Back in 2015, when rumors circulated that Pope Francis was writing Laudato Sí, an encyclical on the environment, I offered some unsolicited advice as to what should be in the letter: “What Should the Pope’s Ecology Encyclical Say?”
I remember writing that piece one night in a Beijing hotel room, after spending a day out in that city’s notorious air pollution. Yes, I really—not just notionally—understood why concern for the environment was (and is) important. But I also thought that the Catholic Church needed to be saying something more than CNN does, or at least not just the same thing with some pious words and a dash of holy water added. I also thought the secular environmental movement posed some dangers to Christian orthodoxy, and I believed the Pope needed to point them out.
Now that Pope Francis has said he’s writing a second part to his Laudato si’, a sequel of sorts that is reported to “cover current issues,” let me also revisit old advice and add some new suggestions.
Back in 2015, I cautioned against the quasi-religion into which environmentalism was turning. The environmental and climate movements apparently have their own anthropologies, their own views of the human person, and those visions were ultimately incompatible with the Judaeo-Christian one.
Our culture has been formed by a vision of the human person first put forward by Judaism and then shared by Christianity. It’s found on the first pages of the Bible, so I call it our “Genesis heritage.”
A central element of that “Genesis heritage” is how it understands man. The human person is not just another biological species. He is not just another life form with an oversized carbon footprint. The human person is qualitatively different from the rest of the material creation. (Spiritual creation, i.e., angels and what “eye has not seen of what God has prepared for those who love Him,” are outside this essay’s scope).
The human person is not just “part” of material creation. He stands at its zenith. As Vatican II (Gaudium et spes, 24) teaches, man is the only material creature God wanted for His/his own sake. The double pronoun signifies what I think is the double nature of the question: God wanted man for Himself, but he also created man as a person for himself, not just as a means for other creatures.
Every other material creature is simply created. “God said … and there was.” “Let there be …and there was.” Man alone is the product of deliberation. God interrupts His work of creation, as if to take counsel with Himself: “Let us make man…” (Gen 1:26). In that deliberation, God also deliberates about what is to be unique about the human person. He is to be “in our image and likeness,” a reality no other material creature enjoys. Man is to “have dominion” over other material creatures. And after God appears to reflect in His Wisdom on what this creature man is to be, He acts: “So God created man in His image; in the divine image He created him. Male and female He created them” (1:27).
So God, who is a communion of Persons, creates persons who can relate to Him. And He creates them “male and female.” Sexual differentiation is neither an Aristotelian congenital defect (the “misbegotten male”) nor a post-modern relic of “gender binary discrimination” (the “wrong body” amidst 40 shades of gender). That God created them sexually differentiated already points to the communion of persons that should ensue.
But God goes on: having created them, He immediately pronounces His first blessings and commands: “Be fruitful and multiply.” “Have dominion over the earth.” “Fill the earth and subdue it.”
The human person, according to Genesis, has a privileged place in the world. The Patristic tradition spoke of man as a singer, as the one who gives voice to the rest of God’s creation to proclaim His glory.
That vision of the human person excludes environmental irresponsibility. Man’s role as God’s image vis-à-vis the material world is fiduciary, not exploitive. Like the servants entrusted with talents, he’s expected to do something with the world (continue the work of creation with the same love God does), not be passive with that trust and certainly not to dissipate it.
This is not the vision of much of secular ecology. It’s “this world”-only perspective (which is why I explicitly excluded discussion of spiritual creation) sees the human person as just another biological life form, one that’s grown too big for his ecosystem britches. The more blatant of them talk about human extinction and write philosophy books published by distinguished publishers (e.g., David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, published by Oxford University Press) speaking of procreation as a moral evil and human extinction a desirable outcome if we could only address that pesky problem of “thou shalt not kill.”
The less frank simply talk youth into foregoing childbearing “in the name of the planet,” so that Gaia/Mother Earth/Pachamama can be a pristine paradise of lichens, trees, and squirrels. But, as I’ve also asked, riffing George Berkeley’s famous question about whether a tree that falls in a forest which nobody hears makes a sound: if a pine falls in the woods only to startle a squirrel, who cares? I have no interest in a person-less world of pines. If that’s what Mother Nature requires, rename her Medea.
So, betwixt Christ and Gaia—like between Lazarus and Dives—there is fixed an unbridgeable great chasm (Lk 16:26). Francis does nobody a favor by failing to point out the cliff’s edge, much less decry those who would build a wall fencing it off.
Let me add to what I cautioned against in 2015. Pope Benedict XVI frequently spoke of “integral ecology” or “human ecology.” It was part of his integral or holistic vision of the person. Let’s unpack those ideas.
First, the integral vision of the person: man is but not only a physical being. As a creature, he has one foot in the material world. As a spiritual creature, made in God’s image and likeness, he also has a foot in a free world of persons who, by their choices, constitute themselves as good or evil. A Catholic “ecology” cannot leave out the latter.
Second, human ecology. Jesus told the devil, “man does not live by bread alone” (Mt 4:4). Jesus did not say, “man lives without bread.” (In fact, He gave His Body under the form of bread).
Apply that teaching to ecology. Nobody is saying that man can live without clean air. But man cannot live—in the sense of what St. Irenaeus of Lyons called man being “fully alive” to God’s glory—on clean air alone. Man’s physical environment is important. But there is something gravely wrong with an environmental outlook that chokes on 10 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter in ambient air quality standards but swallows the sludge of morally toxic values which people breathe everyday—especially young whose moral lungs, like their physical ones, are still developing. And if environmentalism says the latter is “not its concern,” it shows its readiness to swallow the sludge.
By identifying the moral element’s relevance alongside the physical, I am not suggesting we revise the Catechism to suggest Catholics confess using plastic straws instead of paper ones (wrapped in plastic). Individual moral responsibility for “sins against the environment” is usually very remote. A sin whose name, however, we rarely speak today—“waste”—may be more real in individual people’s lives.
What I am suggesting is that, if we look at the human person integrally, we need to consider the total environment—including the moral environment in which he lives—together. It would seem to me that this requires the kind of holistic, seamless approach that demands a comprehensive view of what we are doing, and not focus “only” on some parts of the physical environmental agenda. That would seem to be taking the Church’s teaching and reducing it to partisanship, making allies with some parts of the “green” agenda while relegating to the peripheries other key Catholic concerns. I would think this pontificate would not want to do that. Nor, in the name of that partnership and fraternal dialogue should the Church neglect what is uniquely her responsibility: the overall human environment with its physical and moral dimensions.
So, if the Pope is penning Laudato 2.0, my concrete suggestions are to contribute what the Church alone is uniquely qualified to contribute: her vision of the integral human person and the moral implications it entails. That means recognizing the uniqueness of the human person within material creation and opposing any ecological vision that in any way marginalizes his centrality. That also means broadening the vision of ecology from mere physical pollution standards to a wider aperture that combats the toxic moral pollution increasingly choking human persons.
Such a vision of care for our common home would make the Church’s environmental role that of a leader, not just a cheerleader, in this effort. More importantly, it would also rescue the central dignity of the human person that remains at real risk from environmentalisms that feign concern for the human person but which, in reality, are antithetical to him and his dignity.
That would be, respectfully, a real and lasting contribution from the Holy Father.
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