The Roman Catholic Tradition in Conversation with Thomas Berry’s Fourfold Wisdom
The Fourfold Wisdom
2. The Wisdom of Science: Cosmology
2.1. The Universe Story
2.2. The Practical Import of the New Story
3. The Wisdom of Ancient Traditions: The Practice of Zen
3.1. The Practice of Zen Underlying Our Interconnectedness
3.2. The Practical Import of Practicing Zazen
4. The Wisdom of the Indigenous People
4.1. The Recognition of a Numinous Presence
4.2. The Practical Import of a Different Epistemology
5. The Wisdom of Women
5.1. Rising above Patriarchy
5.2. The Practical Import of Re-Thinking Christology
Converting our minds to earth cannot happen without converting our minds to each other, since the distorted and ecologically dysfunctional relationships appear necessary, yet they actually support the profits of the few against the many. …Any ecological ethic must always take into account the structures of social domination and exploitation that mediate domination of nature and prevent concern for the welfare of the whole community in favor of the immediate advantage of the dominant class, race, and sex.(, p. 93)
6. Assessing the Conversation
7. Assessing the Fruits and Challenges of the Conversation
In the great wave of reaction against traditional religions, specifically the Judaeo-Christian heritage of the West, many have revisited ancient indigenous, traditional, pagan religions…From the point of view of Christian faith, it is not possible to isolate some elements of New Age religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others…Since the New Age movement makes much of a communication with nature, of cosmic knowledge of a universal good—thereby negating the revealed contents of Christian faith—it cannot be viewed as positive or innocuous…It is therefore necessary to accurately identify those elements which belong to the New Age movement, and which cannot be accepted by those who are faithful to Christ and his Church.
If the Church’s magisterium expresses grave misgivings about notions of the environment inspired by ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things. In the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the “dignity” of all living creatures, such notions end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings [emphasis added]. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms.
Conflicts of Interest
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- 1I do not wish to place too much weight on surveys here. Of interest within this PRRI/AAR 22 November 2014 survey, however, is the fact that among the three affiliations showing the greatest concern for climate change were “Hispanic Catholics” and “Black Protestants”, suggesting that class and poverty issues might account for the discrepancy between “white” and “Hispanic Catholics”, less so than theology. Also of note is the finding that those Americans who were unaffiliated to a religion ranked second to the top in being “very concerned”. Interestingly, the same ranking order mentioned above was found when the participants were asked about the frequency of clergy leaders discussing climate change, showing “Hispanic Catholics” and “Black Protestants” ranking at the top and “white Catholics” at the bottom. Showing Catholic responses in a different light, a more recent survey (March 2015), by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication  looks at the beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, policy preferences on climate change of Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants, and born again/evangelical Christians. Also investigated are the opinions from these groups on Pope Francis’s trustworthiness on the issue of climate change. This report shows Catholics (as a whole), to be far more troubled about climate change (certainly more so than “white Catholics” within the PRRI/AAR survey), citing that among the three Christian categories sampled, they are most likely to be aware and concerned about climate change. Again, without assigning too much weight to surveys here, I think some explanation is in order to account for the apparent discrepancy between the two surveys. It is important to note that the Yale survey sample population was less than half of that of the PRRI/AAR survey, and that the former does not distinguish between “white” or “Hispanic” Catholic respondents. Could the subsuming of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics under one category within the Yale survey have skewed the results? This is unclear. Notwithstanding this vagueness, another survey (January 2014), conducted by Latino Decisions for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) [13,14], does confirm the importance (suggested within the PRRI/AAR survey) that Latinos within the United States (as a whole and not just Catholic Latinos) do indeed place on climate change issues. Further, the survey found that economic and religious considerations are not driving these environmental concerns. When asked whether “Climate change is causing our communities in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean to face more dangerous and extreme weather, who often have less resources to respond”, for instance, 82 percent said they find this statement convincing. Such findings lend support to my contention that class (and solidarity within that class) and quality of life issues—including poverty, which climate change will exacerbate—might account more for why people have a concern over the environment, and that the Catholic tradition—currently at least—plays less of a role in motivating concern or action.
- 2I find Rasmussen’s term Earth-honoring helpful as it also embraces Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic to anchor the human within a biocentric and not anthropocentric worldview . While Berry also espouses such a biocentric ideal, he does not see humans—as Leopold does—as just “plain members”, assigning to humans instead that being in whom “the universe celebrates itself in conscious self-awareness” (, p. 198).
