Environmental questions get bogged down in red herrings. Is the Earth warming? Is climate changing? Maybe. If so, is it the result of human activity? Maybe. As a layman in this area, I have to admit that I have no idea. I’ll leave the determination to the honest experts in the relevant fields. These aren’t bad questions, but they’re each different questions that are all too often conflated. An affirmative answer to any of these doesn’t by itself point to any specific moral evil. Less so does it suggest any specific political policy. More importantly, they’re ultimately irrelevant questions. Christians ought to know that care for creation is an imperative regardless of whether the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Respect and care for creation is a Christian obligation. That should be uncontroversial. There can, of course, be genuine debate about how to best carry out the responsibility to be good stewards to the rest of creation, and most approaches today to “environmentalism” get some things wrong. The problem with existing models of environmental ideologies is not primarily in their approach to creation and the environment.
The real problem is that they seek to understand the natural world on its own, apart from any reference to human beings or to its Creator.
In Evangelium vitae, St. John Paul II attributed the denial of human dignity to the “eclipse of God”. He saw that “…when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.” (n. 21) Mistakes about man are really mistakes about God, and mistakes about God will in turn result in mistakes about man. We can extend this principle to creation as Pope Benedict XVI did in Caritas in veritate when he wrote, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.” (51) Mistakes about the natural world turn out to be, in reality, mistakes about either God or man. Deifying the natural world or reducing it to mere matter are first and foremost mistakes about God; on the one hand by conflating the world with God (pantheism), or on the other by denying the act of creation (reductionism). Both are mistakes primarily about the Creator more than nature—what happens when the Creator is “eclipsed” by His creation. Similarly, absolutizing human dominion over nature, or at the opposite extreme reducing the person to just the smartest of the primates, are both fundamentally errors about the human person. It is impossible to say anything important about creation without saying—or at least implying—something about the human person and about the Creator. Environmental talk is inherently theological and anthropological.
A better term for talking about the natural world is ecology. “Environmentalism” is too narrow in focus and will inevitably lead to error. The term “ecology” is preferable and is the term you’ll find in the Compendium and the writing of Benedict XVI. Focusing on ecology rather than just the “environment” takes creation out of isolation and seeks to understand it in context, in relation to God its Creator and man its care-taker. “Ecology” comes from the Greek oikos, meaning “house”. It is related to the terms “economy”—as in the functioning of the whole—and “catholic”, from kata-holikos, or “with respect to the whole”. We now have two starting points for reflecting on creation—it is our house, our temple and we are thus called to exercise a kind of priestly care for it—and it is part of a whole that must includes man and the Creator.
During his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI had come to be known as the “Green Pope” because of his consistent reference to the Christian responsibility to care for creation. But he always emphasized the need to understand the natural world in relation to God and man. Speaking to Brazilian bishops in 2011, Benedict said:
“The first step towards a correct relationship with the world around us is the recognition by humans of their status as created beings. Man is not God; he is His image…Thus, the first ecology that is in need of defence is “human ecology” It is also important to say that without clearly defending human life, from conception until natural death; without defending the family, based on marriage between a man and a woman; without truly defending those who are excluded and marginalized from society, without forgetting in this context those that have lost everything, victims of natural disasters, we could never speak of an authentic defence of the environment.”
The Pope was not merely suggesting that we create a list of social and political priorities that we should take care of before eventually getting around to the environment. Human ecology is a necessary aspect of any authentic approach to the created world because man himself is created but, being God’s Image, is also tasked with a special role in creation.
Human ecology (rather than “environmentalism”) eliminates the tendency prevalent today in commentary on environmental questions to lean too heavily toward biological reductionism (of both man and the rest of creation) on the one hand and deification on the other. It reminds us that man is the centre of creation because, as God’s Image, he alone possesses reason, and can thus elevate all of creation through his work and prayer. In this way he participates in creation with God. The first two commands God gave Adam and Eve were invitations to be co-creators with Him. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the face of the earth” and “have dominion over creation.” (Genesis 1:28-29)
Pope Francis has indicated that an encyclical on “human ecology” is in the works to be released sometime this year. Some ecclesial commentators have wondered whether an encyclical on environmental issues is especially necessary right now, given the other more pressing challenges Christians face around the world, like, you know, being beheaded. But there’s no reason why the Church shouldn’t be leading the call for care for creation. In fact, the Church is already way ahead of the curve (as usual) and is well-poised to offer a robust and correct approach to the natural world because it will begin with a sound anthropology and not with the “environment” as such. If the Church won’t speak and act for creation, the Gaiaists, nihilists, naturalists, and anti-humanists will—and they’ll get it very, very, dreadfully wrong. Whether the earth is or isn’t warming is ultimately an irrelevant question because our Christian responsibility—or rather, command—to work toward a sound ecology is not optional.