Care for the Earth: A Call to Responsible Stewardship
Anthonia Bolanle Ojo, SSMA
At the foundation of the discussion on ecological issues is the fact that creation is a gift from God to humanity, to till and subdue (cf. Gen. 2:15). The earth was given to human beings by God the Creator to inhabit with creativity and responsibility and, in this regard, in the words of Benedict XVI, it is essential to “sense” that the earth is “our common home” which requires our stewardship and service to all. The understanding of creation as gift implies the exercise of dominion of love in stewardship as against irresponsible use of nature. For John Paul II, this fundamental truth requires that natural resources be considered as gifts that have potentials to enrich human life and should be developed, not manipulated. Thus, dominion empowers human beings to acknowledge the truth about creation and to give thanks for the gift (cf. Redemptor Hominis 10). This is why dominion implies a vocation which consists in stewardship. Hence, in the use of the resources of nature, human dependence on God and the fact that the entire creation is a gift from God must be appreciated.
The creation story shows that the Creator looked upon his creation and “saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:4; 1:10; 1:12; 1:18; 1:21; 1:25). It also reveals to us that not only is everything God created good, but also that creation itself reflects the magnificence of God. The Psalmist eloquently describes a profound experience of God’s creative power and a sense of the awesome responsibility of the human creature thus: “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged, what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, with glory and honor you crowned him, gave him power over the works of your hand, put all things under his feet. All of them, sheep and cattle, yes, even the savage beasts– birds of the air, and fish that make their way through the waters” (Ps. 8:3—8).
Nevertheless, it is God’s creation of mankind that completes the created order in such a way that he pronounces it to be "very good" (Gen. 1:31). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicit states: "Man is the summit of the Creator’s work, as the inspired account expresses by clearly distinguishing the creation of man from that of the other creatures.” As the summit of God’s creation, man reflects God in a most excellent way, and as the image of God, human beings have the capacity for reason, which enables us to know God, the world, and ourselves. We are also endowed with the powers of freedom and imagination that allow us to reflect upon our experiences, choose a course of action, and thus become cooperators in the work of creation. Hence, we become co-creators with God. This privilege bestows on us a dignity that surpasses other creatures precisely because we can participate spiritually in God’s creativity in a manner that far exceeds the merely physical capabilities of other creatures.
It follows, then, that with such capabilities, and by virtue of our dignity, God placed human beings in governance over his creation: “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth” (Gen. 1:26). This dominion was specified as a command to “till and keep” the garden (Gen. 2:15—20). Moreover, by the command of the Lord to till and keep the garden, we can assume that man was commanded to use his rationality in the governance of creation for the sake of bringing forth fruit from the earth. We can, therefore, conclude that man’s dominion over creation was intended to provide us with the means for sustaining and enhancing our existence.
In order to discharge our duties properly as good stewards, a clear understanding of what dominion means is essential. While all things have been subordinated to human beings, we should rule over them as God himself does. This dominion does not grant to us the right to "lord over" creation in a manner inappropriate with God’s own manner of governance. Human dominion does not present man as a despotic ruler. Hence, John Paul II points out that: “The dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of the freedom to ‘use and misuse’, or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitation imposed from the beginning by the Creator himself, expressed symbolically by the prohibition not to ‘eat of the fruit of the tree…’ shows clearly enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity.”
Thus, dominion requires responsible stewardship. Such stewardship must uphold the common good of humanity, while also respecting the end for which each creature was intended, and the means necessary to achieve that end. Disordered human actions, which harm creation, and by extension, human life and property directly threaten the right to life, to health, to development, to housing, to work, to culture and the rights of indigenous people. It is even more unfortunate that their efforts to make ends meet adds in its own way to environmental degradation and not infrequently to disaster for themselves and others who are equally poor. Therefore, irresponsible consumption, degradation, and depletion of natural resources have a huge impact on human life.
It is good to point out here that respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than human being. Indeed, in the history of salvation, the human person and the natural world are never ascribed the same dignity. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord himself, while counseling his disciples not to be anxious about their subsistence but to trust in God’s providence, assures them that God even takes care of the birds of the air, and adds, “Are you not of much greater value than they are?” (Matt. 6:26). The Scriptures frankly present an ordered hierarchy of being: God rules over all, and human beings serve as his stewards, exercising an instrumental dominion over everything, while also being accountable to him for our exalted position as the rulers of the earth. This accountability therefore means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.
The consequence of neglecting God’s will in carrying out the call to have responsible dominion over the other creatures is the disruption of the original harmony that should exist between humanity and nature with its resultant effect: ecological crisis. Unfortunately, the contemporary world has deviated from the real meaning of stewardship as a responsibility to mean selfish use of the resources of the earth. This view has led to devastation of the environment through industrialization, degradation, etc. This made Prophet Hosea laments: “Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away” (Hos 4:3).
There is no doubt that human beings as stewards have to invest the talents that God has entrusted to them. However, human beings as a whole will do better for itself and for creation if we vigorously cultivate the intelligence and creativity with which we have been endowed for the good of the human person and the development of the created world. Hence, a good steward does not allow the resources entrusted to him to lie fallow or to fail to produce their proper fruit. Nor does he destroy them irrevocably. Rather, he uses them, develops them, and, to the best of his ability, strives to realize their increase so that he may enjoy his livelihood and provide for the good of his family and his descendants. Exploitation of the nature could, therefore, be seen as a misinterpretation of the mandate of dominion.
In conclusion, the Catholic Church’s engagement with environmental issues derives from its belief that Christians have a responsibility to work for the well-being of all humanity, to recognize environmental stewardship as their Christian responsibility. That creation was entrusted to human dominion does not mean that the natural world should be seen as resources to be exploited. It is rather a reality to be respected and even reverenced as a gift and trust from God. Human beings as stewards of creation are, therefore, called to enhance the divine purpose for creation and at the same time authentically develop themselves. In this way, through responsible stewardship, humanity acts as a bridge of mutual love between God the Creator and His creation.