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Bridging the ideological divides over ecology and environment

Dr. Benjamin Wiker’s In Defense of Nature: The Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology demonstrates how and where the laws of nature meet natural law.

(Image: | elizabeth lies)

In today’s world of super-charged ideological warfare, Left and Right agree on this: conservatives rarely feel at home in the contemporary ecological movement.

Of course, many conservatives appreciate the roots of early conservation efforts. They want clean water and land. They may even be watching this month’s international climate talks and praying for meaningful outcomes. But many on the Right—myself included—don’t always agree with the Left’s eco-solutions—often relying on big-government programs, or that come with a disdain for private property and free markets.

For Catholics, such tensions are heightened by suspicions among some conservatives of Pope Francis’s commitment to orthodoxy, and the admiration of the Left for the pontiff’s frequent eco-statements, especially Laudato Si’, the 2015 encyclical devoted to ecology.

Charging into this minefield is Catholic ethicist Dr. Benjamin Wiker and his book In Defense of Nature: The Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017).

It’s a book that many Catholics should read—not just those interested in environmental protection. This is a book for anyone dismayed by the growing ideological divide within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

There are three reasons I suggest this.

1. Linking laws

My Catholic Ecology blog has this tagline: “Where the laws of nature meet natural law.” Wiker’s thesis affirms exactly that connection.

First, he notes that “[j]ust as there is an order of nature which is good, wonderful, and beautiful that we should both respect and protect, so also there is an order of human nature which is good, wonderful, and beautiful, and we should respect and protect that, too.”

That means that “our understanding of ecology should be expanded to include respect for and protection of both nature and human nature.”

This is the very point made by Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

To cite just two examples, Benedict XVI noted in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate that “[o]ur duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person.” Pope Francis continues to make this connection with his terminology of a “culture of waste,” one that discards people as easily as it tosses away food and ecosystems.

2. Building unity

Given that the current pontiff and his predecessor agree that the laws of the natural environment are linked with the laws of human nature, Wiker finds reasons to applaud and critique both sides of the ideological aisle.

The Left understands the exquisite, delicate harmony of the natural order. The Right understands the exquisite, delicate harmony of the moral order. Each side will tell you how very little a deviation it takes to cause disaster to the natural or moral order. But each refuses to see the other’s argument. All that is needed to heal our present divisions is simply this: that each sees what the other sees so clearly, and how it all fits together.

Wiker takes on an array of issues to demonstrate how they are all connected—as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si’. From unhealthy agricultural practices, pornography and sexual addictions, gluttonous over-consumption, waste production, and disposal, and even growing societal dysfunction from the overuse of electronic gadgets, Wiker connects issues that often divide Left and Right but are, in fact, points of common ground.

“Many on the Left,” he writes, “tend to believe … that there are no intrinsic, inviolable natural moral limits … so that progress means being able to do whatever we want with human nature. Many on the Right … tend to believe that there are no intrinsic, inviolable limits to our use of nature, so that progress means being able to do whatever we want with nature. Each side’s progress is the other’s poison.”

For Wiker, this observation is only the beginning. He wants to uncover the common root of why both Left and Right get so much so right but can also get so much so wrong—and thus help each understand how similar they are.

3. The mastery of nature

The prized causes championed by one ideology or the other—whether same-sex “marriage” or the unbridled use of fossil fuels—arise out of a shared, inherited way of seeing nature as both malleable and made merely for the use of humanity.

This view, Wiker tells us, rose up in the early seventeenth century, most especially with the thought of Francis Bacon and his hope “that ‘man [may] endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe,’ in an ‘empire of man over all things.’”

Wiker’s thesis—one that I support and write of myself (as I did in this Christmas post a few years back)—stresses that the attempt to master nature takes forms that one political ideology might cheer and the other bemoan.

Think of the Left’s love of technology to allow greater sexual opportunities without the consequence of conceiving life—or the killing of that life if it is inconveniently conceived. Or the Right’s love of technology to extract and consume planetary resources at staggering levels, no matter the cost.

In these instances, Wiker argues, both sides are subordinating virtue to self-centered pleasures. Both are denying reason. And both have Francis Bacon—and others like him, with their too-worldly hopes in human progress—as an intellectual ancestor.

Wiker’s In Defense of Nature goes a long way in helping unpack all this—and will thus go a long way in helping defend human dignity and the value of God’s creation.

Simply put, In Defense of Nature is a must-read for no other reason than this: it’ll make the perfect gift for the hardcore ideologue in your life who might benefit from learning what they have in common with the folks they’re so fond of arguing with.

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About William L. Patenaude 36 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology, is a mechanical engineer, and has recently retired from a 34-year career at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He has been writing and speaking on the Catholic perspective of ecology since 2004. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice (2018), has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."


  1. Oligarchs, the leadership of the Republican party, liberals/capitalists/neoliberals really shouldn’t be considered of the Right.

  2. Whether it is ideological or natural law it seem that we are on the same failing planet. World scientists recently released a paper on the “tipping point”. A point where the planet is unable to recover from the atrocities caused by increasing levels of toxic gases, destruction of forests and not “seizing the moment”. I have recently studied the Polar Bear in the arctic. The pack ice that the white bear needs to hunt its’ main prey, the Weddle seal. The ice is melting at an alarming rate. A mother bear was pictured swimming in the sea while its’ cubs were waiting on the nearby shore. She could not kill a seal when swimming because the seal is much quicker. When the ice shelf was present mother bear would pound a hole in the ice and then wait for a seal to appear. This scenario portends the end of the species. All will die from starvation.

