Women Religious Embrace Eco-Spirituality

by Michael S. Rose


Expose of a four-day eco-spirituality conference, "EarthSpirit Rising: A Midwest Conference on Healing and Celebrating Planet Earth." hosted at Cincinnati's College of Mt. St. Joseph.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, October 1998

Rosemary Radford Ruether, eminent Catholic feminist and population-control advocate, echoed the cold sentiments of eugenicist Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, when she suggested that we should "find the most compassionate way to weed out people." At a four-day eco-spirituality conference hosted over Memorial Day weekend at Cincinnati's College of Mount St. Joseph, operated by the Sisters of Charity, Ruether provided a keynote address, outlining her plan to save the planet Earth from the "patriarchal-minded, elite male humans" who are living in "ecological sin." Approximately 400 attended; the majority of them were consecrated women religious.

The retired bishop of Covington, Kentucky, William Hughes, was joined by 31 religious orders, two Catholic colleges, two Catholic retreat centers, and the Diocese of Covington, in sponsoring the event—a veritable parade of New Age enthusiasts organized around the theme: "EarthSpirit Rising: A Midwest Conference on Healing and Celebrating Planet Earth."

Ancestors, sorcerers, shamans, and Mother Earth

The environmentalist movement, as co-opted by New Age theorists, has developed its own vision of the relationship between man and the planet, which it often refers to as "depth ecology." This ideology denies the basic difference between human and non-human existence. It speaks of a "biocentric equality," whereby a frog, a wolf, or a Douglas fir would have the same right as a man to its own fulfillment.

Thus the opening speaker at the Cincinnati conference, barefooted David Abram, spoke about his travels through Asia, where he lived among various shamans and sorcerers. Punctuating his talk with haiku, lifelike animal grunts, and raven caws, Abram lamented what he sees as the greatest problem in history: that we evolved from primates into creatures who could speak and communicate with one another. That development destroyed the equilibrium of the animal-human relationship, he suggested.

Abram, who identified himself as an ecopsychologist and itinerant street magician, said, "The sorcerers, shamans, and witch doctors of indigenous communities, however, have been able to maintain that primal communication with the Earth and all its creatures because they understand that everything on Earth is animate, including the nonliving."

The New Age ecology movement also considers that the cosmos is guided by a universal consciousness of which man is merely one more participant. It fosters a religious worship of nature or of Mother Earth as if it were a divine reality. It ends up labeling man as an intruder and considers him a curse for the cosmos.

Espousing such ideas, "deep ecologist" John Seed promoted his "Council of All Beings," a community therapy workshop intended "to reconcile the human community with the Earth." He said that we should consider the Earth "our Sacred Text." Demonstrating one of his conventional rituals, he asked his audience to project their "energy fields" down into the Earth. "Thank the soil for sustaining you," he said; "feel the presence of long-gone beings." He then asked everyone to project their energy roots deeper. "Will your energy to proceed down even further into the molten mass of inner earth, down into the solid iron crystal that forms the densely-packed core. Honor it as the heart of Mother Earth," he said.

Ensouling the cosmos

At the heart of the radical "green" movement, eco-feminists pressure governments for legislation that would cut back the human population in order to heal the planet.

In her keynote address Rosemary Radford Ruether said we need to slow population growth. "To allow unrestrained fertility is not pro-life," she said. "A good gardener weeds and thins his seedlings to allow the proper amount of room for the plants to grow. We need to seek the most compassionate way of weeding out people."

"Our current pro-life movement is really killing people through disease and poverty," Ruether charged. She called upon the audience to help develop a spirituality of recycling, and said: "We need to compost ourselves."

From exaggerated environmentalism emerges a kind of spirituality of the cosmos that strives to "ensoul" the entire universe, or to bestow on creation a magical force. The eco-feminist movement rejects the Christian notion of a personal God, above creation and outside the history of time, in favor of an impersonal, divine force that is in everything and is everything. This return to naturalistic pantheism finds support in many new religious movements coming from the east and in a return to pagan religions.

