Saturday, July 28, 2007

Environmental movement and Natural Law

John Allen's latest column: For Benedict, environmental movement promises recovery of natural law tradition

The first question had to do with the formation of conscience, and Benedict replied with his now-familiar diagnosis of the cultural situation in the West. By truncating the sphere of reason to only those things which can be empirically verified or falsified, the pope said, spirituality and morality have been "expelled" from rationality, consigned to a merely subjective sphere, understood as a matter of individual taste and judgment.

In response, Benedict proposed a two-pronged strategy, one being the path of religious faith, the other being what he called "a secular path." By that, Benedict appeared to mean natural law, the idea that nature itself carries a moral message that can be deciphered utilizing the faculty of conscience, even by those who aren't Christian or who aren't religious at all.
I wonder if this is Mr. Allen's own interpolation. Joseph Ratzinger has an essay in Crisis of Conscience (ed. John Haas)--I don't know if this is included in IP's On Conscience (link given below). [To be honest I found that essay to be a little bit lacking in precision, especially when compared with the essay written by Ralph McInerny in the same book.] The transcript of the Q&A session between the pope and the priests of the diocese of Belluno, Feltre, and Treviso is in Italian, and the language is a bit daunting. My suspicion is that the Holy Father does not explain the relationship between natural law and conscience in this way.

In the pope's mind, this seems to be where environmentalism enters the picture.

"Everyone can see today that humanity could destroy the foundation of its own existence, its earth, and therefore we can't simply do whatever we want with this earth that has been entrusted to us, what seems to us in a given moment useful or promising, but we have to respect the inner laws of creation, of this earth, we have to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive," Benedict said. "This obedience to the voice of the earth is more important for our future happiness than the voices of the moment, the desires of the moment. … Existence itself, our earth, speaks to us, and we have to learn to listen."

Exactly, because by the Natural Law we are commanded to love ourselves and to love the community, and to aim for the good of the community, which includes its survival. A community can only exploit the earth and degrade the environment so long, before it jeopardizes its own survival. If one wants to say that out of their own self-interest political communities should be aiming at sustainability and living in harmony with the local ecology, while transforming it in ways both beneficial to man and to the other organisms living there, he can do so. (This is the kind of stewardship advocated by Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Brian Goodwin.) I would just say that this is reasonable, and that exploitation is disordered.

From there, Benedict said, we may also learn anew to listen to the voice of human nature as well, discovering in other people and in human communities moral laws that stand above our own ego. In that regard, the pope said, we can draw upon the great moral experience of humanity. Doing so teaches that human liberty never exists in isolation from others; it works only if it's rooted in a sense of common values.

An appeal to tradition? Again, I wonder if Mr. Allen is not simplifying what the pope said. As Fr. Pinckaers writes, freedom is ordered to excellence, or to virtue (and to authentic goods).

In other words, Benedict sees in the modern environmental movement the most promising route for recovery of the natural law tradition. What today's rising ecological awareness presumes is that there are limits inscribed in nature beyond which humanity trespasses at its own peril. Without any particular reference to religion, the secular world today is arriving at its own version of natural law theory. Building upon that momentum, and directing it beyond environmental matters to questions of individual and social morality, is what Benedict seems to mean by a "secular path" to formation of conscience.

Not quite, Mr. Allen. One can discover certain precepts of the Natural Law, without having to develop an account of the Natural Law at the same time. Natural Law without reference to the Creator is incomplete. One can frame such precepts in a way that still affirms the primacy of human beings in the created material order, without the excesses of certain members of the environmental movement (Gaia hypothesis, misandry, etc.). Such primacy does not negate man's responsibility to be a good steward.

To extend a metaphor, one might say that Benedict XVI is trying to paint a distinctively Catholic shade of green.

I don't mean to suggest that the pope's environmental concern is entirely instrumental, as if he OKed putting solar cells on Vatican buildings simply because, in some round-about fashion, he thinks that'll convince people not to have abortions. He's made clear on multiple occasions that he regards defense of the environment as an urgent moral necessity all by itself. But Benedict also appears to see something deeper stirring in Western environmentalism, a new sense of moral restraint grounded in objective natural reality.

To put the pope's point simplistically, if the world is willing to limit its carbon output on the basis of the laws of nature, then maybe it will become more willing to accept limits arising from nature in other spheres of life as well.

At the moment, the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has a sub-commission working on a document on Natural Law. A draft is expected to be ready for discussion in October. The project is being led by Dominican Fr. Serge Bonino, the editor of the Revue Thomist; the American member is Jesuit Fr. John Michael McDermott of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. It will be interesting to see if the sub-commission develops this line of reflection.
Ah, Fr. Bonino. I can't wait until this document is released.

Transcript of that talk with the priests (in Italian).

From Ignatius Press:
On Conscience by Joseph Ratzinger
Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age by Vincent Twomey

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Papa Bear,

I am currently doing my undergraduate Honor's thesis on the demarcation between American liberalism and the environmental movement.

I happened upon your blog in my web research, and what a sense of renewal it brings to know others are having these thoughts as well!

All the best,
Ty