The environmental debate is often muddled by two false views of the natural world. Some claim that nature has by itself intrinsic value, that is, it has worth independent of man’s intrusive presence. Others argue that nature has only instrumental value, that is, it has worth only insofar as it is transformed into economically useful goods. Both views represent an essentially materialist view of man and the universe.
Christian ethics offers a third view: responsible stewardship. Pope John Paul II, for example, has often spoken about this in the context of what he calls “the ecological question.” As he wrote in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, environmental problems have at their root an anthropological error: “Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray.… Man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature…” (n. 37).
To those who advocate central economic planning, John Paul observes that it is the Creator God, not creation, who demands worship and that we are to be cooperators with God in the work of creation, developing it according to the needs of the human family. To others who appreciate the importance of the market process, he reminds that the worship of man’s creative ability is also idolatry and that we are to govern, not tyrannize, creation, relating the natural world and our work in it toward the truth.
It is only in light of a proper view of God, man, and nature that the free society can provide an indispensable institutional framework for properly exercising our stewardship mandate. Responsible stewardship of creation is one of the primary themes of the Institute’s new environmental initiative, and I thank you for the support that is allowing us to embark on it.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico