“Signs of the Times” – a Theological Basis of Ecotheology and the Christian Competence within the Frame of the Environmental Discourse

My contribution has two parts: First, a theological reflection on the topos "signs of the times", which is the basis of our conference. The aim of the argument is the development of five criteria of the signs of the times and their application to the ecological crisis in order to decide why and in what way they are a theological issue.

The second part deals with the question which competence the churches can contribute to the ecological discourse of a pluralistic, partly secular or atheistic society. I will speak also about the encyclical Laudato si’.

  1. Ecological Awareness as “Sign of the Times”
  2. Signs of the times are those phenomena that shape an era due to their universality and frequency. Signs of the times are characteristic for the distinctively new conflict situations within each historical context. Moreover, they refer to an epochal process of change that is historically significant. They do not only concern individual groups and their interests but mankind as a whole. They are universally meaningful for the development and future of mankind. Theologically they aim for a pastoral aggiornamento in order to see the traces of the future in the present.
  3. Signs of the times relate to essential questions of human existence that express the hardships and longings of a certain time. They are not man’s projections of desire but rather emanate from experiences of suffering, failure and brokenness in which the longing for God’s salvific intervention becomes apparent sub contrario. The signs of the times are an outcry in which the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the entire profoundness of cross and resurrection, and the experience of suffering and hope manifest themselves. The signs of the times relate to questions concerning fate and salvation that encompass man’s entire life and self-conception.
  4. Signs of the times are not historical facts and natural phenomena as such but rather the ensuing changes in man’s awareness. Triggered by emergency situations and challenges, man’s awakening to new ways of understanding, new guidelines and standards shapes the referential character of signs. They are experiences through which God’s spirit expands into new forms of expressing faith and humanity. To “experience the experience”, which can transform an emergency situation into a salvific experience, is a constitutive element. The complex relation between faith, religious experience and the exegesis of existence is the hermeneutical key for a theology of the signs of the times.[8]
  5. The signs of the times refer to crises that necessitate a decision by man. They enable a new level of differentiation between justice and injustice. Moreover, they offer freedom in that humans can get rid of old boundaries and dependencies and chose between salvation and misery. Signs of the times cannot be properly identified from the distance of neutral observation; it takes someone who demonstrates faith, hope and active sympathy for the fate of those people that are suffering.[9] From a theological perspective, catastrophes, trends and awareness-raising processes can only be signs through the processes of repentance and distinguishing between the spirits. [10]

1.1 Is Ecological Awareness Part of the “Signs of the Times”?

A theology of the “signs of the times”[1] interprets the present in prophetic terms as God’s calling: It addresses the challenges and upheavals of each historical situation in order to seek within these situations the hidden presence of God who has revealed himself and newly reveals himself as our companion. The texts by the Second Vatican Council postulate God’s acting throughout history.[2] Accordingly, history is considered to be a dialogue between God and the Church on the latter’s peregrination through time. Faith is interpretatio temporis: i.e. interpretation of existence, and not simply the adherence to archaic truths. The signs of the times are traced back to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in history. “In deciphering and interpreting the signs of the times, the Church then perceives direction and guidance by the Holy Spirit who challenges the Church to embark upon new paths and new ways of behaving within their faith.”[3]

The signs of the times raise those questions and inquiries of life whose quest for answers enables Revelation to become accessible in a liberating and meaningful manner. By listening to man’s experiences and contributing to the interpretation of the signs of the times and the quest for answers, faith becomes alive and acquires a contemporary testimonial character.[4]

According to the Bible (Matthew 16,3: semeia ton kairon, Luke 12,56: ton kairon touton[5]), the “signs” are not factual historical reality as such but rather God-given kairos manifesting itself in reality. In ecological terms one can conclude the following: The challenges of the ecological crisis can only be considered “signs of the times” in the context of the upheavals and departures toward a new awareness; the signs manifest themselves in this new awareness and subsequently need to be interpreted from a theological perspective before being integrated by the Church. In the course of theses developments, a new awareness of global neighborhood and a sense of man and his fellow creatures being companions in fate has emerged. Many people are searching in new ways for the normative meaning of nature and for “God’s imprints” therein.

Many are also anxiously apprehending the ecological destruction of the chances of survival of the poorest members of society and of opportunities in life for future generations. An interpretation of the ecological crisis and the global environmental movement as signs of the times is premised on certain religious experiences that are made within this context,[6] for example the rediscovery that man is an integral part of creation, a rediscovery that has been inspired by ecological challenges. The ecological crisis is only considered to be a theological sign because it has given and is still giving rise to the discovery of forgotten and new dimensions of the belief in creation. It is a challenge for faith and the Church to fathom God’s hidden “message” in the ecosocial crisis and to interpret it in the light of the gospel.

