Pope Benedict XVI was well known for his interest in ecological matters and a new anthology of his statements on this subject provides some interesting insights.
“The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology,” has recently been published by the Catholic University of America Press, and is a translation of a book originally published in Italian in 2012.
In just over 200 pages it provides a series of texts from the addresses, letters and other declarations by Benedict XVI.
The book’s title, referring to a human ecology, gives a good indication that the former Pope’s interest was not just based on some well meaning concern for the environment, but is related to a much more profound theological consideration about creation and the human person.
In his introduction Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, at the time secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and now the Vatican’s archivist and librarian, explained that while previous popes had written and spoken about the ecology Benedict XVI made it a much more frequent topic in his addresses.
He identified five key principles present in some of the writings of Benedict XVI on the environment.
+ Man comes first and good ecological decisions respect the dignity and rights of the human person. This is opposed to a utilitarian approach in which the ends justify the means.
+ Ecology is first of all an ethical question and humanity cannot be dominated by technology.
+ Ecology should not be founded on a relationship of power or domination, but on a harmonious relationship between humans and development. Nature is a gift from the Creator to be taken care of and cultivated. It is also something that is not superior to humanity.
+ The human race is a family and our relationships should be shaped by solidarity.
+ There needs to be a change of mentality away from a purely consumerist approach.
The texts of Benedict XVI cover a wide range of issues but one theme that comes up frequently is that humans are not merely material creatures but open to the infinite and to God. This also leaves its mark on the created world.
“The world does not exist by itself; it is brought into being by the creative Spirit of God, by the creative word of God,” Benedict XVI explained in his Pentecost homily in 2006.
Man has been given creation, he commented in a 2007 address, so that he might implement God’s plan. It is a mistake, therefore if we put ourselves at the center of the universe in a selfish search for our own well-being.
“Is it not true that an irresponsible use of creation begins precisely where God is marginalized or even denied?,” he asked in a 2009 audience address.
Losing sight of God means that matter is reduced to a selfish possession and the purpose of our existence is reduced to an effort to obtain the maximum number of possessions, he continued.
Retaining an awareness of the role of God, and conscious of our obligations not only to those alive today but also to future generations will lead us to a responsible stewardship of creation instead of considering ourselves the absolute master of creation.
In his message for the 2010 World Day of Peace, Benedict XVI again dealt with the environment and insisted once more that we need to consider creation as a gift from God to all people.
He also called for a “profound cultural renewal” in order to identify those values that can help build a better future.
Both in this message and other statements on ecological matters Benedict XVI explicitly linked respect for the environment with respect for the inviolability of human life “at every state and in every condition.” He also stressed the importance of the family where we learn to love our neighbor and respect nature.
In his World Day of Peace message for 2007 he examined the links between different aspects of ecology. There is a natural ecology, which means respect for nature, and also human ecology, that in turn leads to a social ecology.
Disregard for the environment leads to negative consequences for human coexistence, he warned. He also warned against a reductive vision of human nature.
“May the light and strength of Jesus help us to respect human ecology, in the knowledge that natural ecology will likewise benefit, since the book of nature is one and indivisible,” Benedict XVI concluded in his 2010 address to members of the diplomatic corps.
Science is a place of dialogue, he commented in an address later that same year, “a meeting between man and nature and, potentially, even between man and his Creator.” Concern for the environment, therefore, is not just a series of technical fixes, but an endeavour based on a vision of mankind and the Creator.