    One thing that we can do is pray to God for his help and try to encourage the naysayers to see that there is a real problem.

  3. “Wiker takes on an array of issues to demonstrate how they are all connected—as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si’. From unhealthy agricultural practices, pornography and sexual addictions, gluttonous over-consumption, waste production…” In point of fact, Wiker and Pope Francis are complicating this and they are going to have a tough sell connecting pornography with agricultural practices to the common man. What seems to be misunderstood here is that (conservative) Catholics already understand the notion of stewardship and hence the notion of “conservation” and public health for its own sake (i.e. as a virtue), but we are far beyond that. You can sell conservation to the Catholic common man, but not “sustainability” all wrapped up in Mother Earth. The other thing the Church needs to learn is to keep active in conservation without injecting all the liberal catchphrases into the liturgy. Just last week a priest celebrating the local TV Mass went from the Advent signs in the sun and moon (that Jesus spoke of) to the “signs” of our degrading environment ending is an instruction about climate change. If you want conservative Catholics on board, then let the liturgy be about worship of God the Creator and Jesus the Logos.

  4. I agree and disagree, and suggest a need for greater precision.

    First, we need not blur the real distinction between natural law and natural ecology. “Natural Law” is different than an expansion of ecology or the “laws of nature”. Pope St. John Paul II does introduce the term “human ecology” to make a point, in Centesimus Annus (1991), but this point is one of analogy only, which he then explained further in the Splendor of the Truth (1993). (If we sere to carry the blending too far we would back into Monism, and this is a heresy.)

    Second, and as a practical failing, Laudato Si was probably cobbled together in too much of a hurry, to get in front (climb on the bandwagon?) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Dec. 12, 2015). Laudato Si refers, for example, to both “global warming” and “climate change.” There is a political difference between the two brandings (the former presumed the dominance of anthropogenic causes over the natural; the latter at least enables more open discussion to probably unavoidable adaptation (rather than only smokestack accusations).

    Third, yes there is a changing climate(s) situation, but with sometimes countervailing trends in different parts of the globe. Moreover, global climate modeling is complex and remains a fledgling artform, given the curious gap-filling of historical model inputs and then of separate, long-term extrapolations (the so-called “hockey stick” trendline). Laudato Si actually assumes at one point that we can “reverse” the trend. Says who? The scientist-theologian ghost writer in Argentina?

    So, fourth and historically, the Dust Bowl surely did happen. We are not wrong to act prudently toward the future. Prudential judgment is a moral virtue central to the Catholic Social Thought. Likewise, temperance (as in not our Consumer Culture), and courage and fortitude. The fit between prudential judgments (not the same as doctrine)and improved science will be always a tricky one.

    And, fifth, Francis Bacon and his replacement of an ultimately sacramental vision of created nature with a predominantly utilitarian vision. While Bacon advanced the legitimate inductive scientific method (versus misapplied Scholasticism), he also spoke of inducing nature—as a sort of harem—to “betray her secrets” (I think his wording) for human exploitation. When technocracy needed a substitute for slave labor it found one in mother nature…

    Where a Dominican monk invented double-entry bookkeeping for businesses, we now need a similar invention linking economics to ecology, without falling into the trap of a politicized and too-secularized global ethic.

    • I agree with many of your points, though I suggest a response for your third:
      Speaking of “greater precision”: the argument of global warming vs. climate change is a red herring. It obscures the -undeniable- fact that human civilization and waste are causing real damage to the world, here and now. Beyond worrying about temperatures, loss of habitat due to wasteful agri-business and hasty development mean that animal populations around the globe have cratered, giving them less of a chance to ‘adapt’ to new global realities, which would happen naturally over the span of decades/centuries.

      Cutting down rain forests for cattle land (to make endless McDonalds patties), spraying millions of gallons of poisons into the ground (so that corn looks ‘market perfect’ without bug bites) and consuming wasteful quantities of water (swimming pools and lawns in the desert) – these are all extremely modern turns on a scale heretofore unheard of, and contrary to our ordained role as stewards of creation. After all, Noah was ordered to rescue all animal life because creation is fundamentally good. In contrast, these cases above demonstrate not a glory in creation but selfishness (Baconian utilitarianism as you say) and I believe ultimately sinful behavior – especially as wealthy societies gluttonously gobble up resources and leave others to starve.

      We need to (re?)affirm a Catholic mindset of our relationship with the larger world/ecosystem – one that isn’t rooted in resource extraction and domination but communal needs and stewardship.
      As a final thought: We would have no one to blame -least of all God- but ourselves if we suffered and died in mass quantities because we ignored all of the signs we observe in the divinely rational and ordered world of nature. Not unlike blaming anyone but Adam and Eve for original sin.

      thanks for reading!

  5. What a straw man argument that Pope Francis very much favors.

    Conflating morality and the creation as a distraction in avoiding the hard sayings and the salvation of the individual soul.

  6. A meaningful approach to environmental problems is greatly hindered by neo-pagan thinking on the part of many who claim to be concerned about the fate of the planet. Their first instinct is more government control, never mind that track record has serious historical deficiencies. Contributing to the problem is a lack of knowledge of climate history coupled with emotional rather than rational approaches to the problem. CH is quite right in that replacing a lot of the rain forest would greatly diminish the CO2 that has been added to the atmosphere in the past century. This is one time when the KISS approach should probably be tried first. And before we get too exercised about polar bears, lets remember that a number of species have gone extinct in the last 100,000 tears, independent of human activity.

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