Of the many challenges facing the new evangelization (not to mention social stability) an important one to which we must devote some attention is an increasing idolization of creation, what some have called eco-idolatry. This error might be defined as treating creation (or aspects of it) as if it (they) were divine. It’s most virulent manifestations are those that consider any and all human activity, even human existence, as a sort of blasphemy. Such an ideology considers human beings as a threat, as “vermin” to be eradicated.
This ideology (from its more benign to the more radical) has its theological strains which tend to follow traditional pantheistic lines. It includes diverse spiritual movements, many lumped under the new age banner (which are varied but in general see man as capable of becoming divine). There are also activist strains that have arisen among environmentalists, animal rights movements, and population control organizations. These erroneous mindsets tend to contribute to a society which is becoming increasingly resistant and even hostile to the Good News.
This eco-idolatry is in many ways, the result of the proverbial “chickens coming home to roost”; it is the long overdue, unpaid bills of Christianity in terms of our failing to give creation and creatures their proper place in God’s creation. To be sure, modern (i.e. Cartesian) thought has been a major contributor to this problem. However, the loss (or at least attenuation) of an authentic Catholic ethos among the Reformation traditions (and even among a majority of Catholics) in which Christians manifest God’s glory through a proper reverence for His creation left open the door for the distorted view of nature that has pervaded Western society for centuries now. While the origin of the specific philosophical errors giving rise to this ideology was undoubtedly Descartes redefinition of matter, its spiritual aspect can be traced to Descartes inspiration, namely William of Ockham.
Ockhamism undermined the Christian philosophical and theological patrimony with its via moderna. This modern way served to cleave the immaterial sphere from the material realm, essentially depriving the immaterial world of any existence but the spiritual realm and this realm eventually came to be considered antithetical to the material realm which was now thought to be separate from it. The Reformers were for the most part, Ockhamists (at least in terms of their rejection of classical philosophy and their voluntarism). Severed from the tradition of Christian thought, they were set free to reinterpret tradition through their idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture. Moreover, they deprived themselves of the philosophical and theological tools needed to maintain consistency of thought as they razed the bastions of the Christian tradition.
Unsurprisingly then, a false piety arose among the Reformers in their attempts to justify the first pillar of the Reformation, Sola Fide (salvation is by faith alone). An important argument supporting this pillar, introduced by Martin Luther, maintained that considering man’s good works in any way efficacious for salvation deprives God of His glory. In other words, now rather than God being glorified in the good works of Christians as Christianity had heretofore held (see Matt 5:16), a new ethos arises in which we must now diminish creation and the works of creatures if we are to properly glorify God. This mistake was further abetted by the Reformers’ doctrine of radical depravity of fallen nature, which seemed to support their low view of nature.
This false piety increasingly takes on a Gnostic, or rather a neo-Manichean flavor. Its neo-Manichaeism reaches its apogee in Reformed Puritanism, which returned to the ancient error of mistaking the object of temptation for its source and so calling the material world (or the most tempting aspects of it) evil.
The Cartesian reduction of matter infused by the Reformers’ desacrilization of creation put the Western ethos on a path with led to nature viewed as something to be grasped, subdued and forced to conform to man’s desires (ala Francis Bacon). Matter came to be considered meaningless “stuff” to be used (and abused) as one so chooses. It will take centuries for the ill fruits of such an outlook to become obvious that a counter-response becomes inevitable. This response begins slowly in the late 19th century and becomes widespread by the last third of the 20th century.
Following a similar distorted path, we see Protestantism begin to distance itself from the Sacraments, but less extremely also from the patrimony of Marian devotion. Calvin is the most extreme of the Reformers in this regard, who eviscerates the doctrine of the Sacraments. However, in contrast to his spiritual progeny, he was rather measured in his Marian theology. It would take several generations, but eventually Protestantism would become united in the view that Marian devotion is to be equated with idolatry. This would suggest that Mary, being the last (and greatest) of God’s created works of glory to be rejected by Protestantism, should be the entry way for a healing of the errors regarding the glorification of God through His creation.
The New Evangelization demands that we recover an authentic, integral understanding of and respect for God’s creation. Catholic must begin to better live and breathe the truth that nature is a gift over which we are stewards. A proper reverence for nature can be a point of contact for helping to heal the error of contemporary nature worship. Yet, it will require more than Catholics to reorient Western society. All Christians must regain an integral understanding and behavior toward nature.
A central element of the New Evangelization in the domain of ecumenism (the work toward reconciling our separated brothers with the Catholic Church) must be helping to restore the understanding that God is glorified in His works; in fact, it is really blasphemy to denigrate His works. As suggested above, we would propose that working to restore the tradition of hyperdulia (the highest veneration given to the Blessed Virgin) among our Protestant brothers and sisters is the most direct pathway to an effective response to the nature worship, which today, is distorting the religious sense of countless confused souls. Moreover, such a project would be the most efficacious pathway to a restoration of communion in Christianity as the Our Blessed Mother’s very identity is the authentic communion of man with the Father through Her Son.