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Catholics and the environment: Too easily misunderstood?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 01, 2016

Pope Francis’ suggestion that care for the environment should be considered a work of mercy may not really require any comment. But I have the feeling that many will find this startling or confusing or distressing. If I’m correct, then there is reasonable cause to address the issue.

I’ve argued in the past (in The Moral Downside of Climate Change) that the problem with a Catholic embrace of environmentalism is that concern for the environment is often used today as a means of seizing the moral high ground, in effect shunting aside far more important moral requirements. In other words, environmentalism is too often a distraction from the hard work of self-analysis and personal reform.

But, of course, when the Church addresses the environment, she is not talking about environmentalism but about Catholicism. It is not a question of adopting the materialistic focus of the environmental movement, or its common failure to distinguish different orders of being, or its pessimism about humanity (which is inescapable without recognizing the nature of the person). It is rather a question of recovering and applying the truth that all of nature is a gift created by God, and given to us as stewards to use, conserve and bring to fruition for the common good, thereby maximizing God’s glory.

Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI addressed environmental concerns in exactly this way, with the human person in the center of the Divine plan. For example, in 2002 John Paul jointly promulgated a Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In his own encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis expressed his debt to the Orthodox on this point. And as I explained at the time (in What Laudato Si’ is really about), the Pope’s primary purpose is not to take one side or another in scientific debates. Rather:

He argues that even though the problem is of concern to all, Christianity has something special to offer in its understanding that nature is a tremendous gift of a personal Creator, and that God has set man over this gift of nature to conserve and develop it for the purposes God has ordained. The Pope insists that only if we begin again to see ourselves in relationship to God can we begin again to understand this gift of nature, its meaning, the gratitude it evokes, and the limits and ends it imposes on our stewardship.

Our news story on the Pope’s suggestion—that we should regard care of the environment as an authentic work of mercy—picks up these very same themes. This is true both in Francis’ own remarks and in those of Cardinal Peter Turkson, a long-time proponent of environmental concern whom Francis recently appointed to lead the new dicastery for Integral Human Development. So again, comment may not really be necessary. In one sense, there is nothing untoward here—that is, nothing which should concern us about Catholicism In High Places.

A Worldly Danger

No, the problem remains what it has always been with this issue: The ease with which the world is distracted by causes which have usually been framed in purely natural terms. It is extraordinarily difficult for Christians to avoid further secularization when they believe they are being encouraged by their spiritual leaders to ally themselves with powerful causes that are already championed by the world.

The environmental movement is dominated by secularists who neither recognize the spiritual component of the human person nor know the difference between a human person and an animal or plant. In general, these people are quite wealthy. They are not prone to take significant sacrificial steps to change their own moral and behavioral flaws—the flaws which render even their environmentalism very selective. As often as not they see restrictions on the birth of new men and women as the key to saving “the environment”. They do not recognize that the values and attitudes which are essential to proper care for the environment are exactly the same values and attitudes which lead people to respect and treasure all of God’s gifts.

I am referring here to the values and attitudes which lead us to understand and honor the purposes of human sexuality; to make lifetime commitments in marriage; to bear and raise children; to keep our families intact; to eschew divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography, gender theory, euthanasia, radical individualism, and personal luxury; in sum, to resist everything that disrupts the natural order, diminishes gratitude, and obscures the Divine plan.

All of these aberrations are not only theoretically but practically linked to environmental degradation. How many additional energy-consuming households do we have in the affluent West because people cannot stay married? How many persons, animals and plants are biologically degraded by the explosion of contraceptives? How much costly, energy-dependent sensual gratification is demanded by those who will not soothe their own restlessness in God? People who cannot connect the dots in their most obvious and fundamental behavioral patterns will never—I repeat, never—succeed in caring properly for the environment.

This is simply impossible without learning to see with God’s eyes. And that is the danger implicit in every Catholic effort which is likely to be interpreted as being late to the party, as getting on board a secular train that has already left the station. If Catholics are not prepared to explain that a proper care for the environment must be rooted in the love of God and obedience to His will in all things, then an emphasis on an apparently worldly initiative can do more harm than good.

With respect to the works of mercy, there is also a major danger in overshadowing the highly personal character of these works by including matters which, by their very nature, require prudential social policies to secure the common good. I will address this on another day, but surely we can see how easy it is to reduce the concept of personal goodness to political correctness. In the contemporary West, it is a constant temptation to delegate our moral responsibility by voting, and then to criticize those who take a more personal view of their deepest responsibilities.

Does this mean that Pope Francis should not teach the truth about Creation and the care of the environment? Certainly not. This may well be a fruitful starting point in the secular world for a significant exploration of the facts of life. The Pope’s timely reflections on the relationship between science and truth are very pertinent here.

But the prudence of emphasizing the environment depends on whether the discussion has really been co-opted before it has even begun. It involves questions about the courage it takes to directly challenge the world by unpopular testimony, as opposed to the appearance of unseemly haste in adding a Christian voice to a gargantuan secular chorus. If Catholic intervention in the discussion of the environment does not make secularists uncomfortable—if it is not perceived by those who reject God as a rather troubling wedge—then the Church is better off emphasizing moral issues that cannot be so easily misunderstood.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Sep. 02, 2016 6:46 PM ET USA

    Cogent and helpful.