The “Green Pope” and a Human Ecology

A new collection of Benedict XVI’s eco-centric homilies, letters, and addresses offers much to ponder and perhaps even act on.

It’s a joy to happen upon an old friend, to again hear his style of speaking and his way of engaging the world. When the old friend is Benedict XVI, however, things quickly move beyond the sentimental. So it goes with The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology (The Catholic University of America Press, 2014), a helpful compilation of Benedict XVI’s many, many statements about preserving life on earth.

Given that discussions of ecology polarize a great many along worldly ideological fault lines, one of the benefits of The Garden of God lies in remembering how Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, normalized the topic and maintained it within Catholic orthodoxy. Like no other, he taught us how the Christian creed speaks to an array of social and physical sciences that are concerned with relationships, life, and shared futures.

The timing of this book is particularly good. Of late, environmental scientists are escalating their individual warnings. And the month of April finds a great many Earth Day celebrations taking place across the globe. With the help of The Garden of God, Catholics can better engage the ecological movement by discerning what we share with other environmental advocates and what we don’t.

To help, the publishers have chosen three themes to bring together 51 of Benedict XVI’s eco-centric homilies, letters, audiences, speeches, talks, Angelus addresses, and much more (including a conversation with astronauts aboard the International Space Station). These themes are “Creation and Nature,” “The Environment, Science, and Technology,” and “Hunger, Poverty, and the Earth’s Resources.”

While these groupings are helpful, there are other ways to parse the ecological thought of Benedict XVI, especially for those who appreciate the former pontiff but may not feel the same way about the mainstream expression of ecological advocacy, or for those who consider themselves environmentalists but may be wary of Benedict XVI based on puerile narratives about Joseph Ratzinger that are still present in secular and some Catholic circles.

A second way to organize Benedict XVI’s eco-statements is provided by Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues in the book’s foreword. And elsewhere, a recent pastoral letter on ecology by Bishop Dominique Rey of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France offers additional insights into what Benedict XVI has given the Church.

But before plunging into the theological and anthropological depths of Benedict XVI’s ecological corpus, it helps to consider why he stressed environmental protection so often in the first place.

Quite simply, the Pope Emeritus is profoundly disturbed about local and global ecological ruin—the types we learn about from the natural sciences and those that we can see with our own eyes. Benedict XVI’s sensitivity to this issue is most certainly related to the destruction he saw during World War II as well as different kinds of devastation brought about soon after by Communist regimes. The root cause he found in both cases (and anywhere else the environment is abused) is human sin—or “where God is not,” as he said to a gathering of priests in 2008.

Because such ecological concerns are typically considered the intellectual property of the political left, which often rejects the notion of sin, The Garden of God will alternately delight and confound most everyone who defines themselves too narrowly within worldly ideological comfort zones. But for those open to what Benedict XVI has to say, the book offers much to ponder and perhaps even act on.

What do we find in The Garden of God? To answer, here is a third set of themes that complement those offered in the book and its foreword.

Linking ecology and human life

“Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society.” — Caritas in Veritate, (par. 51).

When speaking of the connection between human life and environmental protection, Benedict XVI stresses humanity’s primacy within the created order while simultaneously prodding us that “men and women who believe in and proclaim the Gospel … have a responsibility toward creation,” as he notes in his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (par. 108). This does not mean that he considers killing baby seals to be the moral equivalent of killing unborn children. By saying we should be concerned with both, however, he seeks unity within the Church by carrying forth and expanding the following concept, which was introduced by Pope John Paul II.

Human ecology

“The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits.” — Caritas in Veritate, (par. 51; emphasis in original).

As we see from the book’s subtitle, human ecology is of particular importance within Benedict XVI’s environmental teachings. (Pope Francis has also carried this concept into his ecological statements.)

In general, human ecology reminds us that mankind is a relational creature. We thrive when we maintain a healthy bond with God, our fellow humans, and all creation. This means we do best when we follow nature’s laws—all of them. These are both physical laws (which, for instance, dictate how toxins harm the human nervous system, especially in the vulnerable, like the unborn) and natural laws (such as those that tell us that man has certain unalienable rights, and those that dictate what marriage is, when human life begins, and what happens when we disconnect procreation from sexual intercourse). For reasons that become apparent when reading The Garden of God, the concept of human ecology offers significant opportunities to teach, defend, and share the faith.

Confronting relativism

“Yet freedom cannot be absolute, since man is not himself God, but the image of God, God’s creation. For man, the path to be taken cannot be determined by caprice or willfulness, but must rather correspond to the structure willed by the Creator.” — New Year’s Address to the Diplomatic Corps, January 11, 2010.

