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Catholic Spiritual Ecologists

Unpublished chapter – first draft.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience”
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

“… the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects”
- Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as a Sacred Community, 2006, p.17.

Is God transcendent, immanent, or both? The latter would be the answer of several prominent Catholic authors as discussed shortly. They view God’s immanence as encompassing his Creation which involves nature as much as it does humans. They are not only theists, but perhaps something of pantheists as well. Together they comprise a significant portion of spiritual ecology in the 20th century within the religion of Catholicism.


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1915-1968) was the most widely read and discussed Jesuit thinker of the 20th century. Teilhard was a French Jesuit Priest who earned a doctorate in geology from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1922. He was also a prominent theologian and philosopher. According to a proponent of Teilhard’s thought, Mary Evelyn Tucker, “…the book of nature is where he encountered the divine.” Thus, Teilhard was also a Catholic spiritual ecologist.

As a human paleontologist and prehistoric archaeologist, Teilhard collaborated with colleagues in discoveries at the Aurignacian cave of Lascaux in France where awesome paintings of prehistoric animals and other subjects are found; at the cave of site of Choukoutien in China with its fossils of Sinanthropus erectus (“Peking Man”); in the Siwalik Hills in India with nonhuman primate fossils; and n Java with the remains of Pithecanthropus erectus (“Java Man”). He visited australopithecine sites in South Africa as well. In addition, he was a staff researcher at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City. In short, Teilhard was a respected scientist who not only accepted evolution as fact, but was directly involved in important discoveries documenting aspects of human evolution.

At the same time, Teilhard did not lose sight of spirit in nature and in evolution as revealed in his most famous book, The Phenomenon of Man, which was published posthumously in 1959. Teilhard’s thought integrated matter and spirit as well as science and religion. He had a numinous cosmic vision that may be characterized as a theocentric, orthogenetic, teleological, and evolutionary in which cosmology was an ongoing process. The divine was part of an evolutionary process of increasing complexity that was increasingly conscious of itself. Everything was evolving toward the supreme consciousness of God which he called the Omega Point. “The only truly natural and real human unity is the spirit of the Earth” (Teilhard in Building the Earth). As Tucker comments, “For Teilhard all of matter has a psychic/spiritual component and it is this interiority of matter that helps to move evolution toward greater complexity and consciousness.”

Teilhard developed the concept of the noosphere to refer to the emerging global consciousness encircling planet Earth with the emergence of spirituality. However, the concept was initially developed by Vladimir Vernadsky. It also influenced geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky and geologist George Gaylord Simpson. A large part of Annie Dillard’s (1999) book For the Time Being deals with this concept too. It even influenced engineers in Silicon Valley. Teilhard’s thinking about the unity of humankind influenced several key founders of the UN, and there is even a shrine dedicated to him in the spiritual room of the UN.

Beyond his publications, many initially censured by the Catholic Church, and most published posthumously, Teilhard’s ideas live on in an organization devoted to his life and work called the American Teilhard Association for the Future of Man. Established in 1967, it sponsors publications, annual meetings, and special events. Its areas of concern include ecological issues regarding the integral survival of living and nonliving systems of the planetary community, the intimate relationship between science and religion, and a spirituality related to the evolution of the whole earth. More information on this organization and Teilhard can be found on these websites: http://www.teilharddechardin.org and http://www.teilhard.cib.net.

Several pioneers in spiritual ecology have directed the American Teilhard Association for the Future of Man. Thomas Berry was President from 1975-1987. Currently John Grim is President while Mary Evelyn Tucker is Vice President. Others influenced by Teilhard’s thought include Brian Swimme who collaborated with Berry on the Universe Story, and Warrick Fox in his creation spirituality. The web of intellectual interconnections is intricate. In an essay titled “The Ecological Spirituality of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin” Tucker writes that “Teilhard’s comprehensive vision of the earth and its interconnected life processes evolving over time is a well spring of hope to the critical work ahead to create a sustainable future.”


The most influential American Catholic author of the 20th century is the poet, essayist, and mystic Thomas Merton (1915-1968). He earned his B.A. in English at Columbia University in 1938, and his M.A. there in 1939 with a thesis titled “On Nature and Art in William Blake.” Merton was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani from 1941-1968. His 1948 spiritual biography called The Seven Storey Mountain has been published in at least 15 languages and sold over a million copies. However, his printed legacy is far larger encompassing 60 titles, 5 volumes of letters, and 7 volumes of personal journals.

Merton is best known for his advocacy of nonviolence and civil rights during the 1960’s. He is appreciated as the conscience of the peace movement during the era of the Vietnam War. He was also a student of comparative religion and promoter of inter-religious dialogue. But spiritual ecology is also embedded in Merton’s life and writings. In 1965, he was given permission from his superior to dwell in a solitary hermitage in a wooded section on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani. His spiritual ecology is revealed in these passages as well: “The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God.” (p. 49). “And all the other young trees that God planted down there, stretching out their arms in joy…” (p. 68). “To go out to walk silently in this wood- this is a more important and significant means to understanding, at the moment, than a lot of analysis and a lot of reporting on the things ‘of the spirit’” (p. 163).

