Understanding the ‘new human ecology’

In an address given on Nov. 17 to the Humanum Colloquium at the Vatican on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman,” Pope Francis challenged those present to “foster a new human ecology.”

Similar ideas have appeared elsewhere in his public teaching. What did the pope mean — and not mean — by his use of this phrase? As with many of the Holy Father’s sometimes enigmatic sayings, this summons has engendered debate or outright puzzlement among commentators.

We can get a clearer understanding of Pope Francis’ use of this term and its implications by attending to its wider context in his address. Building on the theme of the colloquium, the Holy Father affirmed the complementarity of man and woman and the indispensable contribution that it makes to the family and to the wider society.

The family, he insisted, with marriage at its heart, cannot be subjected to ideologically motivated redefinition: “Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact ... We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can’t think of conservative or progressive notions. Family is a family. It can’t be qualified by ideological notions. Family is per se.”

Contrary to some pundits’ statements on the pope’s earlier remarks about same-sex marriage, Pope Francis is emphatic that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Cause and effect

But the Holy Father notes that both “marriage and the family are in crisis,” a theme that he stressed again during his pastoral visit to the Philippines in January. Undermined by individualism and false notions of freedom, the very idea of marriage as a permanent public commitment is disappearing from many people’s vision and aspiration.

As many social scientists have noted, this crisis of marriage has a profound socio-economic impact disproportionately affecting the poor and vulnerable and also causing greater poverty: “Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children and the elderly,” the pope said.

And this socio-economic devastation of persons in turn has created an ecological crisis. Why? The Holy Father reasons: “For social environments, like natural environments, need protection.” Pope Francis here links the moral imperative to care for the environment with the one to care for the social and cultural conditions needed for marriage and family to flourish.

Persons, too, live in environments — natural, social and economic — and stewardship is necessary to make these habitats where those who live in them can flourish. Hence his call for the need for “a new human ecology.”

These remarks are not an isolated instance but congruent with larger aspects of the pope’s teaching. The effect of individualism on marriage, criticism of economic practices built on exclusion, opposition to attitudes that view persons as disposable, and the Church’s commitment to the poor are all featured prominently in his apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”).

Consistent teaching

The pope’s predecessors often drew attention to the unity of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. Blessed Pope Paul VI and later Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the social role of the family in building a “civilization of love.”

In the later teaching of John Paul II, this became the family’s role in promoting a “culture of life.” He actually used the phrase “human ecology” in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”) and linked it to the family: “The first and fundamental structure for a ‘human ecology’ is the family, founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self as husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and grow up” (No. 39).

At the same time, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI increasingly focused on human responsibility to care for and protect the environment as God’s gift entrusted to human stewardship.

In a general audience in 2001, John Paul II called for an “ecological conversion” on the part of humanity. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict contrasted “the human environment” with the “natural environment” and warned of the dangers of seeing nature as more important than human beings (Nos. 48-50).

Pope Francis’ use of the term brings together his predecessors’ focus on the social role of the family, the unity of Catholic sexual and social teaching, and awareness of human moral responsibility for the environment. To this, he adds a heightened awareness of the impact of economic factors on both the family and the environment — thus “a new human ecology.”

Close connection

This concept is likely to be developed more fully in an encyclical on the environment by Pope Francis that is expected to be released this summer (see sidebar). Some of the themes of this document were probably presaged in his address on World Environment Day on June 5, 2013. Invoking the teaching of his predecessors, the Holy Father stated:

“The popes have spoken of a human ecology, closely connected with environmental ecology. We are living in a time of crisis; we see it in the environment, but above all we see it in men and women. The human person is in danger; this much is certain. The human person is in danger today, hence the urgent need for human ecology! And the peril is grave, because the cause of the problem is not superficial but deeply rooted. It is not merely a question of economics but of ethics and anthropology.”

Hence a proper understanding of the human relationship to the environment, and of human economic activity, requires a clear grasp of the dignity of the human person entrusted by God with the task of cultivating and caring for creation (cf. Gn 2:15).

The crises affecting the natural world, society, marriage and the family are symptoms of our forgetfulness of our dignity and vocation as persons.

Pope Francis concluded with a challenge that the forthcoming document may well repeat: “I would therefore like us all to make the serious commitment to respect and care for creation, to pay attention to every person, to combat the culture of waste and of throwing out so as to foster a culture of solidarity and encounter.”

John S. Grabowski is an associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America.