The Orthodoxy of Catholic Ecology

Christianity challenges the world with the unique dignity of not just the human person, but all of creation.

Benedict XVI looks out toward the mountains from an Alpine meadow near Les Combes in northern Italy July 14, 2005, in this file photo. (CNS photo from Vatican)

When Pope Benedict XVI addressed Germany’s parliament last September, he brought up a topic that would have delighted its Green Party members had they not been boycotting the talk: the Pontiff acknowledged and even praised the ecological motivations for the party’s inception in the 1970s. He did so, of course, not to endorse the entirety of their platform, but because he and members of the Green Party share a similar concern for the natural world. By speaking of this shared concern, the Holy Father linked the laws of nature to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, turning his podium into a pulpit.

Magisterial references to ecology are noteworthy because the subject appears to be a new species within Catholic social thought. This “newness”—and the unfortunate politicization of such issues as climate change and the use of fossil fuels—have led to confusion and more than a few heated debates about whether a good Catholic should be discussing ecology at all—and if so, how.

But given that Benedict XVI is a good Catholic, one can assume that his flock can also speak of ecological concerns from a foundation of revelation and magisterial teachings as well as scientific discoveries. Catholics throughout the Church’s ideological continuum can and should engage in ecological discourse because, in part, it is a topic that evangelizes, unites, and teaches what it means to be human.

While environmental issues may be a recent addition to formal magisterial documents, the Catholic appreciation of ecology is not a new phenomenon, as some would claim. Just as Christ would retreat to the wilderness to fast and pray, so monks and hermits would do likewise, from the first centuries of the Church until today. Moreover, Catholicism’s sacraments proclaim how the physicality of creation partners with grace—not because grace needs a partner, but because its Source chooses that this be so. After all, are not the bread and wine offered in the Mass the stuff of agriculture—of vegetation, water, air, soil, sun, and the work of human hands?

Most especially, in proclaiming that the Word became flesh—that the unseen God became a human being who touched and broke bread with and breathed the same air as his friends—Christianity challenged (and challenges) the world with a unique dignity of not just the human person, but all of creation. The response to the incarnation by pagan cults of the first and twenty-first centuries was and is a denial of the person of Christ. This denial was particularly troublesome for the early Church fathers—and it should be for us—because of what revelation teaches about the final end for the many: that the New Heaven and New Earth will include the reintegration of human souls with our then-glorified bodies. This is indeed good news.

Thus, the created order is not an evil from which we flee—it is a part of who we are. This implies that our planet is not a trough from which we gorge our appetites or a limitless dump into which we cast our refuse. Rather, from Genesis and throughout the Old and New Testaments, creation is meant to be humanity’s common home—the place in which the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church must go and make disciples by preaching and living the Gospel of life.

As Pope Benedict demonstrated on the floor of Germany’s parliament, ecological conversations are an opportunity for the Church to go and make disciples because ecology is about relationships. It transcends political, cultural, social, economic, sexual, and any other division that seeks to isolate us. Ecology’s core is about how organisms, people, and cosmic and earthly realities relate to each other so that we humans can live, love, procreate, nurture life, share resources, and thrive as a community. Ecology encourages relational (that is, Trinitarian) thought because it is about the physicality of human co-existence and our dependence on the outside world.

In his February 12, 2012 Angelus address, the Holy Father explored a particular trait of Christ that underscores this relational nature of Christianity: When healing the sick, Christ often touched them. The Pontiff provided a saintly example of how Christ’s disciples can do likewise—how we can go and touch and heal. St. Francis, who is the patron of ecologists because of his unique admiration of the natural world, knew that central to the created order is relation. 

Francis lived the Gospel by remembering that human contact—physical and otherwise—has a purpose beyond the superficial pleasures that the world so often celebrates. Indeed, there is an ecology of human relation—an ecology of sacrificial love—that points to realities far beyond the created world or the hormonal urges of human biology. When authentic, human relation is an acknowledgement and foretaste of the promised communion of Heaven. But if it is to be authentic, this foretaste must be shared. In other words, to seek Heaven is to evangelize—and evangelization cannot occur without connecting and relating to those who are not us.

The Holy Father demonstrated such evangelization—such New Evangelization— when he spoke about the young, eco-idealistic founders of Germany’s Green Party. He said that they “had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.” After noting that he was not endorsing any particular party, he nevertheless used this ecological point of contact to introduce the Gospel of life, much as St. Paul used pagan points of contact at the Areopagus.

