On the occasion of the Vatican’s workshop on global warming, sustainable development and human trafficking, it may be appropriate to remember Pope Benedict XVI’s message of January 1, 2010 celebrating the “World Day of Peace,”
Pope Benedict expresses his opposition to mindless exploitation of nature without regard to future generations, but he also expresses the need for a balanced approach that respects the special place of human beings in the world. In particular, note this passage (all unusual spellings are stet):
Nor must we forget the very significant fact that many people experience peace and tranquillity, renewal and reinvigoration, when they come into close contact with the beauty and harmony of nature. There exists a certain reciprocity: as we care for creation, we realize that God, through creation, cares for us. On the other hand, a correct understanding of the relationship between man and the environment will not end by absolutizing nature or by considering it more important than the human person. If the Church’s magisterium expresses grave misgivings about notions of the environment inspired by ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things. In the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the “dignity” of all living creatures, such notions end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms. The Church, for her part, is concerned that the question be approached in a balanced way, with respect for the “grammar” which the Creator has inscribed in his handiwork by giving man the role of a steward and administrator with responsibility over creation, a role which man must certainly not abuse, but also one which he may not abdicate. In the same way, the opposite position, which would absolutize technology and human power, results in a grave assault not only on nature, but also on human dignity itself.
I especially like the fact that Pope Benedict refers to the “human person” and not “humanity” or some broader abstraction. Catholic social thought, having emerged in an age when nearly universal slavery and grinding poverty were considered the natural order of things, has strong themes of respect for the individual rather than the clan, class, or nation, the positive values of “exercising dominion” over the earth, “tilling it and keeping it” (Genesis 3:17-19), and yes, even entrepreneurship. This pro-freedom theme is a major reason the religion spread around the world in record time.
See Orlando Patterson’s wonderful book, Freedom in the Making of Western Civilization, for a full discussion of the positive role of Christianity in the history of human freedom.
Catholics who would put “sustainability” ahead of human freedom are out of step with the most important teachings of their faith.