A Tribute to Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J. and His Ecological Legacy

By: Walter Grazer

November 30, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

I first met Drew at the “Moral Dimensions of Environmental Problems” symposium co-sponsored in 1990 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Catholic University of America. I was responsible for staffing the symposium.

At the outset, let me make a point that Drew’s understanding and commitment to ecological concerns was rooted in his persona. He loved hiking and was very familiar with various plant and animal species. He was conversant with a range of environmental policy issues. He could easily quote verses from the nature poetry and writings of authors like Annie Dillon and Barry Lopez, among others. Despite a demanding schedule as head of the Office of International Justice and Peace, Drew found time to offer pastoral ministry to government officials in high-level environmental public policy positions.

The comments offered by Drew at that symposium provided his initial perspective and a preview of themes from Catholic social teaching about ecology that directly helped shape the views of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral, Renewing the Earth, as wells as their Environmental Justice Program. Since that time, the enduring Catholic social teaching themes of the common good, a respect for the integrity of nature and a concern for the relationship between poverty and the degradation of the earth are best summed up summed up by Pope Francis’ call to hear the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si #49).

At the 1990 symposium, Drew offered a person-centered theology for ecological challenges. He did not find the emerging ecological rights theory helpful because those advocating equivalence of animal rights rejected distinctions among species. Rather, he sought to place the human person as part of the environment but with a distinctive role. He also rejected an apocalyptic approach as paralyzing and polarizing.

He linked development with ecology, seeing the connection between a love of the poor and a need for solidarity with a commitment to ecological protection in an ordered universe. Drew promoted the view that the richer nations would have to sacrifice for the sake of the poorer nations, or else face ecological and other costs down the road.

1991 U.S. Bishops' Pastoral: "Renewing the Earth"

The themes articulated by Drew at the 1990 Symposium are reflected and amplified in the US Catholic Bishops’ pastoral issued in 1991. I find it remarkable how well the themes of this pastoral parallel the themes in Laudato si’—a biblical emphasis on the fundamental goodness and integrity of creation, a sacramental view of the universe, respect for human life, the ethical significance of global interdependence and the common good, the ethics of solidarity, the universal purpose of created things, an option for the poor, and the notion of authentic development. We have to remember that this pastoral was released at a time when the broader religious community, and certainly the Catholic Church with the exception of a few Bishops’ Conferences had not yet placed a concern for the environment on their agendas. In this sense it was a prophetic pastoral.

USCCB's Environmental Justice Program and Scholars' Conference

The themes from the pastoral led directly to the formation and direction of the Bishops’ Environmental Justice Program (EJP). The Program was launched in 1993. There were earlier efforts to address ecology and environmental concerns by bishops and Catholic organizations. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, founded around 1923, had issued a statement on the environment as early as 1970. The bishops of Appalachia worked through a marvelous process of consultation with local people and local dioceses and parishes in developing the pastoral statement, “This Land is Home to Me,” released in 1975 and reissued in 1995. A third pastoral was issued in 2015 by lay people. The bishops of the Midwest also wrote a 1980 pastoral statement, “Strangers and Guests,” on land and farming.

However, EJP represented the first national effort by the Catholic Church in the United States to address ecology. As the name of the program implies, it programmatically linked in vision and practice a concern for ecology and “an option for the poor.” It had four main elements: education; leadership development; public policy; and scholarly research to explore the contribution of Catholic theology and Catholic social teaching (CST) and where the Church’s theology is challenged.

Drew was seriously committed to engaging Catholic universities and Catholic academics encouraging them to begin addressing ecology. During his tenure at USCCB, Drew was instrumental in crafting several Catholic scholars’ conferences. His contribution was not limited to only suggesting themes around scripture, dogmatics, and ethics. His knowledge of Catholic academics who could help advance this work was also invaluable. Drew knew the few Catholic academics already starting to think about this issue as well as others he thought could use their theological skills and apply them to this work.

After the first Catholic scholars’ conference in 1995, Drew and I edited a book called And God Saw That It Was Good: Catholic Theology and the Environment, published in 1996. To this day, the book still offers a valuable contribution to the overall effort of advancing Catholic thinking about ecology.

One of the most salient themes that Drew repeatedly turned to in his work on ethics was the common good. He applied the theme of the common good to a range of issues including politics, development, war and peace, as well as to ecology. Drew specifically and definitely chose the theme of the common good as his contribution to a chapter in And God Saw That It Was Good.

Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations

Drew’s commitment to ecology included ecumenical and interfaith work. Drew participated in various ecumenical and interfaith endeavors throughout his life’s work, including official theological dialogues between faith communities and with issues like the Middle East.

He was also involved in the formation and early efforts of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) founded by Paul Gorman, who at the time was working as commutations director for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. The partnership, comprised of the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Coalition on Jewish Life and the Environment, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was instrumental in helping the broader religious community in the United States begin to address ecology. Drew was a perennial presence at NRPE events.

Drew Christiansen's Legacy

Drew was personally committed to addressing the ecological crisis as an aspect of his engagement with nature itself and his love of the natural world. He saw how Catholic theology and social teaching could make a significant contribution to promoting an ethic of respect for the integrity of nature and the development of people, especially those who live in poverty. He also strongly supported addressing ecology through ecumenical and interfaith collaboration.

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