A criteriology is necessary in order to distinguish the historical exegesis of existence within the context of faith from an adaptation to the Zeitgeist and in order to purify it from historical contingencies and ideological influences:[7]

According to these criteria, the ecological crisis as such is not a sign of the times unless Church and society experience God within this crisis. Church and society have to learn anew that a “culture of life” (John Paul II) can only grow when man respects the nature in and around him as a gift from God with intrinsic value. From a theological perspective, these crisis phenomena are ambivalent in so far as taken individually they tend to lead to anxieties that might manifest themselves in violent reactions. A crisis phenomenon becomes a “sign” (semeion) when it reveals the possibility for man to make a decision for God and life. In its original literal sense (Greek: krinein decide), a crisis is not primarily something negative, rather it is a decision situation that can lead to essential elucidations.

Under these premises a theological diagnosis of the times with regard to the phenomena that are emerging in the course of the ecosocial crisis generally goes beyond scaremongering worst-case scenarios. In fact it also perceives signs indicating new departures that enable it to transform radical change and upheaval into the kairos (the right moment) of liberation from false notions.[11] Within the context of ecology, the modern age is often construed as history of decay, but this view is not compatible with the theology of the signs of the times. The theological reason for the repudiation of the theory of decay is not an optimistic downplaying of problems but rather the trust that God is present even in the upheavals and errors of human history.

Our relationship to God constitutes the theological point of reference in this context of challenges; this relationship cannot be separated from our relationships to our fellow humans and fellow creatures, to nature and history; they are all intertwined. The focus is specifically limited to the question of justice that underlies the given social, ecological and economical crises phenomena; this question naturally implicates the question regarding man’s role in nature as well as his relationship to fellow humans and fellow creatures since in the Judeo-Christian faith and in Islam the relationship between creatures also involves the relationship to God. God does not encounter man beyond the creatural reality but rather within it and through it. Therefore, from a Christian perspective, the decision for or against justice and responsibility is not only a question of theological norms but actually directly relevant to salvation in that it constitutes an opportunity either for an encounter with God or alienation from God.[12]

Man’s createdness inextricably relates to his physical existence as well as his integration in the social and ecological dimensions of life, and it is God’s first and most fundamental calling to us.[13] Creationism postulates that man cannot find God beyond the world but amidst it. Despite this proximity, God always remains hidden; He does not manifest himself in the perfection of his redeemed creation but rather as “broken” in the outcry of a groaning creation (cf. Romans 8,22).

1.2 Hearing Creation`s Outcry – Religious Experiences with and within the Ecological Crisis

An approach to ecological questions that is shaped by the theology of the signs of the times understands the ecological crisis as an existential questioning of the faith that creation is a blessed habitat for all creatures. In a pressing manner, the question regarding God’s liberating and promising presence within his creation is greatly relevant today. The Christian promise of salvation and liberation for all people and the entire creation (Romans 8) is not reconcilable with indifference towards the fate of fellow creatures. The Church truly fulfils its calling when it partakes in the quest for solutions “for the most urgent questions of our times” (Gaudium et Spes 10) and identifies these questions as signs of experiencing God.

Against this backdrop, an ecology-oriented theology of the signs of the times perceives the ecological crisis in a very specific way as “revelation”[14], i.e. as God’s calling to his Church. Whoever hears the outcry of this maltreated creation that crucifies the cosmic Christ every day anew[15] does not seek redemption beyond this creatural reality but with and within it. Christian hope is not directed toward redemption from creatural reality but toward its salutary transformation.[16]In times of crisis, believers in God’s promise of a future for mankind and the entire creation have to bring to mind God’s auspicious power through the testimony of love. There can be no future for mankind beyond the responsibility for his fellow human beings and fellow creatures.

In the context of ecology, a new kind of interest in religious questions is emerging.[17] This constitutes a sign of the times in that it is driven by a quest for that which sustains life and promises a future in the new geological epoch which is called “anthropocene”[18]. At the same time, elements from something like an esoteric religion have to be critically exposed in the modern environmental movement, particularly when equilibrium or harmony models are normatively adapted and misinterpreted as “doctrines of salvation.”[19] Nature is increasingly occupying a new and very significant spot in our construction of meaning.[20] Society’s desire for devotion has partially shifted from religion to nature.[21] All this has to be critically exposed and constructively expanded towards a truly transcendental horizon. Such a horizon cannot be found in ecology; however, being a truth seeking movement that emanates from the breaches and turmoils of our times, the environmental movement can offer multifarious, fascinating and inspiring bridges towards this transcendental horizon. The ecology of time, i.e. the rediscovery of the dimensions and rhythms of creation, could be a good starting point.[22] In the context of ecology, there is a quest for the origins, conditions and sustainment of life. This quest can be interpreted as a modern variant of the question of transcendence and should to be critically expanded.

