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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Thursday, November 4, 4pm - 8pm

by Robert A. Sirico
The New York Times Magazine, November 23, 1997

In highly politicized times like ours, it is common to see secular political trends reflected in subtle changes in the doctrine and practices of mainstream religions. The Church commits no error when it throws itself into political action, for sometimes the issues can be of such importance that they make demands on the faithful to become politically active.

Even when there is no imminent crisis that warrants decisive Christian action, a vibrant faith will certainly contribute meaningfully to the political world and will reflect firmly held beliefs. Yet, it is also true that all political theories find their foundation in some normative assumption to which religious faith speaks more directly and completely than secular debate permits.

At the same time, however, there exists the ever present danger that the political activities of the Church can be driven less by a concern for applying teachings arrived at independently of a political setting, but instead reflect a desire to "fit in with" and be "relevant to" public life by working within a politicized framework. This approach appeals to many because it provides a quick means to media respectability. Such a stance may be adopted out of the misplaced desire to make evangelization easier by appealing to public political prejudices rather by than challenging secularist ideology at its core. But in this case, political activism can actually represent a threat to the fundamental truths of faith. A religious group may find itself being taught by the world around it rather than the reverse, and this reversal can lead to a corrosion of postulates of faith that once were taken for granted.

I believe that this may be the case with much of the environmental spirituality that seems to be making huge inroads into contemporary religious circles. Of late, we have witnessed the rise of what some have called a "green spirituality," which is supposed to blend nicely with orthodox faith. I speak to you as a Roman Catholic priest and my assessment is that, on some level, there are aspects of "green spirituality" or "eco-theology" that do cohere with the emphasis that the historic Christian faith has placed upon the created order. Christianity teaches that the "earth is the Lord's" because it is His creation, and we are called to look upon the glories and beauties of nature as prime examples of God's handiwork. Moreover, the Scriptures call the human family to have a profound respect for that creation and not to squander the resources that are entrusted to us for our use–but to employ them wisely. This also implies that we are not to inflict senseless cruelty on animals because this would promote a disrespectful attitude toward the sanctity of life itself, damaging not merely the animal in question, but also demeaning the dignity and injuring the spiritual development of the human person.

But let us settle upon some elementary distinctions. Looking upon nature as a lens through which we see God’s hand as author of creation is not the same as finding God Himself in nature–much less substituting God with nature itself. Having respect for God's created order does not mean that it cannot and must not be used for the benefit of humankind; rather, a belief in the sanctity of life requires that we accept our responsibilities to have dominion over nature, as Holy Scripture teaches us (cf. Genesis 1:28). Finally, the obligation to respect animals does not mean that we should relinquish our innate understanding that animals are, like all of creation, intended to serve in a subordinate position in the hierarchy of creation. That such statements are even open to question is a sign of just how far environmentalist ideology has infiltrated the communities of traditional faith. Nonetheless, we find ourselves compelled to confront this ideology insofar as it represents a challenge to traditional theo-centric and anthro-pocentric understandings of the created order.

Let us begin with one of the more famous and foundational of all modern Church statements about the place of man in the created order: Gaudium et spes, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, on December 7, 1965. Its prologue begins:

The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men, of men who, united in Christ and guided by the holy Spirit, press onwards towards the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all men. That is why Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history.

We are immediately struck by the unyielding theocentricism and, secondarily, the anthropocentrism of this passage, for it declares that the primary civic concern of an incarnational faith is the service of the human person, both in his social and spiritual roles. "Nothing that is genuinely human" is outside the concern of the Christian community. And while certainly the physical environment in which people live is a critical human concern, we find nothing here that suggests that by turning attention to the non-human created order somehow a rift will develop between a concern for the well-being and salvation of the human person. Gaudium et spes recognizes that modern man seeks to harness the "immense resources of the modern world" for his own good, and teaches that this end, the achievement of the good, can only be fulfilled in service to Christ, who strengthens and sustains us spiritually and makes possible our salvation. The means of salvation cannot be found through the immanence of the world's resources but only through the transcendence of an incarnational faith.

In 1965, the Church could state forthrightly that "believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their center and summit" (par. 12). Furthermore, nowhere in the Council’s sweeping declarations on the personal, familial, political, and even global responsibilities of mankind–and indeed the document does seem to desire that all contemporary challenges to the place of man in the social world be addressed–does the issue of the "environment," as presently understood, arise.

