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The Green Pope’s Dilemma

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 27, 2011

Criticism tends to run high on CatholicCulture.org whenever bishops speak out on environmental issues, though it is generally more muted when it comes to the statements of the Pope. It seems to me that there are two legitimate reasons for this concern. But as we’ll see, these reasons do not get beyond the surface of things.

The first legitimate reason for concern is that environmentalism in the modern West is associated primarily with those who regard the human person as a blight on the landscape. In the prevailing environmentalist view, man has no particular spiritual destiny. Instead, too many environmentalists seem to be trending toward a sort of pantheism as a means of regaining the harmony with nature they feel has been lost in a technocratic world.

The second reason for concern is that there seems to be little practical connection between environmentalism and the more pressing clear-cut moral issues which haunt our time, such as abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and unbridled sexual license. To be getting involved in inconclusive debates over the best way to deal with the environment can all too easily be compared with fiddling while Rome burns.

Pope Benedict’s Approach

Simple as this may seem, when we blink our eyes and look again, we find a good deal more at stake, including key issues which place environmental debates squarely in the Catholic wheelhouse. For the right view of environmentalism both derives from and nourishes a proper vision of the human person. Pope Benedict made precisely this point in his great social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. In the most general terms, his argument is as follows:

The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God's creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God's creation. (48)

Thus the Pope stresses that we must guard against two errors:

  1. Nature is greater than man: The neo-pantheistic attitude which finds a kind of salvation in nature is misguided because the human person has a supernatural destiny which nature is destined to help him to achieve.
  2. Nature is raw material to be manipulated: Nature “is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.” Without this understanding, we do violence to all of nature, including the nature of man himself.

But these two mistakes are culturally systemic. Therefore, the dilemma faced by Pope Benedict—who is commonly nicknamed the “green” pope for his interest in environmental stewardship—is how to communicate a constructive attitude toward both man and nature without having every environmental discussion co-opted either by the pantheists or the technocrats.

Endemic Confusion

Benedict, of course, is perfectly capable of making the necessary distinctions, but those who listen to him, and I suspect we must include ourselves, will very frequently hear only what they want to hear, latching onto whichever concepts are already part of their own worldview, no matter how distorted these may be.

In other words, we have a nearly overpowering cultural tendency to extract the Pope’s very Catholic ideas into the service of the usual secular debates. This afflicts far more than merely secular commentators. Bishops, priests, theologians, catechists, and Catholic voters—all of us run the risk of thinking first in terms of the partisan notions we have inherited from the recurring dialectic which defines our public life. The result is that we will most often either approve or decry this or that proposal according to our secularized intellectual affiliations, without at all challenging the mistaken ideas about man and nature that are almost always at stake. The most significant part of Catholic thought on the environment is simply this: Whether a particular environmental policy is instituted or not, if our culture’s attitudes toward man and nature do not change, neither the policy nor its absence will do any appreciable good.

The Green Pope’s dilemma arises from the loose division of contemporary Western social discourse into categories of left and right (the range of available options will vary from place to place, but the categories will be the same). It is painfully difficult for both conservative (right) and liberal (left) Catholics to get beyond their knee-jerk reactions to environmental concerns in order to closely examine the Catholic vision of the human person which absolutely must be engaged.

While it is thankfully true that opinions on the environment cross party lines more than opinions on most other things do, in general we still face here exactly the same problem which afflicts conservative and liberal Catholics in discussing economics. Western discourse over the past several hundred years has been progressively locked into a left-right duality of collectivism and individualism in which nearly everything has been forgotten but human freedom and the resulting question of who ought to (or gets to) do what to whom. The paradoxical result is a licentious society governed by nearly totalitarian states. This is where the incomparable thinness of our social discourse has led. And sadly, every one of us is more bound by our prevailing cultural categories than we care to admit.

Spiritual and Moral Vision

Our own cultural constriction, of course, merely makes the Pope’s dilemma worse. We can resolve, or at least lessen, that dilemma only by being willing to step outside of our prevailing socio-political box in order to base our options on a Catholic understanding of the human person and a Catholic understanding of nature.

In the same chapter of Caritas in Veritate in which the Benedict treated environmental questions, he made the point that “morally responsible openness to life” represents a rich resource, the lack of which is killing and crushing our most affluent societies (44). He also pointed out that “the economy needs ethics in order to function correctly—not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered”, for “much in fact depends on the underlying system of morality” (45). In all development programs, he further noted, “the principle of the centrality of the human person, as the subject primarily responsible for development, must be preserved” (45). It is only after all this that he took up the environment:

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 (cf. Rom 1:20) and his love for humanity. It is destined to be “recapitulated” in Christ at the end of time (cf.Eph1:9-10; Col 1:19-20). Thus it too is a “vocation”. (48)

These same principles were outlined somewhat more succinctly in Benedict’s recent address to six new ambassadors to the Holy See (see Human Ecology Is an Imperative). On that occasion, he said that “man comes first, as it is right to remember. Man, to whom God entrusted the good stewardship of nature, cannot be dominated by technology or subjected to it.” The Pope went on to insist:

[I]t is necessary to review our entire approach to nature. It is not a place solely for exploitation or for play. It is man’s native land, in a certain sense his “home”. This is fundamental for us. The shift of mentality in this domain, that is, the constraints it brings, allows us rapidly to become more proficient in the art of living together that respects the alliance between man and nature, without which the human family risks disappearing.

