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Theologian Elizabeth Johnson Calls on the Church to Address a Planet in Peril

Renowned Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson discussed theological arguments in favor of taking action on environmental issues in her lecture "The Challenge of 'Us' in Ecological Times" at the 18th annual Prophetic Voices Lecture on Feb. 28.

Hosted by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, the annual Prophetic Voices Lecture has featured other prominent theologians, including James F. Keenan, S.J., Canisius professor and director of the Jesuit Institute at Boston College.

Johnson is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph and a Distinguished Professor Emerita of Theology at Fordham University. Her works, which have been translated into 13 languages, include She Who Is, Quest for the Living God, and most recently, Creation and the Cross: the Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril.

As a feminist theologian, Johnson has repeatedly challenged patriarchal patterns of speaking and understanding God. She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of America and was a participant in the Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue, a series of discussions between the Catholic and Lutheran churches.

Johnson began her lecture by describing the ecological catastrophe of our world today, focusing on the extinction of species.

"The natural world, as we speak, is under severe stress due to human activity," said Johnson. "Warming is already affecting the United States, wreaking havoc on our country through drought, deadly wildfires, and intensifying storms."

She went on to reference specific figures regarding extinction rates.

"Before humans appeared on the Earth, the basic background rate of extinction for species was one to five a year," she said. "The rate of extinction, now as we speak, stands at upwards of 1000 a year."

Additionally, Johnson referenced Laudato Si', the encyclical written by Pope Francis, which calls on all people to take action and save an increasingly devastated Earth and environment.

According to Johnson, the papal encyclical "analyzes the danger of the ecological crisis, the danger it poses on biodiversity, and connect[s] this to the human misery of poverty and social injustice."

In Laudato Si', Pope Francis describes "a new way of being human [in which] we would see ourselves primarily not as lord and master entitled to plunder the earth at will, nor as relentless consumers unable to set limits on our immediate needs, and not as ruthless exploiters who arrogantly dominate the world." Rather, Pope Francis advocates that "we would see ourselves as part of one family" with other living things.

Johnson's theological argument on the imperative to save species states that all living things, including humans, are related in our kinship with one another and with God, which "form[s] one community of life."

"All creatures come from the hand of the one gracious God, are held in existence by the same vivifying giver of life, and at the end, all will be gathered into a new heaven and a new earth by the same ineffable, loving God," said Johnson.

Johnson went on to explain that in the anthropocentric view that western theology has taught for centuries, humans (specifically white males) stand above all other creatures and can use creatures or others who are lesser how they see fit. This perspective, in addition to ranking women and the Earth itself subordinate to men, has contributed to the enslavement of indigenous peoples and continues to hold societies back from taking effective action on environmental issues.

"I find it daunting to realize how deeply this anthropology of the elite human has shaped Christian belief and practice," said Johnson. "Not only has it prevented equality and justice in the human community, but with its conviction that humans are masters and rulers of nature, it opened the door to centuries of unbridled exploitation of nature without protest from the churches until very recently."

Johnson recognized the difficulties of eliminating these harmful perspectives from society, as it is extremely difficult to persuade those with privilege to relinquish it. Rather than thinking of all living things as a pyramid with humans at the pinnacle, it is important to think of our relationship as a "circle of life." Redrafting anthropology and the human identity is part of her suggested solution.

Also, Johnson suggested that the Catholic Church could better incorporate this inclusive view of God's creation on Earth into church masses.

"A whole way of praying during eucharistic masses needs to be reformed and revised to bring all animals, humankind, and otherkind alike in," she said. "We are all fellow creatures of the one God, and together, we are all giving praise."

Johnson concluded the lecture with a reference to a psalm, saying, "Our God has blessed us, and may all the ends of the earth reveal his holy name." In a call to action, Johnson stressed the importance of expanding 'us,' as present in this psalm and throughout scripture, to include all of God's creation and all living things.

"My friends, I suggest that nothing less is worthy of this critical moment in Earth's history, and nothing less is worthy of the Holy God who creates and saves the world," said Johnson.