What would St Ignatius say about plans to capture English beavers?


A beaver in the River Otter in Devon

A campaign we are currently running at Friends of the Earth (an environmental charity for which I volunteer in their legal team) concerns beavers. After an exile of 500 years, beavers have successfully reestablished themselves in the River Otter in Devon.  They are much beloved and have achieved minor celebrity status with locals and environmentalists alike. Alas, the Government thinks that the beavers are an invasive, and potentially disease-carrying species, and its Environment department has pronounced that it intends to capture and transfer the beaver “remnant” into captivity, namely a zoo or safari park. Friends of the Earth however questions the legality of this action: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/government-plans-to-capture-wild-devon-beavers-unlawful-says-friends-of-the-earth-9754024.html

Always looking at ways to integrate my apostolic endeavours with my spirituality (or to use the phrase of my spiritual father: Where is the theology in this?), I found myself pondering what an Ignatian response to the plight of the beavers might be. Would our holy founder St Ignatius be pro-beaver on this one?

To answer this question, what’s required is a framework for consideration of ecological matters or in Ignatian lingo, a “way of proceeding”. Jesuits are fond of the term “way of proceeding”. It basically expresses an approach or way of going about things for matters that can’t and shouldn’t be tightly defined by reference to a document or formula.  A way of proceeding aspires to capture the essence or spirit of what our individual and collective response should be to certain situations.

So what might an Ignatian environmental way of proceeding look like? Fortunately, the immensely impressive and forward-thinking Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference has already come up with one: http://sjapc.net/what-we-do/ecology/way-proceeding Reading the full text is highly recommended as it contains a well articulated attempt to make sense of ecology through Jesuit lens.  Here’s my take on what I think it presents us with:

1. Reflect & be thankful. Finding time to reflect on the way God intersects with our reality is a keystone of an Ignatian approach to life. A fundamental way God communicates to us is through the natural world, the “book of nature” as Pope Benedict described it. Reflecting on nature allows us to acknowledge that all of creation is a gift and that we should be thankful for this gift!

2. Experience & discern. As contemplatives in action, we are highly involved in the world, both because of the type of work we do and through the communities we encounter. As an apostolic body, we are uniquely placed to draw all this together and collectively discern our relationship with and responsibility for natural systems.

3. Think young & future. Since its earliest days, the Society of Jesus has been involved in the education and formation of young people through its schools, universities and seminaries. Many environmental issues pose important ethical questions regarding our responsibility to future generations. At the same time, instilling strong environmental values is something that should take place during a person’s passage to adulthood. In this respect, Jesuits and their partners are well placed to make a vital contribution.

4. Witness. “Remember the poor” St Paul says in the Galatians. Jesuits have taken this heart, particularly in the years since the 1970s. Everyone is affected by environmental degradation whether due to pollution, loss of wildlife, or increased likelihood of floods. But the burden is not evenly spread, and it’s poorest communities that suffer most. The catholic social teaching principle of the preferential option for the poor should always guide our response to challenges, and the environment is no exception.

5. Collaborate. Good work is being done by other faith groups and secular organisations in the sphere of sustainability. We can learn much from others, and the act of partnering with those who we’ve previously had little to do with is a good opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation.

6. Mission. Care for creation is motivated by a desire for the gifts of nature to be enjoyed by all people and living beings. It’s about concern for the common good and so advocacy for good governance and management of the earth’s resources is inseparable from our commitment to promoting a faith that does justice.

The document is uplifting and hopeful, and my favourite bit is when it observes that “We have learned we do not own the earth but that we belong to it. This relationship of belonging is foundational and dynamic, and in calling us to care draws out our deepest humanity.”

So how can we apply all this to our situation with the poor English beavers? What would Ignatius have said? Well, in all likelihood, probably not very much! But for us today, by developing a way of proceeding, as the Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference have started to do, we at least have a framework, a pathway which can be followed when confronted with specific issues. Of course, having taken the case of the beavers through the way of proceeding (albeit in a limited and singular manner) my own view is that the Government needs to think again!

Henry Longbottom SJ (Originially published on GreenJesuit.org)