The Purpose, Not the Problem: Benedict XVI Put Mankind at the Center of Ecology

“Those who can recognize in the cosmos the reflections of the Creator’s invisible face tend to have a greater love for creatures and greater sensitivity to their symbolic value.” This was central lessons imparted by Pope Benedict XVI in his poignant homily for the 2010 World Day of Peace.

In the first several entries of this column, I’ve mused on the Church’s ancient vision of the created order as a visible manifestation of the Triune Lord who made it. Drawing especially on the insights of Benedict XVI, I now wish to unpack some crucial implications that follow when we get to know creation as God’s “other book.” In the passage I’ve just quoted, the pontiff suggested that those who grasp the world’s character as a natural sacrament of the divine presence are by that very fact more likely to express love for other creatures in action.

Now is a timely moment to retrieve and reflect on this teaching from the late pope. Even as nations across the globe have recently commemorated Earth Day with calls to global cooperation in protecting the environment, Benedict’s ever-incisive words remind us of something essential that those celebrations typically overlook: the truth that proper care on behalf of the Earth can only be achieved when we understand it as a mirror of divine love.

Benedict’s undervalued contribution to contemporary environmental discourse

Between his well-known 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ and his 2023 apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum, our present pope’s remarks on environmental stewardship have garnered widespread attention. All this press, however, risks overshadowing indispensable lessons from previous popes about care for creation. For instance, it is now widely forgotten that Pope St. Paul VI in 1970 foretold a looming “ecological catastrophe.” It is also easy to forget that the environment was a topic of considerable importance for Pope St. John Paul II, who routinely called the faithful to “ecological conversion.”

For his part, Benedict XVI made solicitude for creation such a priority throughout his pontificate that it earned him the moniker “the Green Pope.” In fact, the Bavarian pontiff’s frequent discussions of the environment were arguably more wide-ranging than those of his successor, with an entire book needed to compile them. This pope was especially well attuned to the shortcomings of mainstream environmentalism, and he considered it too important a matter to leave in the hands of the anti-humanists whose agenda pervades the movement today. Indeed, Benedict routinely urged those of us who cherish the Bible not to neglect the Lord’s “other book,” stressing that “[t]o omit the creation would be to misunderstand the very history of God with men, to diminish it, to lose sight of its true order of greatness.”

However, even as this and other gems from our late Holy Father are readily accessible if we know where to look, his ecological contributions have to date received scant attention. Seeing as there has yet to be a thorough effort to examine his ideas and demonstrate their practical implications in real life, I’m going to dedicate my next several columns to examining themes of Benedict’s ecological thought. I’ll endeavor to situate its key claims within the pontiff’s broader theological oeuvre while putting it into conversation with congenial insights from other noteworthy ancient and modern sources. Among other things, I hope to show that Benedict’s particular vision of how best to care for creation supplies precisely the nuance and charity that is largely lacking in approaches to the subject within our culture today.

Benedict’s vision of the cosmic covenant

In contrast with the various forms of extremism that so often dominate present-day discourse about the environment, the perspective offered by Benedict is gentle yet incisive, getting to the heart of the matter while avoiding all the vitriol that so often prevents us from arriving there. At its core, this pontiff’s environmentalism is an invitation to recognize and rejoice in the interconnectedness of every single creature that the Lord God has made. In so doing, Benedict offers the solution to what environmentalists so desperately seek but which is only made possible thanks to the full vision of reality professed by the Catholic Church.

The uniqueness of Benedict’s concern for creation ultimately revolves around one core insight. This truth forms the foundation of the contemporary Magisterium’s doctrine of ecological stewardship, and as such it will serve as the focal point of my next series of column entries. In a word, it consists in the proclamation of the cosmic covenant, which is to say that an intimate bond unites every creature in heaven and on earth with one another and with their Triune Lord. Benedict’s theology was suffused with the concept of covenant, one prominent manifestation of which is his oft-repeated teaching that there exists “a covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.”

The relationship envisioned here is of the same kind that St. Francis of Assisi proclaimed seven centuries ago in his jubilant Canticle of the Creatures. At bottom, this great saint saw the revelation of the Lord’s covenant with creation as an invitation to find joy as partners in worship with every creature that the Lord has made. As for the medieval Italian saint, so too for the modern Bavarian pontiff: God’s covenantal love is truly Catholic, which is to say universal. It does not merely unite God and mankind but extends to mother earth, brother sun, sister moon, all the powers of nature, and the endless multitude of living beings each of which declares the glory of God in its own resplendent way.

Framing environmental concerns in terms of covenant, Benedict undertakes to inspire concrete human action not by involving rights and obligations but rather on the basis of the family bond that we share with other creatures. Indeed, the pontiff avoided talk of “animal rights” altogether, and he even considered the commonplace notion of environmental stewardship as insufficient as a means of grounding proper care for creation. In place of this, what is needed is on this pontiff’s view conversion of life that enables us to behold creation as a cosmic communion of love.