The Pope pointed out that it is the human worker who is “responsible for [the] dynamic of progress”, and not mere technique. In contrast, to “stake everything on technology or to believe that it is the exclusive agent for happiness brings a reification of the human being which results in blindness and unhappiness when powers it does not possess are attributed and delegated to it.” Reification, in this context, means to turn man into a “thing”. Moreover:

Technology that dominates human beings deprives them of their humanity. The pride it engenders has brought an inflexible economic focus into our societies and a certain hedonism that determines behavior subjectively and egotistically.

By now the penny is dropping, and the larger connections are being made.

Those Really Important Issues

Now, indeed, we begin to see that even the pressing problems I mentioned near the beginning—abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and unbridled sexual license, among others—while having their roots in human passions and selfishness, take their peculiar shape in the modern world from a faulty view of man and an equally faulty view of nature. It is as if both of the errors the Pope delineated in Caritas in Veritate are continually at work at the same time. On the one hand, we place ourselves on a par with the purely natural, as if the human person lacks a transcendent identity and so may be disposed of in the same way we might dispose of an insect or a leaf. On the other, we encourage the technological manipulation not only of others but of our own bodies, as if we are gods who can invest the natural order with new meanings that will permit us to indulge our most disordered cravings without the inevitable disastrous consequences.

As the Pope put it in his diplomatic address, “the weakening of the primacy of the human being brings existential bewilderment and a loss of the meaning of life.” Indeed, “a vision of the human person and of things without a reference to transcendence uproots man from the earth and fundamentally impoverishes his very identity.”

Thus it is “urgently necessary”, says the Pope, “ to succeed in combining technology with a strong ethical dimension, for the human capacity to transform and, in a sense, to create the world through his own work is always based on the first and original gift of things that are made by God. Technology must help nature blossom according to the will of the Creator.” But in this he is once again immediately caught on the horns of our dilemma, and the reason is painfully simple. Our left-right box is in fact essentially a naturalistic box, a secularist box, a box that effectively excludes God.

That is why the Pope insists modern states must stop squeezing God out of what we might call the natural social order, seeking to reduce Him to a mere sentiment in the private mind. We too must stop thinking of religion as an “inside the Church” phenomenon with no bearing on the natural order—as if environmentalism must be taken as a value-neutral concept about which God has nothing useful to say. Or as if it is obvious that priests, bishops and even the Pope ought to just shut up about things that don’t concern them.

Instead, we tend to keep the Green Pope firmly on the horns of his dilemma. Some of us tell the Pope to go do his real job, and in so doing we lose a signal opportunity to engage our culture’s attitudes toward man and nature. Others of us jump on the papal bandwagon as an excuse to praise the platform of our favorite secular party. But here again we fail to challenge that party’s attitudes toward man and nature. Neither of these responses can do any possible good. No, the only way to help is to pour the Pope’s new wine into new skins. In his diplomatic address, Benedict warned that the this new wine will have a decidedly heady impact on our social discourse. “Life in society,” he said, “must be considered first and foremost as a spiritual reality.”

Wait, what’s that again? “Life in society must be considered first and foremost as a spiritual reality.” Isn't this the direct opposite of what our culture dictates? Yet if you want to end the Green Pope’s dilemma—and you should—I recommend you start with this clear and ringing assertion. You will explode the box.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Jul. 12, 2011 5:07 PM ET USA

    Beautiful essay. I think there wouldn't a large portion of pantheists in the environmental movement (tho I've hardly met any in my 30 years of environmental activism), if regular people who valued life would get involved. I think the real problem is that people would rather point their finger at other sinners (abortionists) than look at how they might themselves be harming and killing people (including fetuses) and God's creation thru their environmental abuses.

  • Posted by: WLP - Jun. 27, 2011 5:43 PM ET USA

    Good piece. Thanks. I’d refer readers to a wonderful article by David L. Schindler in the Winter 2010 ed. of Communio. Dr. Schindler gets right to the core of the Holy Father’s anthropology, which, as noted herein by Dr. Mirus, is related to his writings on ecology. I also refer readers to my blog (and columns) on Catholic ecology at http://catholicecology.blogspot.com. Much of what Dr. Mirus discusses is the ongoing conversation of the blog. Thanks again. Bill Patenaude (BSME, MA Theology)

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