Is “Mother Earth” a Catholic Concept (Church Fathers)?

Is “Mother Earth” a Catholic Concept (Church Fathers)? December 17, 2019

Guest post by my friend Rosemarie Scott: wife, mother of three and homemaker, living in New York.  She is the author of Clean of Heart (2-15) and the webmistress of The Mystical Rose Catholic Page.

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Preliminary note: I’m not saying that “mother earth” is a dogma.  I’m just saying that it is an acceptable expression for Christians to use since the Fathers used it.

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Ancient pagans often worshiped created things rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25).  They erroneously considered elements of the natural world to be “gods” and “goddesses” worthy of divine worship.  The earth, for instance, was often – though not always – personified as a goddess.  We do sometimes encounter an “earth god” instead, such as the ancient Egyptian Geb.  However, the idea that the earth was both goddess and mother of all gods and humans was common in the ancient world.
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Many modern Neopagans also consider the earth an aspect of their “great goddess.”  Because of this, some Catholics are uncomfortable with the phrase “mother earth.” It seems to them like a pagan concept, incompatible with Christianity.
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Yet Saint Francis of Assisi used this very same phrase in his Canticle of Brother Sun:  “Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.”
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Was the Poverello correct in calling our planet “mother earth”?  Is a Christian understanding of the earth-as-mother possible?  If so, we should find it in Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers.  Do these ever speak of the earth as a “mother”?
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The surprising answer is: Yes!  In fact, the Holy Scriptures actually call the earth “the mother of all”:
Sirach / Ecclesiasticus 40:1 (Douay) Great labour is created for all men, and a heavy yoke is upon the children of Adam, from the day of their coming out of their mother’s womb, until the day of their burial into the mother of all.
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We find similar statements in patristic writings.  For instance, Saint Basil the Great, a Church Father and Doctor, writes that the earth is the mother of the trees and plants which grow from her:
The fertility of the earth is its perfect finishing; growth of all kinds of plants, the upspringing of tall trees, both productive and sterile, flowers’ sweet scents and fair colours, and all that which, a little later, at the voice of God came forth from the earth to beautify her, their universal Mother. (Hexameron, Homily II)
Saint Augustine of Hippo, another great Father and Doctor of the Church, concurs:
For many things plucked from trees, or pulled out of the ground, are the better of some interval of time before we use them for food, as leeks and endive, lettuce, grapes, apples, figs, and some pears; and there are many other things which get a better color when they are not used immediately after being plucked, besides being more wholesome for the body, and having a finer flavor to the palate. But these things should not possess all these excellent and agreeable qualities, if, as you say, they become more destitute of good the longer they are kept after separation from their mother earth. (On the Morals of the Manichaeans, par. 43)
Elsewhere, St. Augustine writes:
Nay, not even the earth itself do we call a creator, though she seems to be the prolific mother of all things which she aids in germinating and bursting forth from the seed, and which she keeps rooted in her own breast; for we likewise read, “God gives it a body, as it has pleased Him, and to every seed his own body.”  (City of God, Book XII, Ch. 25)
His teacher, Saint Ambrose of Milan, says of the earth: “One may see the mother of all at one time disfigured with mould, at another bare of produce, at another green and full of flowers, at another dried up.” (On the Death of Satyrus, Book II, par. 61)
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The early Christian writer Eusebius says:
Having ordained this earth to be at once the home, the nurse, and the mother of all the creatures it contains, and watered it both with rain and water-springs, (God) caused it to abound in plants and flowers of every species, for the enjoyment of life. (Oration in Praise of Constantine, Ch. 6 Par 7).
Elsewhere, he calls the earth “the nourisher and mother of all”  (Church History, Book IX, Ch. 7 par 8)
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Yet the Church Fathers did not limit the earth’s maternity to the vegetable kingdom.  Another early Christian writer, Tertullian, refers to the earth as the mother of the human body:
The flesh, too, has her departures for a while — in waters, in fires, in birds, in beasts; she may seem to be dissolved into these, but she is only poured into them, as into vessels. And should the vessels themselves afterwards fail to hold her, escaping from even these, and returning to her mother earth, she is absorbed once more, as it were, by its secret embraces… (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 63)
Saint John Chrysostom, an Eastern Church Father and Doctor, echoes the words of the Book of Sirach:
For the laws of nature are common to all men, that he who departs this life should be hidden in the earth, and delivered over for burial, and be covered up in the bosom of the earth the mother of all….(On Saint Babylas, 2)
Saint Ambrose adds:
And what more suitable example can we take than one from our common mother? For the earth itself, from which we are all taken, when it is not worked and cultivated, seems to be desert; and the field dies to the vines or olive-trees with which it was planted, and yet it does not lose its own nutritive power, which is, as it were, its life. (Concerning Repentance, Book I, Chapter 17, par. 96)
And Saint Gregory Nazianzen, another Eastern Father and Doctor of the Church, advises us to “…traverse the length and breadth of earth, the common mother of all….” (Second Theological Oration, Oration 28, par. XXVII)
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Clearly, early Christians, including many Fathers and Doctors of the Church, called the earth a “mother.”  They were devout Christians all, not pagans; in fact they express opposition to pagan gods and idolatry elsewhere in their writings.  Yet they apparently did not consider the notion of “mother earth” essentially heathen or incompatible with Christianity.
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The Church Fathers also loved to compare Christ’s miraculous birth from His Virgin Mother to Adam’s creation from the “virgin earth.”  The implication is that the earth was in some sense Adam’s “mother,” analogous to Mary’s motherhood of Jesus.  Here are some examples of this patristic comparison:
For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation. (Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, III:18:7)