But today, matters are different. The vice president of the United States, in a book widely praised as the consummate statement of the new environmentalism, admits that "the more deeply I search for the roots of the global environmental crisis (sic.), the more I am convinced that it is an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for lack of a better word, spiritual." Thus, what gave rise to the Second Vatican’s Council’s statement on the solutions to the modern crisis–namely, problems that are primarily social in nature–are radically altered in this new treatment. We are asked to reassess our spiritual place in the universe by renewing "a connection"–not to God–but to the "natural world."

This is not to say that the environment as such was not a concern of the secular world. In 1966, the American historian Lynn White spoke before the American Association for the Advancement of Science and said that Christianity is uniquely responsible for growing environmental problems. "Christianity," he said, "in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends." "By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects." Leaving aside the biased presentation of the Christian view (exploitation and dominion are easily distinguished), professor White’s presentation at least has the merit of clarity and even some degree of honesty. He is not attempting to hijack Christianity for pagan purposes, but rather understands that the traditional faith of the West does indeed regard man as separate from Creation; the West regards the dignity of man as the highest social responsibility, just as it regards love of and service to God as its highest end and spiritual goal.

Similarly, and in more recent times, Rupert Sheldrake has attacked the Judeo-Christian tradition for emphasizing the supremacy of man over Mother Earth, and calls for a new animism. Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard denounce "the traditional Christian approach to nature" as a "contributing factor to ecological destruction." And James Nash calls for the Christian church to purge the "last vestiges" of anthropocentric theories (that man is higher in the order of creation than the natural environment) in the service of Mother Earth.

These authors seem to understand that there is something at the very heart of Christianity than runs counter to a (counter) theology and (radical) politics that considers the natural environment to maintain rights autonomous from and in many respects above those of human persons. The doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ teaches that in God's entrance into human history, the historical moment when eternity and time converged most intimately, the human person became ennobled by God's choice of the human form. To disparage this teaching by exalting non-human forms of life above rational souls is not only to strike at traditional doctrine; it is subtly to undermine the sanctity of human life itself–the very foundation of Christian ethics. These writings contrast Christian ethical, political, and cultural concerns with an alternative environmentalist ethical, political, and cultural agenda, and by doing so the stage is set for an open and honest debate, one all of Christendom should welcome.

In the 1980s, it appears that matters began to change, so that the line between green ideology and Christian ethics began to blur. Calvin B. DeWitt, a University of Wisconsin professor of environmental studies, founded the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies and proceeded to underwrite a series of conferences and books. The result were three highly influential volumes, Tending the Garden: Essays on the Gospel and the Earth, The Environment and the Christian: What Can We Learn from the New Testament?, and Missionary Earthkeeping . They articulated an increasingly radical nature-centered theology and misconstrued Gospel narratives in enviro-political terms, and largely adopted the teachings, goals, and means of the Green Movement as ones fitting for the evangelical community. And one notices, too, that this stance was not adopted apart from certain trends in the secular political world, much less in opposition to them. The 1980s represented the coming of age of the environmentalist movement, a time when a new political movement began to adopt the stance that divides the world into strict categories of good and evil, with man’s impact on nature seen as the evil and Mother Earth in an undisturbed state as the good to be restored and preserved.

It was the dawning of a new Manachaeism, an ancient dualism that postulated that the universe was divided between dark and light, the dark dealing primarily with man's physical qualities and light with spirituality and the denial of the physical. Unwittingly, segments of the Evangelical Protestant community began to pick up these themes. In the decade of the 1980s, a survey of 125 church-related colleges revealed that 95 percent offered courses in environmentalism. The movement for the greening of Christianity was defended on grounds that countered the regrettable secularism of environmentalist political allies, and that the potential for recruiting a political community represented an evangelistic opportunity. But the greening of Christianity did not end with mere tactics but went to the heart of the biblical doctrine that man is to have dominion over the earth, especially through his work in the world of economics. Or, as one author has put it, it is an indication of our fallen nature that we construe the commandment to have dominion over the earth as being a mandate for only human welfare, just as we have supposedly misconstrued the death of Jesus as making possible the salvation of humans and not the whole of creation.