When dealing with these issues theology has to remain true to its fundamental values, i.e. defend man’s dignity within the frame of his mission concerning integral development.[23]Theology’s ecological dimension that also includes the recognition of the intrinsic value of fellow creatures has to be established anew today. The theological perspective on ethical, anthropological and human-ecological contexts can be an important corrective, especially in today’s segmented society. On the other hand, the awareness of the complex interconnectedness between different areas of society and science, an awareness that has grown within the context of ecology, constitutes a challenge for further developments in the field of theological ethics.

1.3 Kairological Sensitivity for Overcoming Problems of Perception

Methodologically, the theology of the “signs of the times“ most notably manifests itself in the triad “see–judge-act“ (GS 4). For ethics, this means a reversal of the traditionally deductive methodology: it does not start with the deduction of norms and postulates from theological axioms but rather sets in with a description of the situation.[24]

Initially the autonomous inherent logic of ecological and economic facts and circumstances has to be taken seriously instead of being skipped over by glib theologization. In compliance with this approach, ethics seeks to thoroughly analyse these phenomena from a philosophical, theological and epistemological perspective in order to facilitate an in-depth understanding of the underlying patterns regarding the perception of the world, construction of meaning and action orientation. In ethics, a theology of the signs of the times leads to a more inductive approach. Within the frame of pastoral theology, Paul Michael Zulehner in particular has reflected on the methodological consequences of a theology of the signs of the times and consequently developed a differentiation between kairology, criteriology and praxeology.[25] Hereinafter, this approach is taken up methodologically for the theological-ethical interpretation of the ecological challenges.

The problem of perception is a central structural feature of the ecological crisis: in the media we hear and see numerous facts regarding the state of nature, but generally we do not see and understand the correlations and the graveness of the situation. This “blind seeing” is by no means a new phenomenon. It was already described by the prophet Isaiah (he made reference to Israel’s situation two and a half thousand years ago): ”See many things, but you do not observe; open his ears but he doesn't hear.” (Isaiah 42, also cf. Matthew 13, 13ff.). This prophetic word seems to have acquired a new contemporary relevance in today’s ecological crisis. The environmental problems are essentially problems of perception; it is as if nature did not equip us with the right sensory organs necessary for us to perceive and assess the type and magnitude of these dangers. The problems seem far away and as though we were not immediately affected; therefore, we do not instinctively take precautionary measures like we do when threatened by other risks. We are aware and yet at the same time we are blind; at best we react with general fear, accusation or bewilderment.

A sensible perception and balanced evaluation of the environmental problems seems extremely difficult for many of us. From an epistemological perspective, there are tangible reasons for this:

-       Ecological damage oftentimes arises due to feedback mechanisms and synergetic effects of substances and processes that are minimal and inconspicuous when examined individually and therefore seem to be negligible. Consequently the systemic effects of ecological pollution are underestimated. [26]

-       The buffering effect of the complex ecological interactions in the biosphere leads to a delayed recognition of problems.[27] This exacerbates a far-sighted estimation of dangers. The longevity of ecological processes stands in staunch opposition to the volatility and short attention span of today’s society.

-       Indirect and oftentimes unintentional consequences can hardly be traced back to individual causes. Oftentimes the damages cannot be attributed conclusively according to the polluter-pays-principle due to complex correlations for whose definition and assessment nobody seems to be responsible or qualified. They are subsequently considered to be an act of destiny rather than consequences of human actions.

-       The dangers to the biosphere generally emerge gradually and “creepingly“ and are oftentimes not immediately perceptible by the senses, and therefore the instinctive behavioral patterns of hazard prevention are barely activated.

-       Environmental problems have also existed in times past.[28] However, considering today’s dynamics of development, the current destabilization of ecological systems is clearly to be distinguished from previous “crises”. It takes some analytical effort to even apprehend this situation that is naturally controversial due to its complexity.

