In his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI addresses our responsibility in matters environmental, a responsibility he describes as “global” in scope. Benedict calls for “ecological sensitivity,” “energy efficiency,” and even “worldwide redistribution of energy resources.” He explains that the Church’s teaching
is concerned not just with energy but with the whole of creation, which must not be bequeathed to future generations depleted of its resources. Human beings legitimately exercise a responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways, with the assistance of advanced technologies, so that it can worthily accommodate and feed the world’s population. On this earth there is room for everyone: here the entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature itself— God’s gift to his children—and through hard work and creativity. At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it.
What are we to make of the many comments about the environment in recent papal encyclicals? Benedict has been dubbed the “green pope” by Newsweek. But Benedict is not really breaking new ground. His predecessor John Paul II wrote with some regularity about the environment.
Of course, the popular media, as is clear from the Newsweek piece, tends to reduce Church teaching to trendy superficiality. Now, at the very mention of the Pope’s addressing environmental issues, Catholics get nervous. The chief concern with the popular appropriation of the Church’s teaching on the environment is that it is likely to be separated from other, more fundamental issues to which it is wedded in Church documents. Benedict is quite clear, for example, that “Openness to life is at the center of true development.”
Attentiveness to what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have had to say about the environment reveals both their philosophically astute analysis of modernity and their remarkably perceptive account of the intimate link between how we understand and treat the environment and the human person, the natural and the human. In a key passage from Caritas in Veritate, Benedict explains,
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in, not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others.
Whenever they discuss environmental issues, John Paul II and Benedict XVI advocate a close link between natural ecology and moral ecology, between environmental conservation and the preservation of a culture befitting the dignity of human persons. Both popes trace the roots of our current environmental quandary to problems of anthropology. So, confusion about our use of natural goods reflects confusion about the human good. But is the converse true? Can we trace the erosion of moral culture to a failure in our attitudes toward the external world? Benedict affirms the reciprocal influence explicitly in Caritas in Veritate: “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.”
Increasingly in the modern world, we are inclined to treat both external nature and our very selves as property of which we have the right to dispose however we wish. The popes see the roots of this attitude in the transformation of the attitudes toward nature in the early modern period.
In a wonderful address to a conference on environment and health, delivered in March of 1997, John Paul II spoke of the tension between environment as “resource” and environment as “home,” the former of which increasingly threatens the latter. Strains of modern science, aiming at “power over nature,” and economics, the conception of nature as raw material for “unlimited profit-seeking,” preclude the possibility of encountering nature in a contemplative mode, as a source of wonder and admiration. The early modern philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes, famously proclaimed that his method would “render us masters and possessors of nature.”
In the fields of politics and economics, John Locke, in his hugely influential discussion of property, goes so far as to claim that “each man has property in his own person.” The chief danger with modern capitalism is not profit or the market but the way in which it conspires with the decline in cultural mores to insinuate itself into all aspects of life.
We can see the consequence of the conception of the body as property andof the infiltration of a market mentality into all spheres of human life in our contemporary sexual mores. As cultural critic Wendell Berry perceptively argues, liberals who often disdain capitalism but who decry as fascist any notion of a right ordering of sexuality end up tacitly advocating the same conception of the person and choice as that operative in most libertarian defenders of capitalism: persons as consumers whose freedom is realized in the expression of market preferences. As a result, the body becomes a “product, made delectably consumable.” Sexuality is reduced to the “dispirited description of a sort of anatomical machinery… a sexuality that is neither erotic nor social nor sacramental but rather a cold-blooded abstract procedure.”
We can also see it in the way not just external nature but human nature itself is increasingly the object of scientific experiment and genetic engineering.
Having lost the sense of natural order, the “biblical anthropology” to which John Paul II and Benedict XVI urge a return becomes unintelligible to us. Perhaps the most insightful element of their analysis of our current environmental predicament has to do with the way we veer from one extreme to its opposite in our attitude toward nature. As Benedict observes, “we end up either considering nature as an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.”
We vacillate between, on the one hand, an Enlightenment view—what Benedict calls the Promethean view— that exalts human beings above nature as raw material at our disposal and, on the other, a view that engulfs humans within nature—what Benedict calls a new pantheism and John Paul decries as an “egalitarian” claim about the dignity of all living beings. A 20th-century American poet, Robinson Jeffers, who was both an environmentalist and a sort of modern pantheist, labeled this view “inhumanism.”
Jeffers and others may well object to the language of the dignity of man because they see in that very terminology an invitation to human tyranny over nature. Dignity indicates a certain distinctive stature. As Kant put it, only the rational creature has dignity and merits being treated as an end in itself; everything else has a price. While Kant did not draw this conclusion, one might infer from this conception of human dignity that the human person has the freedom to do whatever it wishes with everything that is not human.
But this is not the Church’s understanding of human dignity. It is not rooted in an absolute autonomy but in a participated theology. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, human persons are “ruled rulers.” Between the extremes of Promethean manipulation and romantic inhumanism is the integral humanism of Benedict XVI, which depicts human creatures as custodians of the environment, as having “dominion” over the earth (Gen 1:28, Wis. 9:1, and Psalm 8:6-8).
In a key passage in Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II puts his finger on the anthropological roots of our alienation from nature, the loss of the Aristotelian and Thomistic language of soul as form of the body. Whether early modern conceptions of the human nature are materialist, denying that there is anything in man that is immaterial or spiritual, or dualist, accentuating the gap between body and mind, they agree in repudiating the Aristotelian understanding of soul and body.
The recovery of that understanding of human nature provides an alternative to the Enlightenment exaltation of human beings above nature and romantic submersion of human persons within nature. In that sense, the problem of technology and the environment is a very old problem indeed.
The problem arises from the strange status of human nature in the cosmos; we are a part of the whole yet we are a very peculiar part, the part that is open to the whole and in whom the whole is recapitulated and anticipated. Renaissance poets captured this by calling man a microcosm. We are at once in and of the material world and yet capable of transcending, in our unrestricted desire to know, any and all material objects that we encounter.
It is a mark of the brilliance of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that, in their reflections on the environment, they not only supply a context within which our present difficulties become intelligible, but that they also return us to the perennial sources of wonder in the philosophical and theological tradition.
How we ought to respond to our present difficulties will require a complex negotiation of an array of factors. But this much is clear. We will not even formulate the problems correctly unless we recover some sense of the proper place of the human person in the cosmos.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!