A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the different attitudes of contemporary society towards the moral positions of the Church. On the one hand, there are issues where there is a complete convergence with what we could call "current sensibility", as would be the case of care for the vulnerable, the search for justice and peace, or respect for the environment; on the other hand, a fairly widespread rejection of issues concerning sexual morality or the beginning and end of life.
A few years ago also, after Pope Francis' speech in the European Parliament, the then leader of Podemos, who was present there, indicated that he had given several "likes" to the Pope's words on some issues (his criticism of the current economic model), showing his rejection of others (his defense of the life of the unborn). Now, if those on the opposite political spectrum were to respond sincerely, they would surely have the same divergence (in the opposite direction, of course), although perhaps they would not dare to openly criticize the Pope on those social issues where, deep down, he seems to them "suspiciously progressive".
This double attitude towards morality is widespread. In my opinion, it is due to a confusion about the anthropological vision of the Church, and therefore of the Gospel, which considers morality as a consequence of the way in which human beings - and therefore other creatures - have been created by God. And this implies taking into account in moral judgment the dimensions that make up the human person: the biological, the social and the rational-spiritual. On the other hand, these dimensions are not exclusive to believers, since they have been shared by many other moral philosophers throughout history, from Aristotle to Cicero, who have also accepted the natural law as the foundation of moral judgment, even without considering it to be of divine origin.
The concept of integral ecology
These ideas came to mind while reading Pope Francis' latest book ("Let Us Dream Together: The Road to a Better Future World," 2020). Faced with those who remain suspicious of his stance on the ecological question, as if it were a concession to the values of "cultural progressivism," the Pope once again reminds us that the care of nature (of Creation, in Christian terms) carries with it what he terms "integral ecology", which includes both the care of the environment and, above all, the care of human beings.
For Pope Francis, that vision entails "much more than caring for nature; it is caring for one another as creatures of a God who loves us, and all that that implies. That is to say, if you think that abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty are acceptable, it will be difficult for your heart to care about the pollution of rivers and the destruction of the rainforest. And the reverse is also true. So, even if people continue to vehemently argue that these are problems of a different moral order, as long as people insist that abortion is justified, but desertification is not, or that euthanasia is wrong, but river pollution is the price of economic progress, we will continue to be stuck in the same lack of integrity that got us where we are. I think Covid-19 is making this clear for anyone with eyes to see. This is a time to be consistent, to unmask the selective morality of ideology and to fully embrace what it means to be children of God. That is why I believe that the regeneration of humanity must begin with integral ecology, an ecology that takes seriously the cultural and ethical deterioration that goes hand in hand with our ecological crisis. Individualism has consequences" (p. 37).
I think it cannot be said better what it means that both dimensions of natural morality go hand in hand, that caring for nature and caring for people is not a disjunction, but rather two sides of the same coin, both because as humans we are also nature, and because nature is our home and we need it to be clean in order to continue living in it.
Some Catholics who continue to see dichotomies in this integral concept of the moraleThey claim that it makes no sense to have ecological concerns while defending the elimination of human beings in gestation.
But neither is it, as Francis indicates, to defend human life and despise that of other creatures. It is all part of the same thing, and until we know how to integrate it into a common morality, what we could call "morality of life", it will be difficult to overcome the dysfunction to which I referred earlier. A morality of life that is anchored in the natural law (in the classical sense and in the more recent sense of nature), and allows us to extend it to all types of people, whether believers or not.
A not-so-novel idea
This idea of Pope Francis is not new. It was already clearly indicated in his previous writings (starting with the encyclical Laudato si), and linking with the Magisterium of the pontiffs who have preceded him.
Suffice it to mention a few significant paragraphs of St. John Paul II. For example, at the end of his message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, he said: "Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person also includes respect and care for creation, which is called to unite with man in order to glorify God (cf. Ps 148 and 96)".
In the same way, he indicated in the encyclical Centesssimus annusThe earth is not only given by God to man, who must use it with respect for the original intention that it is a good, according to which it was given to him; man himself is also a gift of God and must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed" (n. 38).
Benedict XVI also devoted a substantial part of his magisterium to the environmental question. In the Caritas in veritateIt 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" (n. 51).
To underline the coherence between these two ways of understanding ecology, in his message for the 2007 World Day of Peace, he said: "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).
In short, if we are truly consistent with the morality that flows from the natural law (and ultimately, for a Christian, from God's creative design), we should care for nature, both human and environmental.
Bioethics and environmental ethics must be based on a set of common principles, valid for rejecting both the indiscriminate manipulation of a human embryo and of a plant or animal species. Establishing confrontations between them is artificial and pernicious for both.
Therefore, as Francis pointed out in the Laudato siThe solution to social and environmental problems "requires an integral approach to combat poverty, to restore dignity to the excluded and simultaneously to care for nature" (n. 139).
It is not a question of choosing between getting out of poverty and respecting the environment, but of promoting integral development that takes into account the good of people and the environment in which they find themselves, for their own well-being and that of the other living beings that accompany us in this marvelous gift we have received from God the Creator.
Professor of Geography at the University of Alcalá.