The delayed and bewildered problem perception leads to generalizing worst-case scenarios on the one hand and downplaying problems or contorted descriptions on the other hand. Consequently, it is of pivotal importance to assess the nature and extent of the problems as accurately as possible. The first and oftentimes most difficult step of environmental ethics is therefore the “aisthetics”, namely the seemingly simple and yet very difficult awareness of the particular problem.[29] It can be understood as a special form of kairology in terms of a perception of the signs of the times.

Generally, environmental problems have a lasting effect and cannot be remedied in a timely manner. In this respect, they are characterized by extending far into our future and thus contributing to a new awareness of exactly this new dimension in our modern fast moving society. This constitutes a connection to Kairology which asks to what extent the respective present opens up or obstructs the future. With regard to the ecopolitical balance, it is significant that combating the visible short-term dangers can achieve good results while the combat against “creeping” long-term and not immediately visible systemic environmental problems generally ends in failure. The Council of Experts on Environmental Issues that independently advises the Federal Government in Germany calls these “persistent environmental problems” the most important strategic challenge in the upcoming years.[30]

In the face of these problems of perception, ethical guidelines and moral appeals are initially not effective. What is needed is merely the definition of facts; moreover, we need to train and improve our perception. If the Church wants to assume ecological responsibility it first has to become a venue where people can come to rest in order to see, hear and interpret the signs of the times. There is no lack of information and data, but rather a lack of awareness of what these facts can mean for us, our future and our fellow creatures and how they are connected to our way of life. In this context, the Church is not primarily in demand in its role as teacher but rather as listener and learner, in order that the knowledge of facts can be transformed into a perception of “signs”.

1.4 Résumé: The “Ecological Calling” of Christians

The eco-social crisis phenomena are “signs of the times” insofar as they constitute an analysis of the understanding of the world and the values of civilization and are perceived as such. Pope John Paul II expressed this as early as 1979 in a succinct statement.[31] The social question has resurfaced on a global level. Its complexity has considerably increased compared to the problems in the 19th century since securing prosperity has increasingly proven to be a dependent variable of the relationship between man and nature as well as the dynamic unity of solidarity and competition. The future sustainability of the Western civilization model is at stake. It can only be secured by means of a new global social contract that takes into account the complex interconnectedness of ecological, social and economic challenges. The erosion of fertile soil and the lack of clean drinking water have become leading causes of poverty in the poorer countries of the South. The understanding of the term “development” is changing and beginning to integrate the factor of nature and the conditions of cultural autonomy.

Catholic Church critic and social critic Carl Amery articulates the Church’s new “civilizing mission” in the age of globalization in a highly dramatic manner:

“The future of mankind is at stake. How can the earth be preserved as a habitable planet? Which contribution can the Christian Churches make in order to recapture a perspective for our descendants? […] It is foreseeable that our environment will collapse and be rendered uninhabitable in the course of the new millennium. This process is accelerated and made irreversible due to the unmitigated market that […] is using up all natural resources and does not offer any alternative system […] (As a result it is turned into an) ideology and a substitute for religion. […] The Churches will very soon sink into complete insignificance and can only regain their vitality and salvific importance (or: relevance) by accepting their civilizing mission to work on a sustainable, biospherically responsible culture.“[32]

High expectations are placed on the relevance of religions with regard to answers and solutions to the pertinent questions concerning our future; these expectations challenge the Church and theology to introduce to society the transforming power of faith, love and hope in a new way. A prerequisite is, however, a differentiation between exorbitant expectations of the “post-secular times” on the one hand, expectations that should be dryly repudiated, and opportunities and obligations on the other hand that arise from the ecological crisis as a liminal experience of a modern age in transition and thus foster the quest for religion. According to the Bible, the ability to carry responsibility is the source as well as the outcome of faith.[33] An “ecological calling” to all Christians “that is more urgent in our times than ever before” arises from God’s instruction to man regarding His creation.[34]

  1. Christian Competence within the Frame of the Environmental Discourse
  2. 1Environmental Communication and Its Impasses
  3. 2The Church’s Responsibilities in the Ecological Discourse

There is a deep gap between the great duty and expectation in Christian responsibility for Creation and the factual role and competence of the churches in the ecological discourse especially in a pluralistic or atheistic society like Germany or the Ukraine. We are facing three basic methodological problems in regard to environmental communication[35], all of which are initially rather intensified than solved when theologians intervene in their traditional manner: (1) An excess of moral appeals that do not lead to any changes; (2) a discourse that is characterized by vagueness because it refers to all environmental and social problems and thus nothing in particular; (3) the lack of connection between the ecological proposals for action and the forces that determine our individual and social life.

