“The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere” writes Pope Benedict XVI in his latest letter to the Church, Caritas in Veritate (Love/Charity in Truth). But as is discovered when reading further, the pope is no mere secular ecologist.
“In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits.”
Such eco-friendly sentiments from the Holy Father are for many within the Western world an oddity. While praised, such statements contradict accepted presumptions that our pontiff is “conservative” or “right-wing”—as if such terms could ever label the mind of this pope.
Any reader of Benedict XVI open to concepts beyond the polarized human categories of “right” and “left” will encounter Benedict the student of St. Augustine, with his pragmatic view of the cities of men and an abiding trust in the City of God. Indeed, especially in Caritas in Veritate we find Benedict the pastor seeking to steer the church through boiling currents of political, human drama by keeping one eye on things worldly and the other on the Triune God.
This tension—between God’s city and man’s—is in part what Caritas in Veritate speaks to. But this is the sort of meaning that many mainstream and (sadly) some Catholic commentators either miss completely or ignore outright.
Take, for instance, coverage of the encyclical’s eco-friendly Section 51. While many reporters and bloggers admire a “green” pope, not enough make the leap from the pontiff’s cautionary words about caring for creation to his continuation of John Paul II’s discussion of a “human ecology.” That is, as laws of nature dictate how pollutants destroy systems of biological life, so natural laws, when violated, result in dire consequences to human culture and bring pain, despair and death to real people.
“It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves,” Benedict writes. “The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.”
For the Catholic ecologist, “integral human development” links and challenges ideologues on both ends of the human political spectrum. While many on the left would save the seals while ignoring (or encouraging) the slaughter of the unborn, many on the right would self-identify themselves as pro-life while diminishing what Benedict states to be the Church’s responsibility towards creation, which is ultimately the life-support system for the human race.
In fact, in calling attention to the “indivisibility of natural laws” Benedict the pastor is doing what Christ’s appointed shepherds have been doing since Pentecost: seeking unity within the church. At a time when opposing, worldly ideological passions are at war with each other within Holy Mother Church, Benedict XVI is reminding his flock that true Christian charity and truth demand more from us.
That is, no matter what worldviews we hold on to for security, we must recognize them as singular elements of our fallen human nature, and as such they must be ennobled by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and entrusted to our Father’s grace for perfection. While such perfecting may be painful, as the cross reminds us, it is ultimately the only way forward to our hope in Christ.
What some commentators of Caritas in Veritate seem to have overlooked is the danger in ignoring these Christian proclamations. As the quite relevant German theologian and pontiff warns us, “our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.”
William Patenaude is an engineer specializing in environmental regulation and a graduate student of theology at Providence College. He is a parishioner of SS. Rose and Clement Church in Warwick.
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