Daniel O’Leary

We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. Any true ecological approach must become a social approach. ‘Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.’ (South African Bishops’ Conference) (LS 14)


‘We need a conversation which includes everyone' … To what might the Pope be referring here? What kind of conversation and with what focus? In his writings he reveals a relentless belief in the sanctity of all things, of all creatures, of all people, of the whole cosmos. There are no exceptions to this vision. He is on fire with this deep compulsion about the presence of God everywhere. Spreading the joy of this good news is the constant motivation that drives his energy; it is constantly revealed in all he says and does.

But his vision is too large, too ecumenical, too universal, too cosmic, too catholic, too challenging for entrenched believers. He begs us all to have ‘… big hearts, open to God’. And again, ‘Let yours be great souls.’ The ‘magnanimity’ (bigness) of God is one of his favourite refrains. And all of this bright vision springs from his theology, his spirituality, his understanding of Incarnation, his belief in the humanity of God.

To repeat, ‘We need a conversation which includes everyone …’. But a conversation about what? There are many opinions. Many thoughtful readers of Laudato Si’ would now say that such a conversation would entail the search for a common ground to stand on, a clarification of people’s understanding of the true heart of Christianity, the core of our teaching about Creation, Incarnation and the church community. What needs explaining for instance, is that everything we hold about Catholic teaching and worshipping and praying comes from one theology or another. Briefly, two theologies are referred to here. The more commonly taught and that best known to most Catholic Christians, is what is called the ‘sin/redemption’ theology. It believes that God’s first plan for the Earth and human beings was shattered by the sin of Adam and Eve in a Garden of Eden. They (and we) were angrily banished from this haven of happiness, and we are still suffering, still involved in the terrible fallout from this out-of-time moment in a garden with two perfect specimens of humanity, a talking snake and a tempting apple. When myth is mistaken for history, when a story is read as reality, terrible consequences ensue. The flow of truth is disastrously distorted.

The punishment for the ‘original sin’ of our first parents, we are taught, is universally fierce. It cost us our intended happiness; it cost the world its perfection, it cost Jesus his life. We are still in this dark condition of sinfulness, begging God every day to forgive us because we are ‘a guilty and damned mass’, a massa damnata, as St Augustine put it. The world itself, our sins, our suffering and death are all the result, not of the divine river of natural evolution, but of this mythical original sin. There is a huge barrier between the Church and the world, between the sacred and the secular, between being human and being holy. These dark doctrines are still officially flowing through today’s teaching Church. This is not the theology that Pope Francis teaches. Nor it is out of that context that he speaks to, and writes for us.

Now, a quick look at the other theology. It is, in fact, a most beautiful love story, utterly different from the sinister and grim one described above. Theologians, saints and scholars call this love story ‘a theology of nature and grace’, meaning that everything created is already holy, and was from the very beginning. It is also called ‘a theology of Creation’, which holds that there is no radical distinction, no separating line, no ultimate contradiction between Creation and God’s grace, between the sacraments and our everyday experiences, between human love and divine love, human forgiveness and God’s forgiveness. Why? Because of the Incarnation! ‘The love with which we love each other’, preached St Augustine of Hippo in one of his sermons (285), ‘is love with which God loves us.

Unlike the baffling ‘fall/redemption’ model, with its punishing God who could stop the atrocities of the world but does not for his own reasons, this true and traditional (but forgotten, or supressed) theology holds that God, right from the beginning, desired to become human simply because, as St Thomas Aquinas and others believed, God’s infinite love expressed itself first in Creation, and then finally and fully revealed in Incarnation. And that love is our essence too – recognised and revealed to a greater or lesser degree in all of us, and in the evolving world itself. (Think of the couple in love whose creative energy leads to a beautiful baby.) The love story went wrong when the myth was mistaken for fact. Paradise was not lost in the past, Adam and Eve never existed on this planet; the Creator’s original blueprint for the universe and humanity was never destroyed by an actual ‘fall’. The Pope hopes that this kind of ‘new conversation in a new language’ will surely change our wanton neglect of Mother Earth, who has lovingly, under God, provided our home, and will focus ‘everyone’s talents and involvement in redressing the damage caused by human abuse of God’s Creation’. This radical theological shift is one dimension of the ‘conversation’ the Pope longs for. This shift will bring us a renewed perspective on the world and its preciousness, a deep and ancient human understanding of Creation.



There is an utterly new cosmic story, yet with seeds from a distant past. And there are Celtic spiritualties that are re-emerging at this time of unprecedented scientific progress. Are these phenomena part of the bigger picture the Pope is painting?

‘We are now restructuring our fundamental vision of the world’, says Brian Swimme. We are creating a new meaning for what we consider real, valuable, to be avoided or pursued. The new cosmic story emerging into human awareness overwhelms all previous conceptions of the universe for the simple reason that it draws them all into its comprehensive fullness. And most amazing of all is the way in which this story, though it comes from the empirical scientific tradition, corroborates profound and surprising ways the ecological vision of the Earth is celebrated in every traditional native spirituality of every continent.’

Too many of our religious teachers and leaders still cling to medieval images of a fixed universe, a historical fall from an original state of innocence and an earthly life of relentless atonement. It is surely time for a systematic reform of theology and spirituality, with profound implications for our teaching, preaching and the role of Church and the meaning and celebration of the sacraments.

‘Through the eyes of Teilhard de Chardin we see that the old wine-skins of Christianity can no longer hold the new wine of our time. Most of the construction and understanding, of Christian doctrine happened in ages past, based on a cosmology that is no longer true. This does not mean that our theology is irrelevant; the core principles are still held to be revelatory of divine mystery. Our understanding of these core principles, however, principles of a living God, evokes new insights and dimensions consonant with our place in this expanding radically unfinished universe.

As far as the life of the church is concerned, its worship, sacraments and spirituality may need to undergo a refashioning that our religious ancestors could never have envisaged on the basis of their “fixist” understanding of the natural world. Fidelity to traditional theology and spirituality will, of course, be essential to the shaping of our new identity as Christians in an unfinished universe, but we shall not feel obliged to imprison our souls and aspirations in depictions of the cosmos (or the incarnation) that now seem too small for any thoughtful and educated person … [So] our theology must think in new ways about the doctrines of God, creation, incarnation, sin, evil and redemption, grace and freedom, and the virtues of faith, hope and love.’ (From Teilhard to Omega: Co-creating an Unfinished Universe, Ilia Delio)

(From ‘An Astonishing Secret, Daniel O’Leary, Columba Press)