Christian competence in the environmental discourse can only develop constructively when church representatives learn how to avoid the communicative impasses connected to these methodological problems. It would be better if they remained silent instead of using the environmental crisis as an opportunity to present to the public their general lamentations on the decay of morals at an ostensibly opportune moment or to fuel a hazy anxiety about the future by prophesying an eco-apocalypse.

To put a positive spin on it: rather than moralizing appeals, successful environmental communication needs ethics as a guide for individual and social decisional conflicts; it calls for a precise analysis of the relation of cause and effect, risks and opportunities instead of imprecise platitudes; it requires motivation by means of positive role models instead of unrealistic out-of-touch utopias.

“Enthusiasm for creation rather than environmental frustration” should be the motto of the theological approach to ecological questions. Such confidence will certainly only turn into virtue when it is not based on disregard of acute and existential threats to the ecological life-nexus, but on combining the courage to hope with the quest for knowledge and the willingness to act.

The environmental crisis is an ecological and socioeconomic liminal experience of modern times. “Faster, higher, further” is not an adequate concept for progress. The idealization of deceleration or the refuge into concepts of a sufficiency economy are not viable alternatives. This is where the ethical-political concept of sustainability sets in: it considers itself to be a new definition of the requirements, limits and goals for progress. Rather than the continual increase of the volume of goods and velocity, the protection of the ecological, social and economical stability of human habitats becomes the pivotal parameter of social development and political planning. Prosperity is only legitimate when the use of resources is reduced and as many people as possible are given the opportunity to participate.

Sustainability is a provision for the future; its motivating hope is not faith in progress but a vision of a successful life within the limits of nature. Such a hope beyond faith in progress can be found in the Christian faith: it is not based on the notion that everything will become better and better and that man will create a perfect society. On the contrary, it is predicated upon the existential awareness of man’s limits. This awareness can be turned into salvation and hope when man accepts life as a gift and recognizes his dependence on fellowship.

The specific responsibility of theological ethics in the environmental discourse lies in the premise that coping with contingency is a distinct function of religion: Coping with contingency is necessary in order not to react with ecological gloom and doom scenarios or with a reintroduction of the utopia of perpetual growth to the shattering of faith in man’s progress that was caused by the liminal experiences of modern times. Christian ethics of responsibility for creation is not a closed system of a meaningful nature ontology, guarantee for equality or utopia of progress. It is merely a truth seeking movement caught in the dialectics of progress and risk. The belief in creation can be a compass for this search process that is of vital importance for a sustainable Europe.

However, all of this not only relates to purely practical and technical questions; the question of God is posed in multifarious ways within the frame of the existential experience caused by the ecological crisis. The challenge of returning to a viable relationship with creation concerns the very foundations of our culture and self-conception. The specific responsibilities of the churches for a sustainable development in accordance with creation are obvious:[36]

-       It is a matter of long-term thinking, a practice that the church is inherently predestined for due to its focus on God’s eternity.

-       The church is the oldest “global player” and thereby especially qualified for global responsibility which is today a prerequisite for overcoming the ecological crisis.

-       The Christian concept of man does not determine man’s value from the amount of produced and consumed goods and can therefore enable a moderate, fair and responsible handling of these goods.

-       The belief in creation not only aims at moral appeals, but also at a meaningful communication that considers ecological responsibility to be part of man’s self-respect.

-       The integration of the Christian view on environmental issues within cultural and social contexts makes it quite unique. Protecting nature and man form a unified whole for Christian ethics.

The church has enormous potential within the discourse on the environment and the future; however, this potential is concealed by the dominant fears of getting involved in the ecological discourse. Christians are hiding their light under a bushel (compare Matthew 5:15). The church seems to ignore its responsibility for creation beyond non-binding moral appeals. When are European believers going to wake up in order to discover and evolve their own ecological heritage? Dialogue is what makes religious faith alive. Only when the church meets the current challenges will it be able to make important contributions toward a sustainable development. Time is pressing.

What we need is nothing less than a second enlightenment, this time not as emancipation from religion, but as enlightenment about the ecological and cultural foundations of life (Weizsäcker/Wijkman 2018). It includes a deep shift in mind regarding the relationship between science and values (Vogt 2019). Pope France addresses this as “cultural revolution” (Franziskus 2018). The advisory board “Global Change” of the German Government demands a new social contract for a great transformation” (WBGU 2011).

