In his January 11 address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI continued to carve out an interesting Catholic position on ecology. The Pope insists that care for creation is a moral obligation that falls on both individuals and governments. His very invocation of “creation,” however, challenges the secular shibboleths that underwrite a lot of contemporary environmental activism.
Here is the money paragraph in the papal address to the diplomats assembled in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace:
“Twenty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the materialistic and atheistic regimes which had for several decades dominated a part of this continent, it was easy to assess the great harm which an economic system lacking any reference to the truth about man had done not only to the dignity and freedom of individuals and peoples, but to nature itself, by polluting soil, water, and air. The denial of God distorts the freedom of the human person, yet it also devastates creation. It follows that the protection of creation is not principally a response to an aesthetic need, but much more to a moral need, in as much as nature expresses a plan of love and truth which is prior to us and comes from God.”
Now, the overlap between orthodox Christians and radical environmentalists may not be what the mathematicians call a “null set;” but I rather doubt that those who qualify on both counts would fill, say, the new Cowboys Stadium. Dubieties on this front harden when, two paragraphs later, the Pope explicitly linked an aroused environmental conscience to the inalienable right-to-life: “…this concern…for the environment should be situated within the larger framework of the great challenges now facing mankind….[Thus] how can we separate, or even set at odds, the protection of the environment and the protection of human life, including the life of the unborn? It is in man’s respect for himself that his sense of responsibility is shown. As Saint Thomas Aquinas has taught us, man represents all that is most noble in the universe…”
Two paragraphs after that, Benedict tied care for the environment to the defense of marriage rightly understood — another issue that does not, I suspect, loom large on the agenda of Greenpeace:
“…we must remember that the problem of the environment is complex; one might compare it to a multifaceted prism. Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes. I am thinking, for example, of certain countries in Europe, or North and South America…” — that is, countries (or, in our case, states) that have given legal sanction to so-called “same-sex marriage.”
So: according to Benedict XVI, a consistent Catholic environmentalism must include the defense of life from conception until natural death and the defense of marriage as the stable union of a man and a woman. Indeed, I expect the Pope would argue that any environmentalism worthy of the name would take up the cause of life and the cause of marriage, for the truths that undergird the Catholic pro-life position and the Catholic defense of marriage-rightly-understood are moral truths that can be known by reason — they’re not some “sectarian” Catholic theological chicanery, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Vice President of the United States notwithstanding.
It will be interesting to see if the new papal environmentalism coaxes a few brave souls from the ecology camp into common cause with those less politically correct movements in defense of life and marriage. I’m skeptical, not least because of decades of moral confusion during which radical environmentalists have shown far more concern for endangered species of insects than for endangered pre-born children. As for the gay insurgency, it takes no prisoners and is unlikely to see its cause as counter-environmental. Still, the papal challenge has been laid down, and as they say in Rome, “We think in centuries here.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.