But this is a strange theory indeed, one that would imply that the life of animals and plants is as precious as human beings but also that all forms of life are equipped with rational souls and thereby equally in need of evangelization. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this theory would not only reduce the status of human life to that of the animal kingdom; in addition, owing to its radical implications for economic systems, it would likely lead to the massive curbing of production, economic exchange, innovation, and eventually mass starvation and death. In truth, we know from all of history and Christian teaching that man’s survival and flourishing depends on exercising responsible dominion over creation, tilling and keeping the Garden, owning property and transforming it to the betterment of the human condition, and always with an eye toward doing God’s will with the aim of salvation. To deny this is sheer fantasy, a fantasy even more absurd than that which gave birth to the idea that all society’s resources are better owned by the state than by individuals. For all the problems inherent in the idea of socialism, at least this much can be said for even the most maladjusted among them: they sold their social reforms as a means for making human beings better off. None of them ever asked the world to overthrow the private property order in the attempt to make existence freer for the plant or animal kingdoms or the ozone layer.

The claim that the activities of tilling the soil, eating animals, and generally having dominion over nature are contrary to ethics are hardly new in the history of the Church. Indeed, the more we study the history of ideas, the more we find there is little new under the sun. St. Augustine was confronted with the claim that the commandment against murder might also apply to animals–to which he aptly responded:

Some people try to stretch the prohibition [against killing] to cover beasts and cattle, and make it unlawful to kill any such animals. But, then, why not include plants and anything rooted in and feeding on the soil? After all, things like this, though devoid of feeling, are said to have life, and, therefore, can die, and so be killed by violent treatment. St. Paul himself, speaking of seeds, says, "That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die first," while the Psalmist writes: ‘And he destroyed their vineyards with hail.’ Must we, then, when we read, ‘thou shalt not kill,’ understand that it is a crime to pull up a shrub, and foolishly subscribe to the error of the Manichaeans?

Putting this nonsense aside, we do not apply ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to plants, because they have no sensation; or to irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, because they are likened to us by no association or common bond. By the Creator’s wise ordinance, they are meant for our use, dead or alive. It only remains for us to apply the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ to man alone, oneself, and others."

The source of St. Augustine’s impatience with this line of thinking comes from his own early devotion to the Manichean faith. This was a religion founded by the Persian Mani in the latter half of the third century. It claimed to be the true synthesis of all religion but actually consisted of a composite mix of Zoroastrian Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics, and some superficial additions of Christianity. As a variant of Gnosticism, it taught that there were two forces in the world, one represented by light, which was spirit and intellect, and one represented by dark, which was desire, emotion, and the physical world. The discipline of the religion was extremely strict, and mostly consisted of sexual and dietary restrictions. The Perfect, the elite among the group, were forbidden to own property, to eat meat or drink wine, to gratify sexual desire, or to engage in any commerce or trade. Only vegetables were allowed to the Perfect, and even then, the Perfect were not allowed to pick them off trees; rather they had to wait for them to fall from trees. The job of the secondary followers of Mani, who were called Hearers, was primarily to gather fruit (preferably melons) for the Perfect, since the Perfect themselves were forbidden to work, and otherwise worship the Perfect on bended knee. All the while, they were instructed to feel guilty that they were engaged in some level of involvement with the forces of darkness owing to their own weakness and inability to replicate the idealized lives of the Perfect. Manichaeism was eventually swamped by the spread of Christianity, reduced to only a handful of followers, and it died out sometime around the year 1000.

Now, today we ask ourselves how a religion of this sort could have had any followers at all, but we do well to remember that it once represented a threat to Christianity itself, and spread to both the East and West and engulfed a huge part of the population of the world before slowly dying out. The secret to its success was its consistent application of the first principle of dualism: good and evil were strict categories, embodied not in an ethic of transcendent origin but one discoverable through the intellect alone, an ethic animated entirely through how one interacts with the physical world, which is said to embody good and evil aspects inherently. And in this we can see the parallels with modern environmentalism, which has spawned every manner of extremist group. The Perfect among the environmentalists eschew all meat and all trade and live only on bare essentials, never spoiling themselves by involving themselves in commerce or ownership of any kind. The Hearers of the environmental community do smaller acts of piety like recycling and adopting moderate dietary restrictions, all the while knowing of their ethical inferiority to the Perfect, i.e., the environmental extremists. One might take note of the lifestyle and writings of Theodore Kazinski (the "Unibomber"), which are imbued with a passionate religious fervor, an air of moral superiority, a piety based in naturalism, and a hard-core conviction that even killing and maiming are justified to wipe out evil (which is defined as civilization itself) and restore goodness (the natural state of the environment and man’s subordinate place in it).

