No Ecologist, Ratzinger Shrinks from Sustainable Development Thesis

"The protection of creation and peacemaking are profoundly linked! . . . If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation." Many opinion makers commended the 43rd World Day of Peace Message delivered by Benedict XVI as an ecological turning point of pontifical social teaching. Indeed, this is a self-evidently forced interpretation, although easily understandable, because it is undeniable that the current pontiff has begun a social reflection in which, opportunely, environmental problems assume more and more a special role.

In order to select some element among a myriad of impressions arising from reading of the Message, I hold that one aspect deserves to be emphasized in a particular way. I am referring to the connection Benedict establishes between environmental problems, properly called, and so called "human ecology": "Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others". This means that Benedict XVI acutely encourages education toward a peculiar environmental responsibility, a kind of responsibility, however, that never surrenders to the rhetoric of "sustainable development" (where the measure of sustainability is the fall in the birth rate). On the contrary, he encourages an idea of responsibility that individualizes as its principal objective the protection of a genuine "human ecology."

The connection Benedict XVI makes refers to the Catholic anthropological perspective and not to a vague sociology of "egalitarianism" among all living beings-–a noble sociology, although not quite adequate from a Catholic anthropological point of view. With this connection, Benedict XVI renews the central message of Catholic social teaching regarding "the inviolability of human life at every stage and in every condition," together with the claim of "the dignity of the person and the unique mission of the family, where one is trained in love of neighbour and respect for nature."

Benedict XVI's Message points up the authentically human measure of development, a measure that appears in close relation to the anthropological dimension of the human person, as created at image of God and thus called to participate with the Creator in the love of the Father.

The pontiff's arguments are the ones traditional to the "theology of creation," arguments that underscored in a unique way John Paul II's teaching. Let's take into consideration the issues of work, of capital, of enterprise and of profit analyzed in the encyclicals Laborem exercens (1981); Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987); Centesimus annus (1991). Benedict XVI underlines the genuine human measure of development, proposing again what he held in the recent encyclical Caritas in veritate (2009), in which he wrote: "God is the guarantor of man's true development, inasmuch as, having created him in his image, he also establishes the transcendent dignity of men and women and feeds their innate yearning to 'be more.' Man is not a lost atom in a random universe: he is God's creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom he has always loved."

Benedict XVI's Message points up the authentically human measure of development, a measure that appears in close relation to the anthropological dimension of the human person, as created at image of God and thus called to participate with the Creator in the love of the Father. This kind of Love (Caritas), in Catholic perspective, making us sons, reveals to us the brotherhood of all the people of the earth and it reveals also the calling to love our neighbour like God loves us. The measure is evidently traceable to the mystery-scandal of the Cross, that is, the measure with which God loved us and with which He continues to love us in history.

This anthropological perspective appears more and more clearly when Benedict affirms: "If the Church's magisterium expresses grave misgivings about notions of the environment inspired by ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things. In the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the 'dignity' of all living creatures, such notions end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man's salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms." On the contrary, the Pope says that the Church invites to face ecological problems "in a balanced way," respecting first the "'grammar,' which the Creator has inscribed in his handiwork." This grammar gives to the human beings a role as active steward and not that of a stupid keeper who abdicates to his role as co-creator, a role that derives to him because he is not simply a creature of God, among many living creatures; he brings with him the "image" of the God-Creator.

The respect and the protection of the world are only the minimal slope of larger space where it is possible for human beings to be active and to expound on his own creativity. Creation is not only ex nihilo (from nothingness), but it is also contra nihilum, against the nothingness and the insubstantiality of things. Benedict XVI says to us that ecological negation is not only an ugly defacing of the beauties of creation, a way to make the cosmos a sad and less attractive place. It is also a way to subtract from human beings the faculty for a serene and communicative encounter with the real, and it is also a way to subtract from the real his own possibility to be continually improved.

Flavio Felice is an adjunct fellow at AEI and the president of the Acton-Tocqueville Studies Centre.

Photo credit: Flickr user sam_herd/Creative Commons

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