Catholic dogma and teachings can be tough sells in cultures where individual desires trump communal well-being and the notion of objective, transcendent truth. And so Benedict XVI happily uses ecological dialogues to emphasize that one cannot accept the truths of an ordered and good creation without first accepting the notion of truth. (And once one accepts that truth comes not from within us, one is more readily open to the Source of truth. This makes ecological dialogue a sort of new Areopagus.)


“If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.” — Message for World Day of Peace, (par. 14), 2010.

One of the many strengths of The Garden of God is in recognizing how often Benedict XVI stressed the same point, whether in small ways or large. This is particularly true of the peace-ecology link, which we find in abundance, most especially within various messages for World Day of Peace. (His 2010 message, for instance, uses the quotation above as title and theme.)

The liturgy

“The eucharistic form of life can thus help foster a real change in the way we approach history and the world. The liturgy itself teaches us this, when, during the presentation of the gifts, the priest raises to God a prayer of blessing and petition over the bread and wine, ‘fruit of the earth,’ ‘fruit of the vine,’ and ‘work of human hands.’ With these words, the rite not only includes in our offering to God all human efforts and activity, but also leads us to see the world as God’s creation, which brings forth everything we need for our sustenance. The world is not something indifferent, raw material to be utilized simply as we see fit. Rather, it is part of God’s good plan, in which all of us are called to be sons and daughters in the one Son of God, Jesus Christ (cf.Eph 1:4-12).” — Sacramentum Caritatis (par. 92), 2007.

Benedict XVI included ecology among other worldly topics in two significant texts related to the liturgy: Verbum Domini (his exhortation on Scripture) and Sacramentum Caritatis (his exhortation on the Eucharist). Moreover, some of his most profound homilies—such as those for Easter in 2011and 2012, and Pentecost in 2009—teach us how grace, sin, and salvation can be understood through and within modern ecological realities.

Field guides to The Garden of God

The Garden of God is a compilation of texts, not an analysis of them. But its helpful foreword by Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues does offer five principles for consideration when reading Benedict’s words.

The last of the archbishop’s observations is about Benedict XVI’s insistence—especially to those in wealthier nations—to change our mentality about how we live and how much we consume. In Caritas in Veritate, for instance, we are told that the link between human life and ecology “invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences” (par. 51).

Given the rather profound implications of this statement and others like it—and in light of the continuity between Benedict XVI and his predecessor and successor—The Garden of God could have benefited from allowing Archbishop Brugues, or other voices, to comment in more detail about what all this means. After all, Benedict XVI’s words can certainly be rich and they are always rooted in a particular context that may not be obvious to the casual reader.

This is where the pastoral letter on ecology by Bishop Dominique Rey is particularly helpful. First titled Peut-on être Catho et Écolo? Lettre sur l’ écologie (“Can One Be Catholic and Green? A Letter on Ecology”), the text was re-published in 2013 by the Acton Institute as Catholicism, Ecology, and the Environment: A Bishop’s Reflection.

Like Benedict XVI, Bishop Rey offers in this separate publication something to delight and challenge everyone. “One of the first causes of the current human ecological disorder is the widespread anti-life mentality that has spawned one of the greatest genocides in all of history. … An authentically Christian concept of ecology demands the defense of human life.”

And again like Benedict XVI, Bishop Rey touches precisely upon the heart of the matter.

“We are faced with a moral crisis: that is to say a crisis of human choice and human action. Hence, the root of the problem resides in man’s heart rather than in strictly economic or industrial concerns.” Further along, he adds that “[t]he ecological crisis is born in the heart of man and is only the outside extension of this internal tragedy.”

These words help guide the People of God when offering solutions to all manner of local and global injustices—ecological and otherwise. By placing the fault not first in our policies or laws but in ourselves, Benedict XVI and Bishop Rey instruct us that the Church has something to offer beyond faith-based versions of secular planning efforts. Ultimately, the pontiff and the bishop remind us to “fear not!” as they lead us to prayer, penance, and almsgiving—to the confessional and the Eucharist.

While a great many people—myself especially—are eagerly waiting on an environmental encyclical by Pope Francis, we can be assured that some of its essential elements can be found in Bishop Rey’s letter and in the words of the Green Pope, as Benedict XVI was so often called. After all, both the bishop’s pastoral letter and The Garden of God teach us that to save people and the planet, we should be doing what we were supposed to be doing in Eden: loving God and neighbor, and tending to the garden that was given to us by God.

The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology
By Benedict XVI
Foreword by Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues
The Catholic University of America Press, 2014
209 pages. Softcover.

Catholicism, Ecology, and the Environment: A Bishop’s Reflection
By Bishop Dominique Rey
Foreword by Samuel Gregg
The Acton Institute, 2013
41 pages. Softcover.

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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."