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Catholic Social Doctrine: The Theology of Ecology

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
May 16th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Man, who is made in God's image in a manner entirely distinct from the rest of nature, has a special responsibility to it.  Indeed, Christians believe that the Lord "entrusted all of creation to [man's] responsibility, charging [man] to care for its harmony and development. (Cf. 1:26-30)." (Compendium, No. 451) Creation participates in God's Logos, his ratio, his wisdom.  Man, who participates in God's ratio in a preeminent degree, is able to see nature as "the word of God's creative action," and not "as a dangerous adversary."  It is not man against nature, but man in nature.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - God, whose essence is to be, is radically different from the created world whose being is contingent and utterly reliant both for its initial existence and its continuing existence on God.  God is the beginning and end of all things outside of himself; he is therefore the first cause and their final cause.  The entire world, including man which is a part of it, looks to God for its existence and its purpose. God is its creator and its provider.

Our radical dependence upon God helps us see all creation as a gift, as a gift that is governed by God in his Providence.  Nature is more or less a reflection of God's nature, from the lowest (God is my rock, tsur, Ps. 18:2) to the highest (man is God's "image," the tzelem elohim, e.g. Gen. 1:27-28).  Creation participates in God's Logos, his ratio, his wisdom.  Man, who participates in God's ratio in a preeminent degree, is able to see nature as "the word of God's creative action," and not "as a dangerous adversary."  It is not man against nature, but man in nature.

Man, who is made in God's image in a manner entirely distinct from the rest of nature, has a special responsibility to it.  Indeed, Christians believe that the Lord "entrusted all of creation to [man's] responsibility, charging [man] to care for its harmony and development. (Cf. 1:26-30)." (Compendium, No. 451)

We are trustees, and we hold the world in trust, answerable for its use to God and to our fellows.

The world is good, even very good. (Cf. Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). This is so fundamental that Christianity is incomprehensible without this notion.  Man is placed at the summit of the good which is creation, so that men and women share in a particularly striking and unique way in God's ratio, his reasoned goodness and for a good reason.  There is reason outside man and reason within man, both of which reflect the eternal ratio of God.

It follows that man has responsibility to this great good, this great gift.  While he has been given dominion over the gift of the world, it is not a dominion that may be exercised recklessly, negligently, without regard to the God who gave him such dominion.  He is more akin to a custodian or caretaker over nature than a tyrannous Lord over it.  The world is used "in dialogue with God," not independent from God. (Compendium, No. 452.)

"Only in dialogue with God," the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, "does the human being find his truth, from which he draws inspiration and norms to make plans for the future of the world, which is the garden that God has given him to keep and till (cf. Gen 2: 15).  Not even sin could remove this duty, although it weighed down this exalted work with pain and suffering (cf. Gen 3:17-19)." (Compendium, No. 452)

Creation is in a serious way sacred to man.  It is a reflection of God's goodness.  It is a gift given to man.  It is one over which God has placed upon him a sacred duty to guard.  For this reason, creation is always seen as something which manifests, indeed induces praise, to God.  It is something which God himself does not spurn, and indeed brought into himself in Christ.  It is something which God has used as a vehicle, a medium of the supernatural life in the sacraments.  It is something which He has redeemed through his Cross, and which seeks fulfillment in Christ's second coming.

A Christian, in particular, must take a quasi-sacramental view of nature.  Jesus, we believe, is God incarnate in man, and so God himself has assumed into His very heart, through the Son, man, who is the apex, and so custodian and representative of all nature.  "Nature, which was created in the Word, is, by the same Word made flesh, reconciled to God and given new peace." (Compendium, No. 454)

In reflecting upon the intimate relationship between God and his creation, we can do no better than reflect upon the so-called "Christ Hymn" found in St. Paul's letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:15-20):

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. 
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 
He is the head of the body, the church. 
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross (through him), whether those on earth or those in heaven.

For the believer, "[t]he whole of creation participates in the renewal flowing from the Lord's Paschal Mystery," so that "nothing stands outside this salvation." (Compendium, No. 455)

The Biblical view of nature is radically different from the scientific "put-nature-on-the-rack" attitude.  Similarly, it is radically different from the exploitative view of the capitalist, for whom nature is but so much raw material which begs for exploitation. While the Biblical view does not spurn human efforts at scientific study of nature or exploitation of nature for man's sake, it does suggest limits upon or rules that should order such efforts. The Church's social doctrine is not obscurantist.

While the Church seeks responsible use of creation, a reasonable ecology, the Church does not fall prey to the opposite error, a form of pagan nature worship.  For example, the notion that nature or animals have "rights" in the strict sense of the term is absurd.  Only a rational being can have rights in the strict sense.  One might point to the efforts to have a "Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth" as a theologically and philosophically perverse venture.

As the Compendium summarizes it:

"The biblical vision inspires the behavior of Christians in relation to their use of the earth, and also with regard to the advances of science and technology.  The Second Vatican Council affirmed that man 'judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind.'  The Council Fathers recognized the progress made thanks to the tireless application of human genius down the centuries, whether in the empirical sciences, the technological disciplines or the liberal arts.  Today, 'especially with the help of science and technology, man has extended his mastery over nearly the whole of nature and continues to do so.'"  (Compendium, No. 456)

The Church is hardly negative to science or to proper development and use of the world's resources; however, she emphasizes that man's use of the world's resources and the application of his mind and his hands must be done responsibly: under God and with view to the common good of mankind:

"For man, 'created in God's image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all that it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness, a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to him who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all.  Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth.  [The Council teaches that] throughout the course of the centuries, men have labored to better the circumstances of their lives through a monumental amount of individual and collective effort.  To believers, this point is settled: considered in itself, this human activity accords with God's will.'"  (Compendium, No. 456) (quoting VII, GS, 34)

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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