(Adam Names the Animals)
Chapter one of this encyclical was an overview of the fact that when human beings abuse Creation, it affects people in ways we often don’t consider and that the poorest people who depend most on the land to farm, raise livestock, hunt, fish and for drinking water are the ones most affected by the pollution effects. The media has portrayed this as a “Climate change” encyclical. But that’s to miss the point. This is an encyclical about us and our relationships—with God, our neighbor, and with Creation (which, as we will learn ≠ “nature”). If people think of this encyclical as being about “environmentalism” with all the baggage the term involves, will misinterpret what the Pope says in light of that term. But people who realize that the Pope is writing about God’s love shown through creation will find many wonderful insights into God and how we should behave.
That brings us to today’s look at the encyclical in the second chapter.
In Chapter II, we get into the theological reflections on the fact that God created us in harmony with Himself, our neighbor and Creation, but the fall damaged all three relationships. It really is a beautiful reflection on these things. Here, the Pope begins with the fact that the religious views of creation do have relevance in the discussion. We are told that because God brought creation into being, and, being made stewards, we have a responsibility in how we are to use the gifts we were given. The Pope rejects the view that human beings are an enemy of the planet.
God did give us dominion over the Earth, but what dominion means is distorted. We are corrupted by sin in thinking of it in terms of our own use—that we can exploit the Earth and not worry about what happens after. What dominion means is that we are called to make a responsible use of creation, keeping in mind the aftereffects and what will be left for future generation—who also have a share in the role of dominion. So, we are called to respect the laws of nature and not abuse it in ourselves or in others.
Indeed, as the Pope describes the fall and the murder of Abel, and how Cain is cursed from the ground, we are shown that the violation of our relationship with our neighbor damages our relationship with God and with His creation. Creation is an important word here. While nature is part of creation, the Judaeo-Christian idea of creation is greater than the idea of nature in meaning. The meaning of creation shows it as planned by God, while nature is something that can be studied and controlled.
But at the same time, contra New Age environmentalists, the Judaeo-Christian view demythologizes nature by refusing to treat it as divine, even as it insists on respecting it as being created by God. This sets us up for some excellent insights that reject the distorted environmentalism that people wrongly accuse/praise the Pope as holding.
Rejecting those two extremes, he calls it “mistaken” (¶82) to view the rest of creation solely for our gain—something that leaves the resources of creation as being solely for those who get there first, or have the strength to seize them. This is something that entirely fits in with the totality of the Church social teaching from Leo XIII to the present. In rejecting the idea that creation is for our personal gain, he points out that all of creation has its purpose that speaks of God’s love, and therefore we need to grasp the meaning of each part of creation as part of God’s plan (¶86).
However, he stresses the fact that we cannot reduce humanity to the level of creature and rejects the idea that we can elevate the Earth to being divine:
90. This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us. At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure.
He denounces a focus on saving endangered species which accepts the harm of the human person, especially the unwanted (¶91). The individual is not called to hate the pleasant things in life (citing Jesus in Matthew 11:19 in ¶98). But he does remind us of the Catholic principle that private property, while a right, is not an absolute right that we can use to the detriment of others (¶93).
Ultimately, Chapter II is a good framework we need to consider when it comes to the questions of “How shall we act?” If we consider how our behavior affects our relationship with God, our neighbor and God’s creation, it will help us rethink how we approach the way we live between the extremes of environmentalist whackos and indifferent exploitation.