During this presidential election cycle there have been questions raised about the moral and faith beliefs of certain candidates. Last week, Senator Rick Santorum suggested that President Obama was following a “radical environmental theology” that is not found in Christian or Biblical teachings. These types of suggestions are not anything new. Earlier in the campaign we heard supporters of Governor Rick Perry claim that Governor Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, was not really a Christian. When these accusations are made we hear the media and supporters of the accused candidates claiming that these attacks are unfair and that a person’s personal faith beliefs have no place in political discussions. I keep waiting for someone to ask what is meant by being a “good Christian.” No one asked Governor Perry what it means to be a good Christian. When Senator Santorum accused President Obama of supporting a “radical environmental theology” not founded in Christian beliefs he was chastised for questioning the president’s faith beliefs but was never asked about his own “environmental theology.”
We keep hearing that a person’s personal moral values and faith beliefs should not be a subject for discussion during political campaigns. I strongly agree that it should be irrelevant whether a candidate for public office is Christian, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, or practices some other faith tradition – or none at all. However, I do believe it is important to know how a candidate’s faith and moral values might influence his/her decisions on public policy issues. As an example, if a candidate’s faith followed an apocalyptic vision, that in order for the second coming of Jesus Israel had to be destroyed, would that candidate promote a policy that led to war in the Middle East and the destruction of Israel? If a Muslim candidate were arguing in favor of Sharia law, would people be outraged and demand that the candidate be banned from seeking public office? I
believe the important question is not what a person’s faith belief is, but how those beliefs will affect his or her decision-making on public policy.
I believe that a fair question to ask Senator Santorum is what he means by a “radical environmental theology not founded in Christian beliefs,” and since he raised the issue, to describe his environmental theology. In these 40 days of Lenten purification, Catholics remember the 40 days of rain which cleansed the world in Noah’s time. When the flood had subsided, God stated clearly and repeatedly “the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you” (cf. Gen 9:8-15), a covenant of care and protection rather than destruction. In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” St. Francis of Assisi taught us that all creatures give praise to God.
The Franciscan tradition understands creation as the relationship between all created matter and the Creator, a relationship of being brother and sister to each other. In their statement Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, (USCCB, 2001 #5), the Catholic Conference of Bishops stated: “As people of religious faith, we bishops believe that the atmosphere that supports life on earth is a God-given gift, one we must respect and protect. It unites us as one human family. If we harm the atmosphere, we dishonor our Creator and the gift of creation. The values of our faith call us to humility, sacrifice, and a respect for life and the natural gifts God has provided.” Pope John Paul II reminds us in his statement The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility that “respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God.” In an address to the members of the diplomatic corps in January 2010, his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI stated: “The protection of creation is not principally a response to an aesthetic need, but much more to a moral need, in as much as nature expresses a plan of love and truth which is prior to us and which comes from God.”
The radical environmental theology that Senator Santorum is accusing the president of practicing is the creation theology that recent Popes have supported in their preaching and writing. It is the theology that the Catholic Conference of Bishops supports. It is also the theology that St. Francis of Assisi practiced and taught. It is the theology that millions of Franciscan priests, brothers, sisters, seculars and Franciscan-hearted people in this country and around the world practice.
I think we owe Senator Santorum a debt of gratitude for not being afraid to raise the questions of our moral values. We should not be afraid to have that discussion in an open respectful manner. We should welcome it. Let’s start by asking the question: “Whose environmental theology is inconsistent with Christian principles, the Bible, St. Francis, the Popes, the Catholic Conference of Bishops and many other spiritual leaders?"