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Catholic Teaching on Ecology

Friday, September 23, 2011

The last ecological catastrophe surrounding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the Atlantic (Fall 2010) bids us question not so much the sense of the extraction of oil from sea and ocean, but rather the deeper and more fundamental concerns regarding the treatment of the environment by man. From such unacceptable management arose the ecological movement and numerous international organizations were formed having the task of stemming the destructive activities of that species called homo sapiens. This movement, however, is dependent on change in the mental attitude of contemporary man, who from his position of respect for nature in its original state began to exploit and destroy it. In a way, it is involved in the world’s departure from the Christian philosophy of life which owned God as the Creator of all that exists, thanks to Whom, creation itself takes on value and respect. Although the theological and ecological roads diverged, the church did not discontinue its efforts toward protection of the environment and through its teaching it exhibits the hazardous tendencies that have crept in, suggesting alternative and humanistic rectification. Closely consider the position of the Catholic Church in light of the challenges of modern society.

Sister Nature
At one time, there was no need of ecology, for the Christian doctrine that generally prevailed, by its own rules proclaimed respect for all that exists. It was from the nature of a creation dependent on God, by reason of His creating and redeeming it, that appropriate esteem and awe was drawn. Man being distinguished among other creatures with conscience and free will took on an exceptional position, being asked by the Creator for this very reason to collaborate in the improvement of the world. God appoints him as the ultimate being in the crown of creation, enjoining him to subdue the earth as its governor and guardian. Man names all living beings as a sign of responsibility for them before God. He burns fires, uproots forests, hunts animals and dresses in their skins only as a need for survival, preserving intact the laws of nature. Life in the womb of nature, which he manages, convinces him that she is friendly, albeit with unbridled strength which he must reckon with and esteem. He experiences sin, although he knows he has the source within his own heart by which it ought to be ascetically subdued by the grace of Christ. This common source in God the Creator and Sanctifier forces St. Francis of Assisi to recognize nature along with its laws as the brothers and sisters accompanying man on his life’s journey.

The Emergence of the Ecological Movement
Modern times with their remoteness from the Christian view of the world bring mental change and a new starting point for considerations about nature. It builds its thesis based on a completely foreign philosophy, stimulated by a kind of cult of progress, science and technology, and in the spirit of interpreting previous thinking. On the other hand, the market economies of socialism and capitalism introduce new forms of production making nature the sole instrument of the greatest exploitation, no longer even recognizing environmental poisoning. This occurs because in place of God the Creator, man emerges homo economicus, who is the master and ruler of the earth. The Bible password “subdue the earth” begins to read in the sense of unrestrained exploitative activity and destruction of nature.

The utter rape and abuse visited upon the natural world began to generate legitimate protest among scholars. Thus from the beginning of the last century, the ecological movement took form. Its very name speaks of noble motivation, for its Greek roots: oikos and logos indicate a respect for the natural environment. Still, in the light of rejection of its Divine source, sooner or later, it must arrive at deadlock. In its extreme form which along with the process of globalization is beginning to spread far and wide, it preaches its own cult of nature, recognizing earth goddesses to whom man must also submit.

Earth Goddess
The earth, threatened by man’s eco-system, now has become a kind of center over which to be concerned and to do everything toward her preservation. With the aid of the premises of a future Eastern philosophical system with its holistic view of the world, it proclaims deference for all life by reason of its godly character. Man, factored with other entities of nature, was evaluated no longer according to his intellectual/moral aptitude, but in the way of all the rest of creation: on the basic facts of life. Accordingly, there arose a “new ethic” within this cult, i.e. respect for life, as of the highest value above everything else, in the name of harmony among all creatures and the salvation of the world. The upshot was to be the emergence of the so-called ecological man, characterized by a respect for all forms of life, acknowledging simultaneously the moral status of nature and the legal rights of animals, so effectively forming a protection against that very man. Thus the position of God the true Creator and the resulting respect for all creation was taken over by other gods, and particularly by the earth goddess where man held no specially distinctive feature among other creatures. Against this background we can better understand the adoption of varied, bizarre and sometimes ridiculous incentives by ecological organizations in order to protect the environment.

The Church and Ecology
Then is the ecological movement with all its wealth of volunteers and organized protests something evil? Many events here approach the absurd, e.g. the vegetarian proclamation of protection for all animals and fish; the demanding of tax payments from wealthier countries for their pollution of the environment only to apply these funds toward abortions in poor countries; endlessly lavishing verifiable information about the results of global warming to obtain great amounts of money from the budgets of many countries; cutting down forests under cultivation for biofuel projects, etc.

Church teaching proposes verification of ecological views, eliminating any extreme forms and above all any basic errors such as the rupture between Creator and the creation from which was derived a natural respect for the “sanctity” of nature. In addition, it demands recognition of the sinful condition of man, so that armed with this information we may speak of ecological education, i.e. that man might comprehend ecological problems and submit to moral and esthetic standards. Thus he might discover not only the good of creation but also its beauty giving way to contemplation of the Creator. The Church appeals also to those who have a deciding influence in the exploitation and poisoning of the environment, so that bearing in mind the good of mankind and the entire planet, they might responsibly and prudently profit from the resources of the earth. As an example to Christians for his ecological attitude in his respectful approach to nature, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Fancis Assisi the patron saint of ecology (1979).