In a document penned under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC) wrote that divine revelation “can help us to see our natural environment as God sees it, as the space of personal communion in which human beings, created in the image of God, must seek communion with one another and the final perfection of the visible universe.” Within this God-permeated universe, every creature has a distinctive role to play, even as those of us who bear God’s image are endowed with unique dignity and responsibility. We are all blessed with the calling to live in more profound solidarity with our fellow partners in the cosmic covenant—first our fellow human beings, but also all other creatures among whom we are called to exercise a dominion of love.

Two distinctive features of Benedict’s covenantal ecology

To grasp the force of invoking the notion of covenant in relation to the natural world, we first need to gain some background that will help us to grasp what Benedict intends when speaking in this way. This exploration will help us to pinpoint what sets the environmentalism of “the green pope” apart from perspectives that are bereft of the broader grasp of reality attainable only with the light of faith.

The character of our world as creation and divine gift

For starters, Benedict’s approach to creation stands out from its mainstream secular counterparts by professing that the world is imbued with meaning irrespective of what interpretations we might impute to it. Contrasting with philosophies that consider our universe the mere product of chance, Catholicism sees the cosmos in all its messy details as a divine gift, permeated with meaning and purpose by virtue of its having been created and continuously upheld in existence by God. With this in mind, it might argued that Benedict’s frequent reference to man’s “covenant with the environment” might indeed be more accurately described as a covenant with creation. Although the pontiff himself did not deploy it, I find that this phrase better captures the faith-infused character of Benedict’s environmental enterprise, which emphasizes that the natural world can only be understood and cared for rightly on the basis of him who is its Creator and Lord.

Coming to terms with the natural world’s character as creation has critical repercussions for how we go about inhabiting our common home of the Earth with the wider community of creatures. As Benedict’s successor has done well to highlight, the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation transcends the concept of “nature” by seeing the world in light of “God’s loving plan in which every creature has its value and significance.” While fine in themselves, expressions like “nature” and “the environment” can lead us to conceive of the world as an abstract object of study and control that exists independently of God. By contrast, awareness of the character of the world as creation leads us to acknowledge that it can be understood properly only as a gift from its Creator — a Creator who is also the Triune Lord, the God who is Love.

In this vein, the Ratzinger-helmed International Theological Commissions wrote beautifully on the difference that the doctrine of creation makes. Noting that “a properly Christian theology of ecology is an application of the theology of creation,” the commission elaborated:

The Christian theology of creation contributes directly to the resolution of the ecological crisis by affirming the fundamental truth that visible creation is itself a divine gift…Given that the inner life of the Blessed Trinity is one of communion, the divine act of creation is the gratuitous production of partners to share in this communion. In this sense, one can say that the divine communion now finds itself “housed” in the created cosmos. For this reason, we can speak of the cosmos as a place of personal communion.

The cosmic scope of covenant kinship and its ontological grounding

As we witness in the above text, Ratzinger envisioned reality as permeated at every level by interconnecting relationships. Indeed, affirming that this structure is a reflection of the divine life itself, the renowned theologian went so far as to affirm that relation “stands beside substance as an equally primordial form of being.” Much more could be said about this claim, but what is significant for our purposes is that Ratzinger appeals to it as the grounding for authentic environmentalism. Specifically, he was steadfast in his tbis conviction: Catholicism’s teaching on the profound communion that unites all creatures has a direct bearing on whether and how the human race might be able remedy our present ecological crises.

One way that Catholics have sought to develop this idea is by likening our covenantal relationship with other creatures to our bond with other believers in the Church. Thanks to the Incarnation, Pope St. John Paul II explained, God took to himself not merely human nature but indeed “everything that is ‘flesh’: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world.” Commenting on creation’s hymn of praise in Psalm 148, the saint described creation as a “cosmic church, whose apse is the heavens and whose aisles are the regions of the world, in which the choir of God’s creatures sings his praise.” In the words of fellow theological giant Henri de Lubac, every one of God’s creatures shares in the fellowship of the Church in its own way: “Following in the footsteps of St. Thomas,” writes de Lubac, “we can give the name ‘Church’ to that gigantic organism which includes all the host of the angels as well as men, and even extends to the whole of the cosmos as well.”

Our fellowship with other creatures in a common ecosystem is so profound that a number of traditional theological sources likened creation to a single unified organism. According to the Greek theology of St. Athanasius, for instance, “The universe is a great body.” In a similar vein, Origen of Alexandria affirmed:

[A]s our one body is provided with many members, and is held together by one soul, so I am of opinion that the whole world also ought to be regarded as some huge and immense animal, which is kept together by the power and reason of God as by one soul.