  1. 3 Sustainability as a New Social Principle
  2. 4Laudato si‘“ as a catalyst for transformation Christian ethics

Today’s qualitatively new challenge consists in the fact that the diverse phenomena of the globally accelerated development of poverty and environmental destruction are closely connected and therefore can only be analyzed and overcome together. Today, due to the close intertwining of global causes and effect relationships, economic prosperity, social justice and ecological sustainability are so strongly mutually dependent that they cannot be secured individually, let alone against one another. The concepts from economic, social and environmental ethics remain only a short-lived treatment of symptoms unless they are systematically connected with one another and applied globally.

This analysis is not new: It underlies the concept of “sustainability” that the international community agreed upon at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development when it defined sustainability as an ecologically viable, socially just and economically efficient development. Representatives from 179 states acknowledged and signed Agenda 21, a concrete “timetable” for this vision as a foundation for the politics of the 21st century[37].

Sustainability aspires to be a cross-cutting issue that penetrates all areas of reflection and action; as yet, its development and reception are far from reaching this goal. The challenge for the Church regarding the concept of sustainable development lies in the fundamental interconnectedness of the ecological, social and economic consequences of globalization: It is not a question of individual problems, but rather a matter of the ethical foundations, rules and goals of social development. Sustainability calls for a new understanding of the fundamental core values of life and how we can secure justice and survivability as well as how the ability to implement reforms in politics and society can be strengthened. Consequently, issues from ecology, development politics, economy and society are combined into a fundamental ethical challenge that directly concerns the churches.

Sustainability’s holistic concept demands to be anchored either at the center of its own self-conception, organizational structure and traditions or to be rejected. Despite very early impulses and perceptions by the Church, the concept of sustainability is far from being anchored in the Christian faith, ethical attitudes of everyday life, political options or practical organizational goals of ecclesiastical institutions.

It is not the church’s goal to appropriate the term sustainability, but rather to relate it to Christian content and consequently illuminate new dimensions. Hereby, sustainability is turned into a framework for the interpretation of the Christian message bringing to mind its significance for modern society. The sustainability discourse can serve as communicative bridge between the church and modern society.

The encyclical Laudato si’ is a radical chance of societal teaching of the Catholic Church and possible catalyst of a revolution in Christian “mind maps”. It’s most important part is the writing about spirituality to discover the hidden presence of God in our time, in beauty but also the suffering of nature and the poor, an intercultural concept of “boon vivir” (good life) and a new quality of dialogue with ecosystems sciences.

Laudato si‘ is a new chapter in the development of Catholic social teaching. For the first time, the complex topic of the ecological challenge will be dealt with comprehensively at the level of the papal textbooks. Its central theme is the postulate of a “holistic ecology”, which ties in with the phrase “holistic development” from the development encyclical. For the first time, however, it consistently places this under the claim of ecological renewal. Without such a renewal that pervades all fields of action, neither global and intergenerational justice nor humane technology can be thought of today.

The central guidelines of the encyclical are:

(a) Time is of the essence, ecological capacities are largely exhausted, and for countless people existential questions of survival are at stake;

(b) There is a fundamental relationship between environmental and equity issues; global and intergenerational justice cannot be achieved without environmental protection; at the same time, environmental protection must start from the legitimate interests of the poor;

(c) To hear the cry of creation and of the poor and to respond to it with an appropriate practice of responsibility is an immediate practice of faith and an inescapable task of the Church today;

(d) In order to solve the ecological crisis, uncomfortable questions of power, corruption and systemic undesirable developments must be addressed;

(e) The Christian tradition of anthropocentrism (people-centeredness) must be questioned and differentiated in such a way that the intrinsic value of creation and the existential connectedness of all creatures is fully recognized;

(f) Each and every one of us is called to an "ecological reversal", a change of direction in the way of life and economy.

Laudato si’ does not enfold a systematic approach to ethical reflection. It’s concept of “integral ecology” is ambivalent, more mythopoetic, arguing on different levels and it lets open crucial questions on the level of tits consequences on the level of political ethics. It’s an academic duty in the reception of Laudato si’ to make up this leeway in order to have a concept for solving the many antagonisms between socioeconomic, political and ecological claims. This includes an interdisciplinary approach of understanding theology of creation as fundament of today’s ethics of nature and a systematic enlargement of the concept of social principles.

A specific Christian interpretation of sustainability could help to prepare such a systematic approach; core for this approach is the context of the other ethical principles of Catholic Social teaching and the awareness of contingency. Without this awareness the concept of sustainability risks to become an ideology as a secular promise of something like redeeming, returning to nature and harmony which is a very ambivalent utopia.

