-13)
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.
This is awesome and on point. It is Catholic. It has a strong Catholic sensibility. I deeply, deeply mistrust Pope Francis. I do not see that he possesses this Catholic sensibility. His concerns and his way are of a different kind than Catholicism. It is sad and unnerving and difficult to acknowledge let alone wonder at the how of it.
Thank you, ATDP.
Ahhhhh…it’s so nice to read something with the true spirit of the ‘good news’. Thank you. I needed a break. I was getting to the point where I could swear the pope could be interpretid as, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”
I will not deny that a certain Seuss book has also been in my head of late…
By firmly focusing on the gospel and not giving undue attention to current events, you have managed to be edifying during these depressing times. It’s a lesson for all who wish to persevere.
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world…When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-28)
I agree with the other comments. In fact, this piece has set me back on course in this area. I needed it and I feel I have been literally grabbed by the hand and kept from
falling off a precipice! To add…I am a DEVOUT traditional Catholic who attends the TLM and I still could have been led astray 🙁
Excellent column Steve. Salvation is the name of the game. We need statements on how to play and win that game. The environment has many ways of healing itself; souls need lots of help.
Laudato Si would had more impact if it examined the state of the world in all its selfishness
and moral weakness and the consequences this has had for environmental degradation and income inequalities.
Isn’t sin the cause of the problems Pope Francis mentions? Wouldn’t it have been more credible of him to have addressed Catholics and other Christians about the need to reform and radically simplify their own lives? Wouldn’t it have been better to blame the leadership of the Catholic Church, particularly since Vatican II, for turning the Western World into a spiritual wasteland by downplaying and neglecting the moral teachings of Jesus?
And what did Jesus say? “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so you will be judged…. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but not perceive the wooden beam in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then
you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye”
Let us pray that Pope Francis begin addressing the problems in his own house first.
Spot on. We now have the ultimate disciple of the new religion of 21C. This being environmentalism, and Pope francis has fallen for it hook line and sinker. As for Fr. Beck then he is ott, but perhaps not he is as sociologist, and they are invariably left wing environmental ideologist
Matthew 6:6 “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Something really bothers me about a few lines of this article. It is these lines “Creation– a gift given to man for his use”, and “the fish in their nets were important, but only insofar as they were useful to men.” I have to say these lines disturb me greatly. Although no doubt Creation is for our use, it seems to me that God delights in his Creation, in every organism of “Pied Beauty”, independently of Man, and each sings his Glory in its own way. If I look at a frog of magnificent chromatophoric elegance or a rainbow trout of “rose-moles all in stipple” as Gerard Manly Hopkins said, I feel quite distinctly in my soul that God is praised and magnified in each specie’s life, and He is pleased. Although the Earth is not forever, and the day of the Lord will come, bringing God’s judgment upon every soul, that is not to be considered as reason not to give great regard to the welfare of Creation.
There is no conflict between recognizing the infinite preciousness of the soul of Man and, say, doing our utmost to protect God’s Creation where it is in danger of non-evolutionary species’ extinction by human action of deforestation or toxin pollution. It is just to leave a corner of the earth for the perpetuation of the diversity of God’s Creation. In fact it behooves us to care greatly, as for example, at this time of alarming microbial drug resistance, certain frog species’ secretions are a promising avenue for future antimicrobial drugs. The manifold Creation sings praise of God, and He is pleased.
“Holy Lord, heaven AND EARTH are full of your glory.” The temporal sphere does point to the eternal, but if we take our eyes off of the eternal to focus on the temporal we miss our true calling.
News flash! Pope Francis has announced that he is preparing another encyclical to be addressed to the whole world and read to the general assembly of the United Nations entitled: “The Ecology of Salvation.”
Steve: What a beautiful article. Thank you for writing it. The Truth.