This unity obtains with respect to the entire universe, but the claim is especially appropriate if we contemplate how everything on planet Earth is interconnected. More recently, Norman Wirzba has aptly developed this image by likening waterways to the “circulatory system” of our planet’s body: “Rain falls, enters the soil, evaporates, or is absorbed by plants that are eaten by animals. The absorption and evaporation of water forms a vast hydrological cycle that circulates through all living tissues like a system of arteries, veins, and capillaries.”

Nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov is an outstanding representative of this trajectory of thought, as he described the cosmos as “an actual living being with which we are in the closest and most complete interaction without ever being merged in it.” Clarifying that the intimacy here is one not of pantheism but rather of a unity within distinction, Solovyov stressed that love should characterize not merely our relationships with other humans but extend also to our relationship with the “cosmic environment.”

As these and a host of other witnesses across the Christian tradition testify, creation’s covenantal bond of unity runs so deep that it can be thought of analogously to the way that a man and woman become “one flesh” in marriage. In each of these cases, the distinctiveness of each partner is retained in amidst the most intimate union possible. Just as in the marriage covenant I become more myself through a sincere gift of being another human person, so too I become more fully human in the quest to honor my interdependence with other creatures. This occurs when we do not just take from them, as we inevitably must do, but when we succeed in giving something back in return.

In the covenantal language of Pope Francis, it is easier to exercise gratitude with respect to creation when we bear in mind that “we are part of nature” and “linked by unseen bonds” with other creatures in a “universal family.” As Church Fathers like St. John Chrysostom understood, an important consequence of this reality is that the saints extend their love “even to the unreasoning creatures.” Indeed, Chrysostom’s view was that we too “ought to show them great kindness and gentleness for many reasons, but, above all, because they are of the same origin as ourselves.”

Biblically speaking, human beings, represented by the figure of “the adam” are one with all other creatures by virtue of our common origin “from the dust of the earth,” the adamah. As one appropriately playful English rendering of this verse has it, “God made humans out of humus.” At face value, this narrative is about an individual human being named Adam who walked the earth at the dawn of our species. However, it is easy for the modern reader to miss out on the fact that in Hebrew adam represents mankind at large. In the poetry of Genesis that Ratzinger was so fond of discussing, Adam is literally the “dirtling” whose origin is inseparable from the soil from which all other creatures have also arisen. In other words, in its captivating figurative language, Scripture is claiming that we humans — all of us — share common ground with other creatures because we originate from common ground. In the words of Ratzinger, “The picture that describes the origin of Adam is valid for each human being in the same way. Each human is Adam; Adam is each human being.”

Ancient Christian authors typically conceived of creatures’ “common origin” in terms of our shared grounding in the Logos (Jn 1:1-3; Col 1:16). Remarkably, modern scientific discoveries add a further layer of realism to this claim, for today we know that all creatures on Earth are our genetic cousins and that we share family traits with them because we also share a common ancestry. By unveiling man’s full integration into the rhythms of the natural world—a reality that has obtained for millions of years and is as applicable now as ever—modern science adds further support to the revealed truth that care for creation is a familial, covenantal affair. In this way, the biblical testimony and empirical science converge in support of this central tenet of Benedict’s approach to creation: “The book of nature is one and indivisible.”

Next on deck…

If mankind’s unity with other creatures is so intimate that we can be described as a single “organism” or “book” then surely this entails some critical moral implications. I will be discussing some of these in my next series of columns, where I’ll unpack our recent popes’ teaching on the subject of “integral ecology.” As we will see, what the popes treat under this banner is not so much a program as it is a metaphysical stance that sees the good of mankind and the good of non-human creatures as coinciding.

In light of this Benedict observed, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.” Indeed, the Bavarian pontiff so emphasized man’s interconnectedness with other creatures that he spoke of respect for man and respect for nature as “one and the same.” What, precisely, this means will be the subject for next time.

This appeared at Catholic World Report.
Image: Ilya Pavlov, Unsplash.

Matthew Ramage

Dr. Matthew Ramage is Professor of Theology at Benedictine College where he is co-director of its Center for Integral Ecology. He earned his Masters Degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from Ave Maria University. His research and writing concentrates especially on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, the wedding of ancient and modern methods of biblical interpretation, the dialogue between faith and science, and stewardship of creation. He is author, co-author, or translator of over 15 books, including Dark Passages of the Bible (CUA Press, 2013), Jesus, Interpreted (CUA Press, 2017), The Experiment of Faith (CUA Press, 2020), Christ’s Church and World Religions (Sophia Institute Press, 2020) and From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the Theory of Evolution (CUA Press, 2022). Dr. Ramage enjoys exploring the great outdoors with his wife and seven children, tending his orchard, leading educational trips abroad, and aspiring to be a barbeque pitmaster. For more on Dr. Ramage’s work, visit his website: MatthewRamage.com