Catholic tradition needs to learn in this context from other traditions of protestant and orthodox Churches and other religions and also in the dialogue with modern philosophy of nature and ecosystem sciences. One of the most important impulses of Laudato si’ is the method of consequent dialogue and the role of Church not only teaching but also learning. If Laudato si’ should be a catalyst for societal transformation the church itself has to be the change which it expects for society. Such an “inner revolution” is a deep chance for renewal faith and religious language, for ecumenical cooperation and an encounter with people, who discover in a new way the relevance of religion in the context of ecology.


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[1]     The theology of the signs of the times initially emerged in the 1920s within a Protestant context (Tillich et al.). After formative development in the field of Catholic theology amongst others, for instance through the French “Nouvelle Théologie“, it had a major influence on the program of the First Vatican Council (“Opening up to the modern world”) as well as the socio-ethical Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium et spes”; cf. Chenu 1965, 29-39; Füssel 1983, 259-274; Fries 1988, 13-22; Sander 1995, 92-96; Sander 2005, 581-886; Ruggieri 2006.Vogt 2006; Ostheimer 2008.

[2]     Cf. Hünermann 2006, 3; Ruggieri 2006, 6-9 emphatically points to the fact that we are lacking a theological hermeneutics of the history of the Second Vatican and in some cases the history up to today. This is why the theology of the signs of the times is disoriented and unable to unfold its complex consequences.

[3]     Hünermann 2006, 2.

[4]     Hünermann 2006, 25. If faith comes from hearing as Rahner postulates, the dynamics of prophecies go into reverse: it is not important to present finished answers, rather it is crucial to have the ability to listen sensitively to people’s experiences and longings. Rahner 1980, 48-62.

[5]     The text of Mt 16,3 is critically debated: Joachim Gnilka (Herder’s commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew; Gnilka 1988, 39-42) considers this verse to be inauthentic; by contrast, in his survey on Luke, 12 35-14,24 Claus-Peter März deems the verse to be authentic (März 1991, 32-43). Matthew seems to mainly refer to Jesus’ miracles and Luke to the kairos of Jesus’ presence.

[6]     On the basic meaning of the category “religious experience“ for the theoogical understanding of the signs of the times cf. Ruggieri 2006, 70.

[7]     The following attempt to create a criteriology of the signs of the times has been significantly inspired by Hünermann 2006, Sander 2005 and Ruggieri 2006. No claim is made to completeness.

[8]   Cf. Hünermann 2006, 9-12; Ruggieri 2006, 70, Schäffler 2004, vol. II, 63-162.

[9]   According to Ruggieri the option for the poor is essentially part of the theology of the signs of the times and it is “one of the most frequenty and even deliberately forgotten teachings of the Council“ (Ruggieri 2006, 68, who blazed the way in South America).

[10]   “Distinguishing the spirits” is a specific term in Jesuit spirituality that refers to a critical differentiation of thoughts and emotions with regard to the question whether they come from God and lead to greater love or not.

[11]   This argumentative structure can be found in almost all of the mostly short but overall relatively numerous statements by Pope John Paul II on ecological questions: He unfailingly connects the description of the crisis to the growing awareness for ecological questions, a development that he praises as being a departure into a new era. It is only in this framework that the crisis phenomenon becomes a “sign of the times“; cf. for example John Paul II, 1989, no. 1. This structure is by no means specifically Catholic; it also shapes the approach of the ecumenical movement worldwide; the introduction by Reuver/ Solms/ Huizer 1993 is significant for this approach. It starts out stating: “Crisis upon crisis affects today’s world. This, however, is nothing new. Humankind throughout history has seen crisis periods of various kinds. They often were the forerunners of a new era” (ibid. 9).

[12]   Assmann 2000, 63-71. One of Assmann’s main theories is the abolition of the border between culture and justice as signature of the Israelite faith as opposed to the Egyptian faith. This is given expressionespecially through the prophets, particularly Amos; however, it actually underlies the entire interpretation of the Thora.

[13]   Karl Rahner describes this from the perspective of transcendental theology using the model of the “Existential“ as God’s self-revelation that is already ingrained in man’s existence. Createdness subsequently means being addressed by God and obligated to answer; cf. as introduction for example Rahner 1980, 48-62.

[14]   The Indian theologian Raimundo Pannikar characterizes the ecological crisis as “revelation“ in the sense of a liberating liminal experience; cited according to Rosenberger 2001, 275; Pannikar 1996.

[15]   Cf. Fox 1991.

[16]   Cf. Romans 8, 21 (“Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God”(King James Version)) On the theological interpretaton of the relationship between belief in creation and eschatology cf. Pannenberg 1991, 163-201; Auer/ Ratzinger 1975, 110-164; Link 1991.

