The primacy of God, which Pope Benedict XVI made a priority of his pontificate, reminds us that reality is intelligible and human reason must be used: reason that is able to recognize the logos, the objective reason that manifests itself in nature.
According to the saying fides quaerens intellectum, the faith, far from hindering reason, encourages it to wonder about the world, because the rationality of creation is the first message of the Creator to His creature. The proper order of creation, its logos, is the reflection within itself of the divine Logos, the creator Spirit.
In a 2006 homily, Pope Benedict preached that “the world does not exist by itself; it is brought into being by the creative Spirit of God, by the creative Word of God. For this reason Pentecost also mirrors God’s wisdom. In its breadth and in the omniscient logic of its laws, God’s wisdom permits us to glimpse something of his Creator Spirit.” The earth and everything it contains reflects the beauty and glory of God. “It is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a grammar which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation,” he writes in Caritas in Veritate.
Some radical environmental movements (such as those who embrace what is often called “deep ecology”) clearly derive their inspiration from a pagan pantheism, which leads to a deification of nature. Reason is subdued and abdicates its role and dignity. In fact, as Pope Benedict affirmed, “the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life.”
Illuminated by faith, reason allowed the world to cease to be regarded as divine. It helped man to cease worshiping the elements (earth, sky, and water), the stars, the plants and the animals as mythical beings or as multiple facets of the divinity.
The contemporary ideology of ecologicalism turns nature into a cult – not nature as humanized by man, his knowledge and work, but rather an entity that existed before him and can exist without man. The planet is viewed as a divine spiritual being – the famous earth-mother goddess Gaia, which we address through various channels, telluric forces, and vital force.
The determination to become one with the cosmos, to lose all distinction, leads to a rejection of reason and critical thinking, which supposedly are the forces guilty of harming the planet. Thus unreason triumphs; people celebrate instinct, emotion, intuition, and ultimately irrationality.
Recover the Meanings of the Words
If we are to see clearly the extremes to which this trend can lead, Christians must be capable of noting its influence and recognizing its outlines. In this connection, it is crucial today to denounce the ideological background that informs certain terminologies. Regarding ecology, it is difficult, for instance, to subscribe to all the assumptions of the Earth Charter Initiative, an international declaration supposed to spell out the principles of protection of the environment and of human development. Promulgated by UNESCO in March 2000, the charter’s preamble states that “humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life.” Man should thus recognize the rights of nature and submit himself to the ecological imperative. With this perspective, we see how the earth ends up being deified and man desecrated.
According to the ancient adage, vera vocabula rerum amisimus (“we have lost the true meaning of words”), our vocabulary is not neutral. Should Christians simply adopt the new language, which seems to have been designed ad hoc, and risk that the Christian message may come across as unspecific, and with no originality? Surely, the language of the Gospel escapes all conformism! Certainly, the Church has a message about the environment. She has reflected upon creation and its meaning, and henceforth about its relation to God. There are more than a few nuances that underlie the different meanings between expressions such as saving the planet and respect for creation, and between sustainable development and integral human development.
Man’s Unique Position within Creation
The ecological crisis stems also from an anthropological crisis. Man misjudges his true identity and, therefore, his place in relation to God and other creatures. They are for man, and man is for God. Neglecting this hierarchy of beings, which is derived from their meaning, leads to destructive attitudes toward nature.
The biblical point of view on creation is clearly anthropocentric: Man is the jewel of creation, because God has created him in His image and likeness. This man is a person, a being who relates, who is able to know and love God. Man also belongs to the order of creation, as he too received life. The Bible introduces us to a personable God, Who enters into a relationship with His creature. This relationship implies a being that is distinct from the only being capable of destroying nature. He is also the only one who can give the meaning and value intended by God. Such is man’s essential place in the cosmos.
Man is not just one species among others. As we read in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution in the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes: “According to the almost unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown.” Man is “the only creature on earth which God willed for Himself” and for no other reason. Man is not God, but he is created in His own image. It follows that “in human beings, there is a kind of epiphany of God.”
The biblical point of view is thus also highly theocentric. God is at the origin and end of all and creates man capable of knowing God and existing for Him. In Genesis, we see that God creates a biodiversity in the image of His own wealth, in a work of separation and ornamentation that builds a clear distinction between the kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, and animal) according to the days, while ordering them to each other. Then man comes at the end (sixth day) and receives special treatment. Moreover, man himself is designed to stay and rest with God on the seventh day.
It is impossible to conceive an authentic ecology other than one that is centered upon man and not simply upon the earth. Hence, the protection of nature requires the protection of man. “A true ecology can only be human. It is not only respectful of nature but also of all men and of man in all his dimensions.” We can never consider nature as more important than the human person.
This commentary was excerpted from Bishop Rey's book, Catholicism, Ecology, and the Environment: A Bishop’s Reflection (Acton, 2014).