Integral ecology

What ecology owes Pope Benedict XVI

The ecological question in Benedict XVI maintains an interesting balance between the one who opens himself to the present world, valuing the positive aspects that it incorporates, while at the same time he knows how to illuminate with the light of the most authentic Christianity the problems and expectations of his contemporaries.

Emilio Chuvieco-January 3, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes
Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI pets a lion cub at an audience in December 2012. ©CNS photo/Paul Haring

It seems to me that it is not necessary to extend the long list of acknowledgements that the theological and pastoral work of Pope Benedict has deserved in recent days on the occasion of his death. Nor am I going to waste a minute answering the ravings of those who criticize him without hardly knowing his writings and without having met him personally.

It seems much more appropriate to me to emphasize another dimension of his thought-perhaps not nuclear, but certainly important-that is close to my heart. It will thus serve as a modest tribute and gratitude to a great intellectual, a wise and good man, to whom it fell to lead the Church in the last 40 years - first as a fundamental support of St. John Paul II and then as Bishop of Rome - towards an authentic renewal of the Church in the 21st century, assuming the most substantial and fruitful aspects of the Council, combining Tradition with openness to Modernity, in a dynamic fidelity that always asks itself what Jesus Christ would ask of us if he were to preach to our contemporaries.

I am referring to the vision of Benedict XVI on environmental issues, so much debated today. I find Benedict XVI's position on this subject particularly appealing, since it exemplifies very well that balance between those who are open to today's world, valuing the positive aspects it incorporates, while at the same time knowing how to illuminate with the light of the most authentic Christianity the problems and expectations of his contemporaries.

For many Christians, these are issues that are foreign - at best - to our faith, if not an occasion to weaken the Christian message with spurious or openly pagan interests. For others, the Church cannot remain silent in the face of any question of intellectual transcendence and broad social interest.

The trajectory of the ecclesiastical magisterium on the so-called "ecological question" seems, at first glance, very recent, although there are very interesting references to the admiration and openness to nature in authors as relevant as St. Basil, St. Augustine or St. Benedict.

However, the analysis of the recent magisterium starts from some allusions in texts of St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, and some more specific writings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, leading to the encyclical dedicated to this topic by Pope Francis in 2015. The text of the current pope is very profound and relevant, with some original notes, but which does not come out of a vacuum: it draws on the writings of his predecessors, in addition to the documents produced by various episcopal conferences. I would now like to focus on Pope Benedict's contributions to this trajectory.

It is worth remembering that Benedict XVI was German, and that in Germany environmental sensitivity is a basic component of everyday life (it is worth remembering that it is one of the few countries in the world to have a Green Party with broad parliamentary representation).

– Supernatural ecological issue in Benedict XVI

His references to the "ecological question" are both frequent and profound. For example, in four years of his eight-year pontificate, he dedicated to this theme central references in his Messages for the World Day of Peace.

In the 2007 issue, he introduces an extremely important theme, the concept of human ecology, giving it both a moral and doctrinal interpretation: "If humanity is truly interested in peace, it must always bear in mind the interrelationship between natural ecology, that is, respect for nature, and human ecology. Experience shows that every disrespectful attitude towards the environment leads to damage to human coexistence, and vice versa" (n. 8).

Benedict XVI was also the first to directly connect environmental justice with future generations, something that is now fully included in international legislation as a moral principle, even if it is legally complicated to apply. Recalling that... "Respect for the environment does not mean that material or animal nature is more important than man", he affirmed that we cannot use nature " a selfish way, at the full disposal of our own interests, because future generations also have the right to benefit from creation, exercising in it the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves" (Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace, 2008, n. 7).

However, the human ecology proposed by Benedict XVI goes further. It refers to the profound connection between natural equilibrium and human equilibrium, proposing that we be guided by natural law, linking human nature with "natural" nature, because after all we are part of the same natural substratum. The truth of man and nature lead to an attitude of respect and care: they are not separate aspects.

In this sense, he seconds what St. John Paul II has already pointed out, that environmental degradation is linked to the moral degradation of man, since both imply contempt for God's creative design, but Benedict XVI extends this to various facets of moral action: "If the right to life and to natural death is not respected, if conception, gestation and birth of man are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the common conscience ends up losing the concept of human ecology and with it environmental ecology. It is a contradiction to ask the new generations to respect the natural environment, when education and laws do not help them to respect themselves.

The book of nature is one and indivisible, both with regard to life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations, in a word, integral human development" (Caritas in veritate, 2009, n. 51). From this arises the concept more recently developed by Pope Francis of integral ecology, which refers to the care of nature and of people, for after all, this planet is our common home.

There can be no discontinuity between these two aspects, neither at one extreme, nor at the other. He who cares for the environment, denigrating the people who live on it, would be as misguided as he who degrades the environment gratuitously in order to supposedly favor people. There is only one crisis - as Pope Francis so often mentions - both social and environmental.

The solution to the environmental problem, then, is not only technical, but also moral. It is necessary for each person to discover which aspects of his or her life can be renewed. This is the framework of the concept of ecological conversion, which Pope Francis likes so much, but which was proposed by John Paul II, and extended by Benedict XVI, concretized in personal changes: "We need an effective change of mentality that leads us to adopt new lifestyles, "whereby the search for truth, beauty and goodness, as well as communion with others for a common growth, are the elements that determine the choices of consumption, savings and investments" (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, 2009, n. 51). 51).

Benedict XVI's allusions to the environmental question in his memorable address to the German parliament are also worthy of note. There he pointed out that respect for nature is also a way of recognizing an objective truth that we do not create, but to which we owe recognition.

That is why he indicated that: "We must listen to the language of nature and respond to it coherently", linking this recognition to that of human nature itself: "Man is not only a freedom that he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature, and his will is just when he respects nature, listens to it, and when he accepts himself for what he is, and admits that he has not created himself. In this way, and only in this way, true human freedom is realized".

In summary, in the very broad magisterium of Benedict XVI, the ecological dimension is proposed as something central to the Christian experience, starting from a conception of God the Creator, who has beautified the world around us with an immense biodiversity, of God the Redeemer, who wanted to share our human nature, living in harmony with his environment, and of God the Sanctifier, who uses natural matter as a vehicle of Grace in the sacraments.

Pope Francis has reminded us of this in his encyclical and his many allusions in his magisterium, but also previous popes, especially Benedict XVI, deserve a place of honor among the precedents of this magisterium.

The authorEmilio Chuvieco

Professor of Geography at the University of Alcalá.

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