After several years of going her own way, Sister Joan Brown’s presence is again being felt in New Mexico.[i] Along with other New Mexico “Interfaith Religious Leaders,” she signed a 2015 letter of support for Pope Francis’ papal encyclical, Laudato Si
, understanding it as a call to support a global climate treaty. [Press Release, “Interfaith Leaders Sign Letter of Support for Papal Encyclical, Laudato Si
”, NM Interfaith Power and Light and NM Conference of Churches
This treaty, an attempt to legally bind countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions, has been strongly supported by the Obama Administration, which pledged to cut carbon pollution by up to 28% by 2025 (relative to 2005 levels).
She has also led workshops to explore “how to put Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si into action in your family and community.” [Our Lady of Annunciation bulletin, 8-23-15]
Two questions arise from this: does Laudato Si actually support this treaty and does Sr. Brown have a Catholic perspective on ecology?
The answer to the first question is complicated. Pope Francis has clearly issued a call for "global solidarity” and “the serious responsibility of international and local policy” but that isn’t quite the same thing as supporting a particular UN initiative. Rather than engage the honest debate that the encyclical encourages, these New Mexico “Interfaith Religious Leaders” have hijacked the Holy Father’s words for their own political purposes. That’s a problem.
Brown and Berry
As for Sr. Brown’s understanding of Catholicism and its relationship to ecology, she has thrown her hat into the Thomas Berry camp.
For instance, last summer (June 2015), Sister Brown led a Wild Grace youth and adult leader retreat at Ghost Ranch. The “grace” in “Wild Grace” is an acronym for “growing relational acts of compassion” and Sister explains that she will be diving “into the messages that Thomas Berry gave to Carolyn Toben to give our youth four month before he passed over at age 94.” [Ghost Ranch event catalog: issuu.com p. 25]
Carolyn Toben has published her memories of these “messages” – discussions – with Thomas Berry in Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry so one can see exactly what forms the basis for much of Sr. Brown’s thought and work.
Berry has written that, in contrast to the “old” creation story of the Bible, “We need a new story that enlarges the context of our lives and gives us a direction for allowing our lives to function in a meaningful way. We need a new sacred story.” [Toben, Carolyn W., Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry, Timberlake Earth Sanctuary Press. Kindle Edition, Introduction. All further quotes will be from this source unless otherwise noted.]
Berry was a Catholic priest who taught that the “universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. And listen to this: The human is derivative. The planet is primary.” [Berry, addressing the 1987 North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology]
He went on to write The Universe Story (with Brian Swimme, 1992 to explore a “natural theology” of creation that introduces, among other things, a “worldwide communion” coming from the immediate communion of the human with the natural world and a capacity to appreciate the ultimate subjectivity and spontaneities within every form of natural being. (see The Universe Story, p. 268.) To Toben, Berry expressed it that “the natural world is that mysterious presence that we refer to as the Divine.” [p. 9]
Toben relates that Berry explained to her that “this is a new sacred story of the immense cosmic-human-earth process, and emphasized that we now have empirical evidence from science that can confirm it and religious understandings that can consecrate it, yet it is larger than both.” [p. 14-15] This “new story” describes the evolutionary movement from the Big Bang to the present moment of human brokenness that can only be fixed by “a realization that the earth is a communion of subjects, a oneness of which we are all a part. It is not a collection of objects for our use. We must enter into a new human-earth-Divine relationship within a new sacred story that is emerging to meet the barrenness of this time.” [p. 20]
In a subsequent meeting, Berry told Tobin that in “the new sacred story, relationships are the primary context of existence. We are in the third age of relationships in our human evolution. The first was the human-Divine relationship, the second was the human-human relationship, and now the third must be the human-earth-Divine relationship as we discover our bond of intimacy with all living forms and recognize the companionship of the abiding numinous presence.” [p. 29] He means something very specific by this – a reunification of the human and non-human. “We are actually in a mystical rapport with these budding trees, the song birds, the graciousness of this sun, the amazing diversity of it all, but we need to acknowledge the sacredness of our relationship, our communion with the earth, the universe and the Divine.” [p. 31]
Ideas have consequences. Berry – through Toben – expresses hope that human awareness of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all natural entities will have the spiritual effect of celebrating diversity without the friction that human differences often engender. He tells her: “our difficulties in relationships can be seen, not as demonic obstacles to be overcome, but as a discipline to evoke creativity. Difference is of real value in relationships; we even reflect in different modes of mind, imagination and emotions.” [p. 46]
After this conversation, Toben considered his words “about the universe calling us to evolve to new levels of understanding because the magnitude of our crisis could not be resolved at the same level at which it was created….On my daily walks my prayer became, ‘Let the universe in all its marvelous differentiation teach me to celebrate differences in all the relationships in my life’.” [p.47, 48]
In contrast to Chinese or Native American thought, Berry believed that, in the Christianized world, the “perception of the Divine became historical, that is, in the past. The emphasis was on the linear and the literal rather than on the cosmological and the cyclical. Humans, who had formerly seen themselves as a ‘ritual insertion’ into the cosmos, lost their soul sense of integration with the cosmological order.” [p 53]
It is difficult to read Toben’s exchanges with Thomas Berry and, for all their wonder and delight, not be saddened by how shrunken the vision is. Perhaps, within a nihilistic framework, contemplating a sunset seems fresh and exciting but, for the Christian, it’s only a small glimpse of what God has to offer. Yet, it’s Berry’s “messages” that Sr. Brown takes to the youth with whom she works.
[i] For a description of Sr. Joan Brown’s work around 2005, see here