We make a mistake to think any heretical religion is a thing of the past, for they can return with a vengeance, even within the Christian community when distortions occur within basic Christian anthropology. Characteristically, in our age, religious heresies are often political in origin. For example, witness the confusion between patriotism and worship of the state, between the ethical demands of charity, and the belief that the modern welfare state is ordained of God, and, now, the belief that the Jewish-Christian idea of the goodness of creation and its responsible stewardship is identical to environmentalist political ideology.

What does Christianity teach about the place of the environment in political and personal ethics? I can think of no clearer statement on the matter than that provided by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus . The statement from the Pope, writing after the fall of communism in Europe, embraces a limited role for the state (par. 11) and private property (par. 30), condemns the socialist heresy (par. 13), as well as endorses the division of labor (par. 31-32), entrepreneurship (par. 32), the business economy (par. 32), the system of profit and loss (par. 30), the right to work (par. 43), and prosperity (part. 36). The Pope also addresses the problem of the environment in one of the document’s least discussed passages (par. 37-39). He says ecological problems result when "man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error" of forgetting that natural resources are a gift from God and must be used in accord with his commandments. This would imply a demand that resources not be needlessly squandered, which is perfectly in accord with the Pope’s embrace of the market economy and the system of profit, the least wasteful and most efficient system of economic organization known in history.

And what economic systems subject the earth’s resources to use without restraint? Precisely those that exalt the state as a planning apparatus, do not properly define property rights, and lead to what economists call the overutilization of resources. No greater environmental spoilage has been witnessed than that seen in the old socialist Eastern bloc countries. In contrast, the market economy is a forward looking system of economic organization in which the scarcities of the future are imputed back into today’s prices and therefore signal the proper uses of resources today in preparation. As the Pope says, we must always be conscious of our duties toward future generations, a function more easily fulfilled by a system of rationing driven by market signals rather than by bureaucratic edicts.

The Pope moves from the issue of the natural environment to a problem he considers "more serious": the "destruction of the human environment, something that is by no means receiving the attention it deserves." In particular, he calls attention to man’s sinful nature and the need for man to respect the "natural structure and moral structure with which he has been endowed" (part. 38). The first and fundamental structure for human ecology is the family (an institution forbidden by the Manichaens and sometimes attacked as wasteful and profligate by modern environmentalists). It is through the family that a person receives formative ideas about truth and goodness and the faith. "The family is sacred," says the Pope. "It is the place in which life, the gift of God, can be properly welcomed and protected against the attacks to which it is exposed and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth."

All of these statements assume, as does the whole of the religious tradition of the West, that man is given primacy in the created order, that he is to use the resources of the earth responsibly and to the betterment of all of human society, that goodness and evil are not embedded in the material world itself but are brought to the material world by the choices we make about whether to follow God’s commandments, that nature has no soul and is not in the salvific plan of God, and that the sanctity of life must be the primary concern of human political and economic organization.

In secular times such as ours, perhaps, it is not surprising that strange theories that harken back to the Gnostics and the heresies of the early Christian centuries would come into political currency, even through massive popular movements such as an ill-conceived environmentalism that teaches ideas contrary to orthodoxy. But we make a profound error in attempting to graft those ideas onto orthodox faith, and especially to attempt to do so out of a misplaced desire for strategic advantage in the philosophical battles of our time.

There are three institutions, whose legitimacy is established by economic science and traditional moral norms, that all religious faiths of our age need to come to terms with in order to inoculate themselves from rampant politicization, especially that which seeks to restore a Gnostic understanding of man’s relation to the created order. First, we must seek a renewed understanding and appreciation of private property, a normative idea underscored by the moral teaching against theft. Second, we must be aware of the merits of free exchange, an institutional structure that rewards peaceful human cooperation above violence and theft. Third, we must come to terms with the justice of wealth accumulation, a normative notion that is an indispensable underpinning to economic development and the advancement of civilization. It is precisely these three institutions that the environmental faith is most unwilling to recognize and ensure respect through the political order.

Until people of faith come to terms with these three ideas, and view the temporal practice of the ethical norms of their faith within the general social framework of these institutions, religious communities in general and Christianity in particular will continue to be vulnerable to the corrosive influence of secularist and statist political trends. There is much more to society and politics than the justice of ownership, exchange, and economic development; but until we, in our faith communities, can understand that they serve as foundational elements to peaceful human cooperation, we will not have taken the essential first step to avoiding replicating the profound doctrinal and political errors of the past.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.