[17]   Gabriel 1994, 157-163. “The systematically generated plethora of contingencies – this is the argument of this paragraph – creates a new need for religion […]; it thus presents the Christian tradition with a new conflict and challenge“ (ibid. 158).Cf. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age,Chapter 8.

[18]   Cf. for this fundamental diagnosis of our time and the role of religions in it: Deane-Drummond/Bergmann/Vogt 2017; Haber/Held//Vogt 2016.

[19]   Trepl 1991; Sachs 2003, 112-134.

[20]   Cf. Rink/ Wächter/ Potthast 2004, 11.

[21]   “Nature is today’s false god, and ecology increasingly replaces theology.“ Bolz/ Bosshart 1995, 81.

[22]   Henrici interprets the order of time as the central motif of the Jewish-Christian tradtion; cf. Henrici 2002; however, numerous approaches exist in the history of Christianity where the reference to God’s eternity did not lead to “savoring“ but rather to devalorizing time and the moment; cf. also the religion-philosophical debate with the Christian concept of time that originated with Nietzsche, Bucher 1992, 59-80.

[23]   On the topos of the holistic and integral development cf. Populorum progressio no. 6-11: on the recognition of the dignity of fellow creatures as expression and consequence of a definition of man’s dignity that is based on theocentrism and interpreted from the perspective of ethics of responsibility cf. Münk 1997.

[24]   Ultimately there is an unbreakable hermeneutic circle between the epistemological preconditions, the theological and ethical axioms as well as the description of reality, but the shift of emphasis in the ethical methodology through the triad “see-judge-act“ should not be ignored.

[25]   Accordingly, pastoral action (practice) has to adjust to two conditions, the situation and the goal. The goal is predetermined by the gospel which holds criteria for the orientation and correction of practical experience. This is the task of criteriology. However, the action has to correspond to the action situation. This means that action situations have to be developed first. Zulehner calls this step kairology. Cf. Zulehner 1989, 221-273.

[26] Cf. Deutsche Bischofskonferenz - Kommission VI für gesellschaftliche und soziale Fragen 1998, no. 36-39; regarding the significance of awareness for environmental ethics, cf. Michael Meyer-Abich 1986.

[27]   Vester 1980, 21.

[28]   Towards the end of classical antiquity, the majority of the woods in the Mediterranean was destroyed. In the Middle Ages, the Chinese reduced wild animal species to a minimum. In 1400, the Black Death, i.e. plague, essentially an environmental-sanitary problem, killed 25 million people in Europe.

[29]   The problem increases when it comes to evaluation since there are no clearly predefined natural threshold values for the differentiation between “dangerous“ and “harmless“; risk thresholds are subjectively different and moreover also a question of societal negotiation. The limits of classical measuring methods (i.e. for measuring electric smog) coalesces with a debate on divergent worldviews and interests. Furthermore, the different levels of the ecological crisis are oftentimes intermingled which exacerbates its perception and evaluation considerably. On the „ethics of perception“ (Aesthetics) cf. Meyer-Abich 1986; Schramm 1994, 17-50.

[30]  Cf. SRU 2002, no. 5; SRU 2004, no. 2.

[31]   Cf. Johannes Paul II. (1979): Encyclical “Redemptor hominis“ (no. 8, 14, 15, 16). The encyclical poignantly portrays under theological-ethical aspects the “alienation“ that is associated with the ecological crisis phenomena and urges the Church to help in overcoming this estrangement. If the interpretation of this alienationis taken seriously along these lines as an epochal problem, it is admittely completely inadequate that in the course of more than 25 years basically nothing but scattered individual remarks were made in the frame of the Papal social teachings. While the term “signs of the times“ is used, the magesterium has to this day not recognized ecological awareness as such in a systematical sense.

[32]   Amery 2002, cover (abridged compilation). Amery specifies this by means of calling for a “fight against the religion of the unmitigated market“ as an “exodus from slavery of global capitalism“. However, a differentiation is necessary if the criticism of capitalism in turn is not to become a substitute for religion.

[33]   Schäffler 2004, vol. II, 108-162 (cf. esp. the deliberations “sensus tropologicus“ and “sensus caritatis“); cf. for the controversy debate about the churches as “moral institutions”: Bischof/Sautermeister 2017.

[34]   John Paul II. 2002, no. 1.

[35]   On the reflection on methods and difficulties of environmental communication, cf. Brickwedde/Peters 2002.

[36] Cf. oekom/Misereor/Brot für die Welt 2016.

[37]   Cf. BMU 1992 (Documents from the UN conference in Rio de Janeiro); more later.