More information on Merton can be found at the Thomas Merton Center in Bellarmine University, Louisville, Kentucky (http://www.merton.org); the Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucky (http://www.monks.org); in nearby New Haven, Kentucky, at the Merton Institute of Contemplative Studies at New Haven, Kentucky (http://www.mertoninstitute.org); and at the Thomas Merton Internet Bibliography (http://www.qsl.net/KC5nzr/merton). Three documentary films on Merton and related matters are very informative and insightful: Gethsemani, Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, and Merton: Film Biography. An awesome film called Into the Great Silence is about another Trappist monastery, Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps.


A more recent leading Catholic author who is far more explicitly related to spiritual ecology is Thomas Berry (1914-2009) who called himself an “Earth Scholar” or geologian. He earned the Ph.D. in history at the Catholic University of America. He was a priest, theologian, philosopher, historian, and cosmologist. Berry lived and taught widely in China and India, studied the religions of those countries, and published books about them. He was the Director of the graduate program in the History of Religions at Fordham University in 1966-1979. Berry founded the Riverdale Center of Religious Studies in 1970 and served as the President of the American Teilhard Association in 1975-1987.

Berry’s spiritual ecology emerged from an epiphany he had in a meadow near his home during childhood. He was struck by a profound feeling of unity with all of nature. This influenced him throughout the rest of his life.

Berry’s teaching emphasized diversity in the history of religions; the distinctive contributions of Eastern, Western, and Indigenous religions; their spiritual dynamics and contemporary significance; the unfolding cosmogenesis and consciousness; matter as numinous reality with spiritual as well as physical dimensions; and humans as self-conscious and reflective beings with a particular responsibility in evolution and ecology. Among Berry’s Twelve Principles for Understanding the Universe and the Role of the Human in the Universe Process, are these three: differentiation (the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe); subjectivity (the interior numinous component present in all reality); and communion (the ability to relate to other people and all life forms due to the presence of both subjectivity and difference). Berry writes that “…the primary principle of the Ecozoic is that the Universe- and in particular planet Earth- is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. If we don’t learn that- nothing is going to work.” He goes on to say that: “Of one thing we can be sure: our future is inseparable from the larger community that brought us into being and which sustains us in every expression of our human quality of life, in our aesthetic and emotional sensitivities, our intellectual perceptions, our sense of the divine, as well as in our physical nourishment and bodily healing” (p. 162 in The Great Work).

Mary Evelyn Tucker writes that: “Berry’s New Story provides an important antidote to this disillusionment and despair. It creates, above all, a new context for connection, for purpose, for action. It is an idea with direct implications for providing the human energy needed for positive social, political, and economic change.” Tucker goes on to state that: “Berry’s aim is to evoke the psychic and spiritual resources to establish a new reciprocity of humans with the earth and of humans with one another. As Berry has frequently said, there can be no peace among humans without peace with the planet. This, in short, is the intent of the New Story. The underlying assumption is that with a change in worldview will come an appropriately comprehensive ethics of reverence for all life. With a new perspective regarding our place in this unfolding of earth history will emerge a renewed awareness of our role in guiding the evolutionary process at this crucial point in history.” The New Story was first published as one of the American Teilhard Association Studies in 1978. Then it was slightly revised for publication in Dream of the Earth in 1988.

Berry’s impact is apparent in the subsequent work of his former students Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim in the series of conferences and edited books on religion and ecology that they organized in the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University (http://www.religionandecology.org). Furthermore, Berry also influenced numerous other individuals in various ways and degrees, including urban planner Carl Anthony; ethologist Marc Bekoff and primatologist Barbara Smuts; evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson and cell biologist Ursula Goodenough: economists David Korten and Richard Norgaard; geologists George Fisher and Craig Kockel; physicist and cosmologist Brian Swimme; environmentalists David Orr and Richard Register; environmental justice advocate Barbara Holmes; deep ecologist John Seed; Sisters of the Earth, Catholic nun Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis of Genesis Farm, and Catholic priests Jim Conlon, James Parks Morton, and Matthew Fox; and musician and composer Paul Winter.

For more information on Berry and his ideas see these web site resources: http://www.thomasberry.org; http://www.earth-community.org; and at http://YouTube.com The Universe is a Communion and The New Story. Brian Swimme’s web site also contains a wealth of related information: http://www.brianswimme.org. An interview with Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim on “Religion and a New Environmental Ethic” is available at http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=BGObQ3SwDI8 [check websites].

Also see Berry on the first page of this website (quote of Spiritual Ecology, read more): http://spiritualecology.info/spiritual-ecology-info/


Matthew Fox, Leonardo Boff, Rosemary Ruether, and the Green Sisters (see book by Sara McFarland Taylor) should be mentioned as well. Information on them and other subjects can be found in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Bron Taylor, Editor-in-Chief, 2005.


When St. Francis, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Thomas Berry, Warrick Fox, and others are considered together, it is obvious that there are tremendous resources and potentials for the development of a Catholic spiritual ecology and that they also have broader relevance far beyond Catholicism. The world population of Roman Catholics is more than a billion, and about 40% of them live in Latin American countries. Increasing attention to the environmental crisis by the Catholic Church could help make a difference for the better. But birth control remains an unresolved issue in a world of exploding population. Perhaps the new Pope Francis will pursue environmental concerns as well as the poor, after all, the two are often interconnected.