Clues to a "healing culture," said Ruether, will come primarily from the Eastern religions of Tao, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which she said promote "compassion for all sentient beings." We cannot properly draw upon our Judeo-Christian roots, she explained, because these traditions are the primary source of domination and subjugation. "We Western Christians need to give up the idea that there is a one true way," remarked Ruether. We need to engage in a "process of converging dialogues," she suggested, to integrate our different cultures. The Christian typically misunderstands the Incarnation, explained Ruether. "The cosmos is the real incarnation," she said.

This so-called "global theology"— espoused by Ruether and by others at the EarthSpirit Rising conference—sees the signs of divine revelation in all known religious expressions, and searches for a common denominator that might serve as a meeting point for religions—a harmonic convergence, so to speak.

An irreligious panel

Five speakers formed a panel to discuss the "religious connection" of reconciling with the Earth. Father Al Fritsch, SJ, a founder of Priests for Equality, described religion as "a binding of ourselves to a greater being." That effort should be creation-centered, he added. He presented his theory of the four seasonal stages of our human lives: Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall.

Sister Virginia Froehle, a Sister of Mercy who penned the book Called into Her Presence: Praying With Feminine Images of God, spoke of the Catholic sacramental life as "rooted in the Earth." She denounced the pre-conciliar Church as subscribing to a patriarchal perversion of Jesus' Gospel. Rev. Mendel Adams, pastor of the Church of Christ in Union, Kentucky added a Protestant perspective. He lamented how "Christianity is so arrogant," and suggested that rather than focusing on ourselves as Christians we need to "practice Christianity in an ecumenical way that is open to other myths and sources of wisdom."

Ruether appeared once again to round out the panel, and said that Christianity was at the root of the environmental crisis. Traditional Christianity, she said, makes the "elite male humans" feel as if they have the right to dominate the Earth and all its creatures, including women. This might be, she suggested, "because Christians believe that they are sojourners on their way to heaven."

Most of our ecological problems stem from this insistence on patriarchal domination, she said. But "nature does not need us to rule over it. We are parasites," she asserted, "utterly dependent upon the rest of the food-chain. Nature would be much better off without us."

If nothing else, EarthSpirit Rising has effectively proven that New Age eco-feminist ideas have worked their way well into the institutions of the American Church. For many of our women religious, revelation in Jesus Christ has lost its unique and unrepeatable character. For them, Christianity can no longer be anything more than a fleeting period in history.

Michael Rose is the editor of the St. Catherine Review, an independent Catholic publication based in Cincinnati, Ohio.



The sponsors of the Cincinnati conference were:

Most Rev. William Hughes, retired bishop of Covington, Kentucky

The Diocese of Covington, Kentucky

The Jesuit Community at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio

The Franciscans of St. John the Baptist Province, Cincinnati, Ohio

The College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio

Marydale Retreat Center, Erlanger, Kentucky

Milford Spiritual Center, Milford, Ohio

Mother of God Church, Covington, Kentucky

Franciscan Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Office, Cincinnati, Ohio

Franciscan Sisters of Mary, St. Louis, Missouri

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Center, Nazareth, Kentucky

Sisters of Loretto, Englewood, Colorado

Sisters of Mercy, Chicago Region

Sisters of Mercy, Cincinnati Region

Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenberg, Indiana

Sisters of St. Francis, Tiffin, Ohio

Sisters of the Humility of Mary, Villa Maria, Pennsylvania

Sisters of the Precious Blood, Dayton, Ohio

The Ancilla Domini Sisters, Donaldson, Indiana

Adrian Dominican Sisters, Adrian, Michigan

Byzantine Nuns of St. Clare, North Royalton, Ohio

Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois

Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, Kentucky

Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan

Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Augustine, Richfield, Ohio

Sisters of Charity, Cincinnati, Ohio

Sisters of Divine Providence, Melbourne, Kentucky

Sisters of Mercy, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Sisters of St. Dominic, Akron, Ohio

Sisters of St. Joseph, Tipton, Indiana

Sisters of St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio

Sisters of St. Joseph, St. Paul, Minnesota

Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Ft. Thomas, Kentucky

Sisters of the Incarnate Word, Cleveland, Ohio

Ursuline Provincialate, Crystal City, Missouri

Ursuline Sisters, Louisville, Kentucky

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