We are stewards, not landlords, of this earth


Sometimes when a decision confronts us, it’s expected that we as Christians would turn to the church for advice. Issues of human sexuality, or end of life care, or rapid scientific development quite naturally lead believers to balance the testimony of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience and take into account the church’s teaching on the matter at hand.

Yet as I stood in my kitchen this week and reached for a paper plate, merely out of the desire to avoid washing dishes (which I loathe), I felt a familiar pang of guilt recognizing that it is not only life-or-death decisions that are, in fact, practical questions that demand moral responses.

On Sept. 1 each year, Catholic and Orthodox Christians memorialize the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation,” when we are called to ponder our decisions related to our surroundings.

It is worthwhile in the spirit of that call to interrogate our consciences about what we deem “disposable,” and the consequences of that label. Our “throw-away” culture increasingly leads us to treat things like trash, and to treat people like things.

In Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical Laudato Si’, where he advocates for care of our common home, he proposes an integral ecology that cherishes both the human person and our shared environs as unmerited gifts from the Creator.

The Psalmist asks of the Most High God: “Are not all my tears stored in your flask?” (56:9). If human sufferings are so precious to the Almighty, are we really so convinced that the pains of those on the precarious edges of existence ravaged by our patterns of consumption and pollution will not cry out for justice to Him Who possesses the sea and the land and the air that we continue to befoul? The Scriptures make clear that we are not ultimately landlords on this earth, but rather merely tenants; not owners, but stewards.

Serious readers should already be aware of the statistics of waste-production in the Global North in general and the United States of America in particular. But they are worth repeating:

— Americans make up 5 percent of the world’s population, yet consume 30 percent of the world’s resources and produce over 30 percent of its waste.

— 50 percent of the produce we grow in this country is thrown away.

— 31 percent of the global population live on less than $2 per day, 70 percent on less than $10, and 98 percent on less than $33 (that is, below the USA poverty line).

— 11 percent have no access to clean water.

— 23 percent live in substandard housing or are homeless.

It is to my mind rather ridiculous to claim that these realities have absolutely no bearing on our moral lives — never negating the untold benefits Americans around the world are responsible for sharing and promoting via charitable organizations, economic aid or humanitarian programs.

But that good that we as a People do in no way excuses my own laziness, my casual indifference to my decisions regarding everything from paper plates to petrol to prodigality each day. And I pray that I can grow more attuned to these realities and my own sinfulness in the face of this never-ending stream of small, but serious, decisions.

I know well, as Saint Basil says, that the unworn shoes and superfluous clothes and excess products cluttering up my life and yours are in fact stolen from the poor. And those things we casually discard are robbed from those in need.

In this Season of Creation which runs from the World Day of Prayer through the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi in early October, let us ardently seek from God a conversion to realizing that none are disposable to him and so our duty remains never to become deaf to the promotion of the common good, the advancement of the weak, and the protection the poor and the earth, who cry out to the heavens.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, PhD., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.