Jesuit lichen expert discusses Catholic ecological thought

Rosemary Pitawanakwat presents Father John McCarthy, SJ. with two jars of maple syrup. photo by Michael Erskine

WIIKWEMKOONG – Father John McCarthy, SJ. quietly bustles about in front of a computer projector as he readies a presentation at Wiikwemkoong’s Holy Cross Catholic Church. Soft and engaging of demeanor, Fr. McCarthy has come to help bridge the gulf between Christianity and science when it comes to the environment and the language of ecology.

Like most things Christian, that bridge basically boils down to one very potent word: love.

When it comes to all things science, Fr. McCarthy has some serious chops—small surprise since he is a member of a religious order noted for its pursuit of knowledge both within the theological realm and the mundane. The Jesuit Order has founded numerous universities and colleges across the globe since the founding of their order—if a school has Loyola in its name, chances are better than even that the Jesuits have had a hand in it.

For his part, Fr. McCarthy is one of the world’s leading authorities on lichen and even has a rare lichen named after him, acarospora maccarthyi, which he discovered in the north of his native Newfoundland and Labrador. He holds a bachelor’s degree in forest tree biology from the University of New Brunswick, a master’s degree in soil science from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in boreal forest ecology from the University of British Columbia (UBC).

In 2002, Fr. McCarthy was the recipient of the Canadian Environment Awards’ Gold Medal in the Lands and Forests category for his work in boreal forest conservation in Newfoundland. 

As a theologian Fr. McCarthy also demonstrates some major credentials, including being the author of the provocatively titled ‘Do Monkeys go to Heaven? Finding God in all Creation’ and stints as chaplain and faculty member at St. Mark’s College and is currently the socius (assistant) to the provincial of the Jesuits in English Canada and responsible for the training of young Jesuits.

“All creation is of God and has its own integrity and intrinsic value,” he notes, adding, “Science is essential but never sufficient to address ecological issues in the long run.”

Fr. McCarthy makes a strong argument that the language of science is not only inadequate to encompass our relationship with the environment, but as demonstrated by the current debate over climate change and the environment, counterproductive.

He points out that, as humans and emotional beings, we have difficulty “loving” the cold and calculated terminology to be found in the scientific lexicon.

Fr. McCarthy deftly illustrated his point using a recent promotional video from the tourism council of Newfoundland titled ‘Ancient Land.’ The video focused on the vistas and imagery of Labrador’s Torngat Mountains. “Everything has a spirit—you may find your own” is a tagline that led into the evening’s topic of discussion, Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical: ‘Integral Ecology.’ Pope Francis is on record as considering adding ecological sin to the catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Nature is not a backdrop to what we do, but integral to everything we do,” noted Fr. McCarthy.

For much of modern history, humanity has largely only valued the environment for what we could get out of it—essentially placing value only on the economic side of the ledger. “If we can’t make money on it, we don’t value it,” he said. “There is little discussion on what we could lose.”

Fr. McCarthy noted that “we only protect that which we love,” and suggested that a change in the language we use in conversation about the environment from that of science to the more evocative and emotion-based language of religion could prove a game-changer in our approach to Mother Earth.

“Pope Francis is asking for a whole different language,” he said.

Fr. McCarthy noted that language and perception are relative and things can be explained in many ways.

“’Why is there a fire in your backyard?’ a neighbour might ask,” he said. “There are many answers to that question depending on how you approach the question.” He pointed to the scientific underpinnings of how a fire comes into being, the quip “because I put a match to it” and the explanation that “my family and I are having a birthday party for my one-year-old.”

“All are true,” he said, “but we focus on the science when it comes to the environment.”

Fr. McCarthy referenced a painting by M’Chigeeng artist Blake Debassige ‘Tree of Life’ that currently hangs in the Jesuit retreat at Anderson Lake. “All of creation are in it together,” he noted. He pointed out that there is only a 1.2 percent difference in the genome of a chimpanzee and a human.

What is required in the discussion of the environment is a language of depth, a language that goes deeper and one that reflects how we actually relate to the rest of the world. That language, he posits, might be that of religion.

“Religion is a language that has the power to go deep,” he said. “Science as a language can’t really go deep. Political language simply doesn’t go deep enough.”

The key to engaging humanity in defence of the environment lies in the fundamental tenet of Christianity, noted Fr. McCarthy, that being “love.” By engaging with the environment on a emotional level, rather than an economic and consumer-oriented level, we will be inspired to greater lengths in order to protect and preserve the ecology we all have in common. 

Fr. McCarthy was invited to speak at Holy Cross by Rosemary Pitawanakwat and the group Christian Life Community—Walk in the Light. “We started the group three years ago,” noted Ms. Pitawanakwat. “We are learning about what St. Ignatius taught.”

The posters for the talk were designed by a youth in the community, Marcy Manitowabi, who Ms. Pitawanakwat recognized and thanked at the conclusion of the talk.