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Whence, again, David said that “the Lord would reign from the tree:” for elsewhere, too, the prophet predicts the fruit of this “tree,” saying “The earth has given her blessings,” — of course that virgin-earth, not yet irrigated with rains, nor fertilized by showers, out of which man was of yore first formed, out of which now Christ through the flesh has been born of a virgin…. (Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 13)
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He Himself is with you who is the Lord of sanctification, the Father of purity,… who out of the virgin earth made man, and out of man’s side formed Eve in addition. (Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, First Homily on the Annunciation)
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The virgin earth, she bare that Adam that was head over the earth! The Virgin bare to-day the Adam that was Head over the Heavens. (Saint Ephraim of Syria, Hymns on the Nativity, Hymn I)
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It was fitting that the Giver of all holiness should enter this world by a pure and holy birth. For He it is that of old formed Adam from the virgin earth, and from Adam without help of woman formed woman. For as without woman Adam produced woman, so did the Virgin without man this day bring forth a man. (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily on Christmas Morning)
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From the virgin earth [came] Adam, Christ [came] from a virgin. (Saint Ambrose, On the Gospel of Luke 4:7)
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Thus therefore the devil, who through eating had conquered the first man, was conquered through the fasting of the second man; and as he through want of self-restraint had conquered the first man, the son of the virgin earth, so we shall conquer through the fasting of the second Adam, the Son of the Virgin Mary. (The Martyrdom of Bartholomew; note the blatant assertion that Adam was “the son of the virgin earth.”)
And thus, when renovating those things which were from the beginning, and forming them again of the Virgin by the Spirit, He frames the same just as at the beginning. When the earth was still virgin and untilled, God, taking mould, formed the reasonable creature from it without seed. (Saint Methodius, Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Ch. 4)
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But we, made confident by God the Word that was made flesh of the Virgin, answer that virginity was implanted in man’s nature from above and in the beginning. For man was formed of virgin soil. From Adam alone was Eve created. (Saint John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Ch 24)
If the virgin earth was the mother of the first man, who was the head of the human race, then she is also the foremother of all his descendants, at least in the order of the first creation.  This is analogous to how Mary is the Mother of both Christ the Head and all the members of His Mystical Body, the Church.
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So a Christian understanding of “mother earth” is clearly possible.  She is not a goddess, but a fellow creature, like our human mothers.  We do not pray to her or offer her the divine worship proper only to our common Creator.  Instead, we must take care of her as a precious gift from God Almighty.
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Saint Francis was clearly not alone among the saints when he praised Our Lord through our sister, mother earth. Rather, he was expressing a truth found in both Scripture and the Church Fathers.
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As beautiful as this image is, the earth does lack one thing which we consider essential to motherhood, and that is motherly love.  As an inanimate object, our planet cannot love us, her “children.”  Indeed, she feels nothing toward us at all.  The same earth that “maternally” feeds and sustains us at every moment of our lives could crush us in an earthquake, bury us under ash and lava, or drag us into a sinkhole without shedding a single tear.  While some humans may love mother earth, she can never love us back.
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God, in His infinite goodness, was not content to leave us with a mother devoid of love.  So in the order of the Redemption, He has given us a greater Mother… the very same Mother He made for Himself!
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Related Reading:
No, “Mother Earth” Is Not “Pagan” (Eric Giunta, Laboravi Sustinens, originally 10-25-19, with updates)
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Postscript: If this article seems to end abruptly, it is because I am working on a follow-up article; a “Part II”.  God willing, it will explore how Mary, the antitype of the primeval earth in Genesis, supersedes the motherhood of the earth in the order of the Redemption.  The Church applies “earthy” images to her, comparing her to a garden, a wheat field, mountain etc. 
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Addendum [materials brought to my attention by Rosemarie, regarding papal statements on Mother Earth]:
More than anyone else. you live in continual contact with nature. It is actual contact, since your lives are lived in places still remote from the excesses of an artificial civilization. Under the sun of the Heavenly Father your lives are dedicated to bringing forth from the depths of the earth the abundant riches which His hand has hidden there for you. Your contact with Mother Earth has also a deep social significance, because your families are not merely consumer-communities but also and especially producer-communities. (Ven. Pope Pius XII, Speech to the delegates at the Convention of the National Confederation of Farm Owner-Operators, Rome: November 15, 1946)
At the same moment was heard the voice of Heaven, that “world” of God dwelling in the inaccessible tabernacle of Glory. The majesty of the eternal God and mother earth making herself known by the wail of the newborn Infant enable us to glimpse the prospect of a new Peace, Reconciliation, and Covenant: “To us is born the Saviour of the world,”all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. (Pope St John Paul II, Homily for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Dec 24, 1978)
Today we want to remember all these brothers and sisters in our prayer, with the intention of expressing our love for them in active solidarity, so that everyone without exception can enjoy the fruits of “mother earth” and live lives worthy of God’s children.” – Pope St John Paul II, Homily Nov 12, 2000 “The man of Assisi proclaims the value of poverty, in a world where the sin of human greed continues to bar the poor from banquet laid out by “our Sister Mother Earth” for all God’s children. (Pope St John Paul II, Message to the Friars Minor Sept 19, 2001)
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Photo credit: St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) [PeakPx / public domain]
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