- 3Berry paraphrases Thomas Aquinas (from his Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 105 & 109), on the value of diversity, arguing, because the divine goodness “could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, he produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness which, in God, is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided; and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever” (, p. 79). Berry suggests from this a theological import, namely that our primary need for the lifeforms of the planet is a spiritual and not simply a physical need: “To destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice” (, p. 46). This same passage is employed by Pope Francis in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, which we will discuss later in this article.
- 4Habito clarifies further that the basic components of the Zen way of life are contained in the last three of the Buddhist Eightfold Path: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The first five steps, he says, can be seen as the preparatory stages to the cultivation of the last three .
- 5This practice is reminiscent of the famous Tangerine meditation put forth by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who also makes a link between this meditation and an understanding of the Eucharist (, pp. 20–21).
- 6Thomas Berry can speak with some authority on this subject. He taught at both Fordham and Columbia universities on American indigenous traditions, and has been received well by native groups in North America and with the Tboli people in the Philippines .
- 7Related to listening to nature as explained above, the indigenous peoples have also held on to dreaming as a deep way of experiencing the world around them. Berry likens the dream process to a groping or a feeling of something perceived that draws us on to a further clarification of our understandings and our activity (, pp. 164–65).
- 8Ruether points to Gal 3:28, where, in Christ, there is no more male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, and compares it to 1 Tim 2:11–15, where women are exhorted to keep silent and have no authority over men in the Christian community, as they were created second and sinned first .
- 9Readers might note that the term salvation instead of redemption is used here. This is deliberate, as Ruether uses the terms interchangeably. We can take, for example, how Ruether ends her book Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism . In reciting the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 as being all the redemption needed, she suggests, as well, that maybe the idea of redemption should come to an end, or at best be understood like this: Bread. A clean sky. Active peace. A woman’s voice singing somewhere. The army disbanded. The harvest abundant. The wound healed. The child wanted. The prisoner freed. The body’s integrity honored, the lover returned…labor equal, fair and valued. No hand raised in any gesture but greeting. Secure interior—of heart home, and land—so firm as to make secure borders irrelevant at last (, p. 120). I do not suggest here that Ruether willingly conflates the terms—thus retaining a theological distinction between the terms for traditional theological purposes; rather, she wants to re-think our use of the notion redemption, and play up its liberation elements while downplaying its salvific (other-worldly) elements. Reasons why notwithstanding, I think it reasonable, for our purposes, to understand redemption, salvation and liberation, with regard to Ruether’s ethical vision, as being virtually interchangeable terms.
- 10This idea of the Titanic as metaphor was developed by Berry (, chapter 9).
- 11This sentiment is shared by John Hart who sees this to be a historical pattern within the tradition. Discussing the more progressive green initiatives and thinking within the tradition that are stemming from Catholics who see the Earth as having intrinsic and not only instrumental value, Hart writes, “Such developments in Catholic thought rarely, if ever, originated from the church hierarchy; their primary source was the theologians, ethicists, and other scholars who became aware of scientific studies that indicated a developing global environmental crisis and in response began to promote care for earth and respect for earth’s biosphere” (, p. 66).
- 12I do not suggest here that Catholics necessarily follow episcopal teachings or that they are always cognizant of specific teachings. I speak more to the predisposition, on the whole, that Catholics have to contemplating episcopal teachings. In fact, on certain moral issues, many Catholics ignore teachings. A 2014 Vatican initiative to gauge the sentiments of Catholics on family and moral issues found that their “knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting”. Citing examples such as “birth control, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, cohabitation, fidelity, premarital sex, in vitro fertilization”, the report from bishops around the world goes on to say, “many respondents confirmed that, even when the Church’s teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety” .
- 14Apart from the writings of Pope Benedict that we have briefly discussed here, those of Pope John Paul II are also decidedly anthropocentric .
- 15A good discussion on this broader issue, one that is still relevant today, can be found in a conversation amongst Mary Jo Leddy, Bishop Remi De Roo and Douglass Roche (, chapter 8).
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Appolloni, S. The Roman Catholic Tradition in Conversation with Thomas Berry’s Fourfold Wisdom. Religions 2015, 6, 794-818. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6030794
Appolloni S. The Roman Catholic Tradition in Conversation with Thomas Berry’s Fourfold Wisdom. Religions. 2015; 6(3):794-818. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6030794Chicago/Turabian Style
Appolloni, Simon. 2015. "The Roman Catholic Tradition in Conversation with Thomas Berry’s Fourfold Wisdom" Religions 6, no. 3: 794-818. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel6030794