Changing the world one human heart at a time

William Patenaude

A homily given last month by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, made waves among Catholic eco-activists. Many thought the cardinal was dismissive of eco-protection when in fact he was simply placing environmental concerns into the broader context of our Catholic faith.

It was a wide-reaching homily given in Rome to a young man entering the priesthood. In light of recent events, it’s not surprising that the homily was influenced by ongoing ideological debates within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Perhaps that’s why so many Catholic eco-activists — who are often adherents to more left-leaning political ideologies — took umbrage with the cardinal’s appropriation of ecological terminology.

The homily offered a critique of those who believe that the Church’s primary objective is to engage in social and political debates —such as eco-protection. The cardinal — and many others, including this government bureaucrat — agree that the Church’s voice in the public square is necessary.

But her primary role must be the salvation of souls through the preaching of the Gospel and the mediation of God’s grace, most especially through the sacraments.

After all, Christ did not engage ancient Rome politically. Rather, he changed the world one human heart at a time.

The cardinal noted that “the Church does not gain relevance and acceptance when she carries behind the world all the baggage of the current zeitgeist, but only when she, with the truth of Christ, carries the torch before the world. We must not puff ourselves up with secondary issues and work to accomplish the agenda of others who do not want to believe that God alone is the origin and unique goal of man and all creation.”

Then he went on to say — and this is what bothered so many Catholic eco-advocates — that “the real danger for humanity today consists in the greenhouse gases of sin and the global warming of unbelief and of moral decay, when no one any longer knows or teaches the difference between good and evil. The best protector of the environment and friend of nature is he who proclaims the Good News that there is survival with God alone: not only a limited survival, for the near future, but an eternal one, forever.”

Cardinal Müller made an important point that we must not place Christ the Good Shepherd in opposition with Christ the teacher of divine truth. “Christ, on the contrary, is one and the same person.”

This observation is crucial, especially for Catholics concerned with environmental protection, for the very reason that the cardinal made clear: “The best protector of the environment and friend of nature is he who proclaims the Good News that there is survival with God alone.”

Pope Francis made a similar statement in his eco-encyclical Laudato Si’:

“Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.” (LS 119)

In other words, what Catholics bring to the arena of environmental protection is not more of the same. Rather, as both Pope Francis and Cardinal Müller remind us, what we bring is the inconvenient truth that before we can save the planet, we must first preach the good news of Jesus Christ — for it is His news, not ours, that saves souls, and it is His grace, not our political efforts, that makes all things new.

William Patenaude, M.A., KCHS, serves on the diocesan pastoral council, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and is a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, West Warwick. He writes at