“The importance of ecology is no longer disputed,” he went on. “We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it, and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

The beauty of the Pontiff’s talk was in how he sought to engage those who had rejected him and in how he used the modern relational topic of ecology to re-introduce God’s timeless truths into the remnants of Christian Europe. By beginning with the principles of ecology—that there are natural laws that we violate at our peril—the Holy Father repeated this truth with respect to “human ecology,” which also has laws, such as the anthropology of marriage, among many others, that we likewise violate at our peril.

Ecology also has a role within the Church because it offers unity. In the Pontiff’s third letter to the Church, Caritas in Veritate, he teaches that there is a link between “our duties towards the environment” and our “duties towards the human person.” In much the same way that he sought to converse with German leaders on the both left and the right, in Caritas in Veritate (and elsewhere), the Pontiff reminds his flock that the cafeteria of Catholic social doctrines forms a line on both the right and the left—and that such division is a grave danger that the faithful must reject.

“The book of nature is one and indivisible,” the Holy Father tells us. “[I]t takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.”

This notion, that natural realities are “indivisible,” is a challenge to Catholic ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum. While many on the left may wish to save seals while ignoring (or encouraging) the slaughter of the unborn, many on the right may self-identify themselves as pro-life while diminishing what Pope Benedict XVI states to be the Church’s responsibility towards creation, which is ultimately the life-support system for the human race. Such exclusionary thought, the Pontiff adds, is “a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society.”

Of course, the indivisibility of natural laws does not imply equivalency. The damage done to unborn children from mercury poisoning is not the same degree of evil as the intentional death of a child by an abortionist. Nevertheless, we find in Pope Benedict’s linkage between the environment and the human person not just a call for unity, but a significant apologetic tool for traditional pro-life advocates.

That is, from the example above, the harm done to the born and unborn by mercury—which damages life irrespective of one’s personal opinion of it—offers a point of agreement when discussing other and greater violence to the human person, such as abortion—which also harms the born and unborn regardless of one’s personal opinions. When considered thus, ecology provides a path for explaining and championing the Christian view of human life to those—such as the eco-friendly political left—that may not share the Church’s views on human life.

In fact, too often we hear that a major cause of ecological harm is overpopulation—that if the Church were truly concerned about global and local ecosystems, it would change its teachings on abortion and artificial contraception. But the Church, which recognizes those activities as evil, offers something else: she offers the revealed truth about what it means to be human.

Consider that poor nations continue to destroy vital rain forests and displace indigenous peoples to make room for the meat industry and single-species farming; or that developed nations are adding significant quantities of pollutants to the planet’s atmosphere because of the way we produce and use fossil fuels; or that human consumption is causing a sharp, unparalleled rise in the extinction of species. All of these issues, and many more, are real and dangerous, and they all stem from a hunger that cannot be filled by cheeseburgers, smart phones, rare-wood furnishings, or any other material good.

As St. Augustine knew well, our hearts are restless for God alone. Without this truth preached and heard and lived through the grace of the sacraments, humanity’s pleasure-seeking consumption and levels of waste will escalate far beyond what ecosystems can absorb. The solution to hyper-consumption is not increased government regulations, free contraception, or forced abortions. Rather, the way to protect all life is to orient the human person to its natural state and reason for existence.

In his 2011 message for World Food Day, the Holy Father considered the problems of food scarcity throughout much of the globe. He offered this solution, which is remarkably similar to his words in Caritas in Veritate and his speech at the German parliament: “[I]t is a question of adopting an inner attitude of responsibility, able to inspire a different lifestyle, with the necessary modest behavior and consumption, in order thereby: to promote the good of future generations in sustainable terms; the safeguard of the goods of creation; the distribution of resources and above all, the concrete commitment to the development of entire peoples and nations.”

These are the words of no mere secular ecologist. These exhortations to temper consumption through adopting an inner attitude of responsibility are the prophetic proclamations of the Catholic view of ecology: one rooted in faith as well as reason; one concerned not just for the good of the natural world, but also for the common good of the fallen human race; one that seeks to offer the laws of life to a world reveling in death; and one that presupposes that before you or I can consider saving the world, we must first seek to save souls.

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."