Protecting the environment has been a consistent theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy. In my view, the Pope brought a much needed, clear-thinking perspective to a debate dominated by narrow-mindedness and special interests. I pray his successor continues in that tradition.
Though I’ve not had the pleasure of reading his most recent book on the subject, The Environment, his emphasis on the need to protect the environment has been deeply profound.
Too often debates about climate change devolve into a shouting match over whether or not Al Gore is a hypocrite. What ends up happening is that we fail to recognize that we live in a world of finite resources that are being consumed at an ever-increasing rate.
As Pope Benedict asked in his 2010 World Peace Day message:
Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?
Unfortunately, many on the political left have appropriated Pope Benedict’s desire to protect the environment as a tacit endorsement of their extremist views.
Indeed, environmental activists and journalists like Nicholas Kristof have been more than willing to report on what they feel are contradictions in the Pope’s message while emphasizing the supposed positive effects contraceptives and population control can have on curbing climate change and encouraging economic growth.
These are misguided policies. As Pope Benedict pointed out in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “Our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward the human person…It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the others.”
Some environmentalists go so far as to blame Christianity for the degradation of the environment. Man’s dominion over the “fish of the sea and the birds of the air,” the argument typically goes, exemplifies a speciest, man-centered worldview that fails to recognize the value of the “natural world.”
This argument is false. For mankind is part of the “natural world,” and as author Colleen Carroll Campbell has written, if we “argue that our rights are based on something other than our shared human nature we can wind up elevating the rights of chimps and pigs above those of profoundly disabled or demented humans.”
Christian stewardship, therefore, is not a license to do whatever one pleases to the environment. “The environment is God’s gift to everyone,” Benedict writes in Caritas, “and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole.”
As creatures made in the image of God, we are called to advance our legitimate needs but only by using the planet’s resources in a responsible way. We are not called to be in kinship with our animal neighbors. As I have written about before, human life is not on par with a flock of geese or blade of grass. “It is contrary,” Pope Benedict writes, “to view nature as something more important than the human person.” For “human salvation cannot come from nature alone.”