The mainstream media delights whenever Pope Benedict XVI weaves environmental protection into his preaching, as he did this July in Australia before some 200,000 young Catholic pilgrims from across the planet.
Add to this the Vatican’s recent success in becoming the first carbon-neutral state or its installation of solar panels and some find a curiosity—as if such activities were the whim of an aged, eco-eccentric German theologian who happens to be the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
But Catholic appreciation of creation predates this pope, as well as his predecessor—and his too, and so on—by millennia. Catholic ecology is rooted within the faith’s Jewish roots, deep within the Torah, as far back as Genesis, where in the beginning it is revealed to humanity that God created the world and life both orderly and good. Caring for creation isn’t novel for Catholics (or for our Jewish cousins); it derives from and enlightens the center of our faith. For Benedict, this all helps him discuss other weighty matters.
A close look at his first Youth Day '08 homily shows where Benedict is headed, not just in Sydney but throughout his pontificate. Here we find words quoted most often by the mainstream media: “Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption.”
Such sentiments are common enough, and even the most secular of ecologists would find agreement. Where Benedict and that secular ecologist part ways, however, is in the pope’s presupposition that ecological damage is not just the final end of human greed and ignorance; it is also a symptom of something else, something deeply wrong with where humanity has directed itself in this infancy of the Third Millennium.
Gladly, some reporters caught on. More importantly, the 200,000 or so young men and women seemed to get it right away. Benedict used the theme of real ecological harm—caused by self-seeking human consumption—as a metaphor for the damage being done to human beings, cultures and relationships by modern social extravagance. In doing so, the pope echoed what in 1991 John Paul II termed the destruction of our “human environment.” Benedict builds on this by noting that in the clash of human activity and natural law “we discover that not only the natural but also the social environment—the habitat we fashion for ourselves—has its scars; wounds indicating that something is amiss. Here too, in our personal lives and in our communities, we can encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created.”
Benedict, pointing to such realities as “alcohol and drug abuse, and the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation,” is clearly not offering platitudes about gluttonous consumption resulting from spiritual starvation. He’s calling attention to the link between why the environment is dying in so many places and why the same sort of harm is being effected on human cultures. While ecological destruction can be attributed to the denial of physical laws—those rules of science we studied in high school that dictate the motions of falling apples, the orbits of planets and the needs of Earth’s biota—sociocultural harm results from ignoring or dismissing other natural laws, such as those governing human morality.
Here we benefit from background. As a young man Benedict watched helplessly the growing disintegration and redefinition of moral laws by the Nazi regime, and so he is keenly aware of where today’s moral relativism may lead. It is no surprise that he is coaching today’s youth against such relativism. “Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.”
Benedict is in dialogue—well, perhaps warfare—with voices claiming that no one has the right to be the arbiter of one’s “individual truths.” The idea of an objective reality dictating the consequences of our actions is held in little esteem of late. One should be one’s own judge of things.
Yet distilled from today’s youth across planet Earth—having been handed ecologies and cultures compromised by those before them—hundreds of thousands, representing millions more, got to travel to Australia and cheer the words of that elderly theologian and pope. Many wept in agreement. While some watching all this might have been surprised at the positive response by so many young people, none of this should be a surprise. The task of youth has always been to be counter-cultural. And countering today’s culture of death and self-defining truth is precisely what happened when His Holiness spoke of ecology at World Youth Day.
William Patenaude is an engineer specializing in environmental regulation and a graduate student of theology at Providence College. He lives in West Warwick and is a parishioner at Sts. Rose and Clement Parish in Warwick.