To speak about the environment is to speak about a great deal! I would like to offer a few suggestions for appreciating Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on environment and ecology.
Four key words
Environment comes from the French virer, “to turn” or “to veer,” and environ “around,” from which we get “to turn round” and “surroundings.” Environment not only refers to all the surrounding conditions that influence plant and animal life, but also suggests that we pay ever more careful attention to how pollution might damage them.
Ecology starts with three letters, “eco,” from the Greek oikos, which means “home or household”; and then adds logos, which is “discourse, meaning, sense.” So ecology is meaningful talk about our home, the earth. The modern term “ecology” was introduced by the biologist Ernest Häckel in 1869. It is the scientific study of living beings in relationship with their surroundings. Being “a wondrous work of the Creator,” says Pope Benedict in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), the environment contains “a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.”
Ecology, as treated by the pope, relates to two other words beginning with more or less the same letters. Economy starts with oikos and adds nomos, “rule” or “law”; and ecumenical builds on oikos to become oikoumenē gē, “the whole inhabited world” and all its inhabitants, including our descendents. The three words beginning with oikos imply how we should dwell and behave here on our planet, one household common to all.
Moreover, each of the four key words suggests a quality that we need in order to embrace God’s gift of nature: environment calls for awareness, ecology enjoins responsibility, economy requires justice, and ecumenical hearkens to unity, not only global, but also intergenerational.
Thus, in addition to their definitional meanings, these four key words also contain suggestive clues for appreciating this Pope Benedict’s writings on the environment. When reading him, notice what should stimulate us all to heighten awareness, accept responsibility, act justly and strive for unity.
Concern for the environment can be led astray when notions are taken to the extreme. “Nature” contains our human family; it is neither taboo (beyond human touch) nor should it be subjected to abuse. Similarly, “nature” is not more important than “human” but equally — the “human” must not presume to have the monopoly on all meaning and design in “nature.” Unfortunately there are many common distortions which lead to “attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense.”
“It is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure. … When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes.”
There can scarcely be more dramatic illustrations of such irresponsibility than the chronic social injustices that force the poor into agricultural practices which result in wanton deforestation, erosion, desertification; or the warmongering that leaves devastated landscapes in its wake. We must not ignore the obvious truth that the “deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence. … Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature. … Our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward 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.”
Having asked us to think clearly about the environment, the Holy Father shows us how to put order into our thinking, keeping things in their proper places, not exaggerating legitimate concerns to the point of becoming ideological and harmful. Let us do the same.
If we agree that environmental language and action should avoid extremes, this raises the question: What are the proper boundaries?
In the early 1990s, Blessed John Paul II gave eloquent expression to environmental concern: “People are rightly worried — though much less than they should be — about preserving the natural habitats of the various animal species threatened with extinction, because they realize that each of these species makes its particular contribution to the balance of nature in general.” He then masterfully broadened and deepened the scope: “In addition to the irrational destruction of the natural environment, we must also mention the more serious destruction of the human environment. … Too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic ‘human ecology.’”
Pope Benedict goes on to develop “the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology. Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa.” And the vital importance of human ecology rests in this: to “protect mankind from self-destruction. … 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.”
Human nature (which human ecology is supposed to take care of) emerges from what has been divinely revealed. “Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. Nature speaks to us of the Creator (see Rom 1:20) and his love for humanity. It is destined to be ‘recapitulated’ in Christ at the end of time (see Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:19-20). Thus it too is a ‘vocation.’ Nature is at our disposal … as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order ‘to till it and keep it’ (Gn 2:15).”
What is most basic, then, is “the overall moral tenor of society,” and we see how it eventually but inevitably affects the health of the planet. Pope Benedict’s messages on environment and ecology guide a sound understanding which consistently keeps the human within nature (not opposed or neglected) and gratefully acknowledges nature as work and gift of the Creator. What perspective could be more important than this!
The pope accepts that he has “an inner obligation to struggle for the preservation of the environment and to oppose the destruction of creation.” With Catholics and others who will contribute to the Church’s ministry of responsibility toward creation Pope Benedict now shares his sense of mission:
“In view of the threatening catastrophe, there is the recognition everywhere that we must make moral decisions. … [But] how can the great moral will, which everybody affirms and everyone invokes, become a personal decision? For unless that happens, politics remains impotent.
“Who, therefore can ensure that this general awareness also penetrates the personal sphere? This can be done only by an authority that touches the conscience that is close to the individual and does not merely call for eye-catching events. …
“[Here the Church] not only has a major responsibility; she is, I would say, often the only hope. For she is so close to people’s consciences that she can move them to particular acts of self-denial and can inculcate basic attitudes in souls.”
After reading, meditating and reflecting, let us proceed to conversion and to action, implementing the human and environmental ecology that our global family and planetary household badly need, now and for generations to come.
But first and finally let us turn to prayer. “In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity” from the beginning; and “the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation” culminates in adoration as, for example, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his magnificent “Hymn to Matter”:
“Blessed are you, reality ever new-born; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth; triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who, by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement, reveal to us the dimensions of God.”
Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This article is adapted from the introduction to “The Environment,” by Pope Benedict XVI (OSV, $14.95).