Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Most all of us want a world where there is clean water, abundant and accessible, wholesome food and shelter that is safe and secure. For everyone. Even manufacturers of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and other industries, who have released into the environment noxious substances — knowingly or unknowingly — have families, children and grandchildren. They also drink water and feed off an earth which cannot always process and purify poisons dumped into them hastily, wantonly, or without respect for the natural cycles of renewal. We cannot ignore consequences of improvident decisions, even if we did not intend them.

Our native American predecessors, the Nations who dwelt on our soil prior to the advent of explorers and migrants from across the Atlantic and from other shores, generally had a deep sense of being a part of a grander reality, larger than themselves, in the space they occupied in time. As in all non-nomadic societies, territory was essential to survival, cultivating its fruits, defending its borders. In these cultures, a certain, almost mystical, reverence was present for the mysteries of the origins of the land and its many non-human inhabitants who preceded them and whose origins were attributed to a creative source outside themselves. One might describe such reverence as almost religious, especially given the development of rites and rituals specifically invoking blessings for such necessities as sun, rain and grain. Indeed, the belief that the source of such blessing lie outside the immediate control of the tribe seems to have been widespread, though not without occasional elements of “ritualism,” by which the rites themselves would become the source and substance of a belief that it was the worshiper or shaman who controlled the outcome.

Modern societies often envy the seeming simplicity of ancient ancestors who took it for granted that they were watched over by deities who might be persuaded to favor them, provided they behaved in socially, sometimes morally, always ritually appropriate ways. Occasionally, however, rituals took on horrific dimensions, as on the Mayan hill (Tepeyac) upon which Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in 1531, and from which the blood of infants once flowed as an offering to the gods demanding nothing but the best from their human adorers.

As we learn not overly to idealize or generalize the simplicity and sensibility of ancient civilizations with their respect for the laws of nature, so also must we be aware of the boundaries and limits of our own ability to control and regulate our own environments, let alone global and transglobal ecologies. This is no cause or excuse for discouragement or passivity. But just as our predecessors could misread and misuse the limits of their control, sometimes grotesquely, so also can we misappropriate our current skills and resources.

Our Christian mysteries give us a viewpoint and tool or mechanism with which to approach the social, health and ecological challenges of our day. As always — and often in the face of critique to the contrary — we regard with great respect the sciences that, following their own disciplines with integrity, can reveal to us the patterns or laws of nature that may be relied on as more or less cyclical, even absolute in their dependability. The sun will rise and it will set — or rather, the earth will turn and revisit its solar light regularly — without having to pray for it every night. Gravity will ensure that what goes up must come down, even if we can regulate the speed and height and duration to some extent. Pigs may never fly, but most jets do, and that’s a given.

Our faith does not help us devise a rocket ship or a medication any better than if we had no faith, but it does give us the ability, even the motivation, to inquire about their production, purpose, destiny and consequences. As people of faith, we do ask questions about the effects of the internal combustion engine on the quality of air, the accumulation of PCBs in the water supply upon its potability. Pollution in the environment and its human origins can even be the object of an examination of the conscience of every individual, be they user, funder or manufacturer of certain aerosols or of hydrocarbon engines. So may the probity of any invention. Even a vaccine.

Our faith also frees us — impels us, in fact — to question the “pollution” of science and technology itself, or rather the minds and motives of some who practice and are engaged in them, especially where economic and political motives arguably outweigh the good of their disciplines, corrupting them and their products, be they prophylactic, intellectual or educational in their proffered intent. Our experience of the management of the pandemic has so tellingly brought this into sharper focus and raised numerous questions.

Personal responsibility for our physical, psychological, scientific and technological environment is deeply rooted in our Christian faith. In fact, it is the faith itself that impels us both to respect the methodology and findings of science, practiced with integrity, while at the same time to challenge policies and processes practiced in their name when they exceed moral bounds, threatening the dignity of the human person, or even the laws and discipline of science itself.

The source of our confidence, and duty, to ask questions and to challenge those whose behavior stirs our conscience, is a source of authority outside our individual wills. We believe in a benevolent Creator, in fact, a God who is Love. We trust in the will of God as intending the good and well-being of all creation, and of humanity as the crown of that creation, every person made in the image and likeness of God. It is not up to humans to “reset” humanity, but to God and God alone (if God so desires!), who is our goal as the Lord of creation. No human being morally gets to reinvent or repurpose the humanity of another.

A beautiful prayer to the Holy Spirit, who is the Love between the Father and the Son, so real as to be a Person, equal in divinity with the Father and the Son, calls for that Spirit to “fill the hearts of the faithful” and to “enkindle in them the fire of your love.” The plea is to send forth that Holy Spirit and to “renew the face of the earth.”

What gives us courage to consult our conscience, follow our convictions, and discipline ego-driven passions, is the same Love in the heart of God, who created the universe and all that is in it, ordering its laws and relationships according to a loving design. The Holy Spirit, Master of relationships, knits it together. We are blessed with minds to discover these laws and to invent technologies to apply them for purposes that flow from and achieve God’s design, wherever sin leads to brokenness, disease and death. Science and faith, like two lungs breathing life into an organism, are agents of healing and renewal, as and if they breathe together. Each can be corrupted. Each must be renewed. Each, true to itself, will bring out the best in the other.