NE OF MY GREAT LOVES is the National Parks. To be sure, this love falls somewhere after my love for God, Mary, the saints, my family, my vocation, etc. But my love for these magnificent places is nevertheless quite real.
This past week, the United States marked 100 years since the formal establishment of the National Park Service by President Woodrow Wilson (although the multi-layered history of the parks actually goes back to 1872, when Yellowstone was set aside as a public reservation). This seems an opportune moment to praise the spirit of conservation and to consider briefly the Christian duty to admire the natural beauty of creation.
I’m a new resident of Washington, D.C., and just yesterday I took a walk along “America’s Front Yard,” the National Mall, which is the most visited of the National Parks. I’m fortunate to have seen the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Zion, and many other of our National Parks (the above photograph is from my visit to Bryce Canyon NP). Traveling through our nation’s parks is not unlike the experience of visiting cathedrals in different cities; one finds that each park, like each church, is beautiful in a unique way. Each of these places communicates to us something of the divine, and we always emerge the better for having visited.
Sacred architecture is a very worthwhile discipline. Using our human ingenuity to build houses for God that reflect His magnificence is a holy enterprise. This does not detract, however, from the richness to be found in the beauty of wilderness. The National Parks are special sanctuaries not made by human hands. Their subtlety, splendor, and variety inspire the creative mind. Why do we not build cookie-cutter churches? For much the same reason that God did not build cookie-cutter forests and rivers and rock faces and galaxies.
In the act he signed to establish the National Park Service, President Wilson stipulated that the parks were intended not only for the enjoyment of those presently living. They were to be cared for, rather, “in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” There is great nobility in this project of preservation. It places the treasures of our land in the possession of the whole people, not in the hands of individuals.
The natural wonders found in the territories of the United States are worth protecting. This spirit of conservation, of course, must similarly be applied to the world’s great works of art: literature, music, sculpture, painting, architecture. This spirit, sadly, has been too often violated by “renovations” and “reforms” that have done damage to what should have been preserved. The treasures of our Catholic heritage—including beautiful churches, works of art, and the corpus of sacred music—have sometimes been wrested from the hands of the whole people, to whom they rightly belong. When this has happened, these treasures invariably did not receive the proper care due them. From the iconoclasts of the early centuries to the iconoclasts of the Protestant Reformation to the iconoclasts of the post-conciliar period, Catholics have learned again and again that the preservation of our patrimony is fragile.
In May 2015, the Holy Father released an encyclical (Laudato Si) on the topic of the environment. Among many other things, the text calls for renewed dedication to the work of conservation. This is expressed beautifully in the document’s concluding prayer:
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Debate will and should continue about a variety of ecological concerns addressed by the encyclical. In many cases, reasonable minds can differ about specific ways in which we should exercise stewardship over the earth. What should remain unquestioned, however, is the foundational principle that creation deserves to be appreciated and conserved. The Lord’s primeval command to “subdue” the Earth is not, after all, a command to “destroy” it, or even to “neglect” it.
It mystifies me that speaking positively about conservation and similar matters makes some traditional Catholics uncomfortable. To these individuals, I point out that it was Pope Benedict who earned the moniker, the “Green Pope” (see Newsweek and National Geographic).
A healthy love for our environment in no way denigrates our higher obligations to our fellow man. Certainly, caring for the unborn and the elderly and those in between is far more important than saving endangered species of animals and plants. But saving endangered species is not unimportant. The work of conservation should not be regarded as simply the penchant of tree-hugging hippies; rather, “care for our common home” is fundamental to the Christian understanding of the cosmos.
Indeed, what we do to care for God’s creation is not disconnected from the work of inter-personal charity. “Concern for the environment . . . needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, #91).
The father of modern conservation and the godfather, so to speak, of the National Parks was the naturalist John Muir. Throughout a lifetime spent enjoying and defending the American wilderness, Muir always contended that conservationism has spiritual underpinnings. As he once wrote:
Everybody needs beauty . . . places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike. (John Muir)