Some time ago I was stuck in a London traffic jam with one of my daughters, then three years old, in the back of the car. She had asked me a question which I had to answer by explaining about the six days of creation. She grasped the point quickly, and got positively carried away. "And on the seventh day," she added excitedly, "God created the cars!" "Well, not exactly," I replied. "He created us on the sixth day, and then we invented the cars."
Gazing at the traffic, I added sadly: "You know, he trusted us to look after this world he had made, and in some ways we’ve made a terrible mess of it." She was silent for a moment, trying to work out what I might mean by that. "Yes," she concluded. "Especially the doggies!"
It is true, London’s streets are not exacly lined with gold. On foot one has to watch the pavement quite carefully. It is the down side of the English love of pets. But what I had in mind was something rather different. The internal combustion engine, for example. Britain alone has over 20 million cars on the roads. Car exhaust is one of the world’s major sources of pollution, and the purchase of mobility at the price of ugliness and noise seems to me sometimes a poor bargain.
Acid rain, the oil and sewage in the sea, the growth in background radiation, the extinction of thousands of species, the loss of the rainforests (the "lungs of the world"), the advance of the deserts, holes in the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect and the general destabilization of the climate, all of these go to make up a crisis, and all are aspects of one massive problem: the impact of human technology and lifestyle on our environment.
The crisis, or any given aspect of it, may have been exaggerated - or conversely downplayed - from time to time by special interest groups trying to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes. Each of us has a responsibility to decide for ourselves whether there is a crisis, how serious it is, and how we should respond to it. We should try to be aware of the dangers of wishful thinking and of ideology. Without becoming morbid, we should strive to be realistic, and that means, in part, being open to any new information that may present itself.
My own best information on the scale of the crisis is summarized elsewhere in this section. But what I have say here is mainly about principles rather than practicalities. These are principles that should help to govern our behaviour even if it turns out that the world is not on the verge of ecological collapse.
They are implicit in Catholic teaching - and increasingly, under John Paul II, explicit too. But for many people, on Right or Left, the Pope does not go nearly far enough. We need to see how the Pope’s statements fit within his overall vision of a "culture of life", and how this in turn belongs at the very heart of the Catholic tradition that comes to us from the Apostles.
The Green Pope
The Pope has been making authoritative statements on the importance of "ecological concern" as an essential element in Catholic social teaching ever since his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, in 1979 (see sections 15 and 16 in particular). But in 1988 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis developed these ideas further, and in his January 1990 Message for the World Day of Peace he devoted an entire document to the question - his "manifesto" on Green Catholicism.
He insisted that the new ecological awareness, "rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives." He called for "carefully co-ordinated solutions based on a morally coherent world view." He described the ecological crisis as fundamentally a moral issue. For "there is an order in the universe that must be respected, and... the human person endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations."
These points have been worked into many speeches and addresses since, and reaffirmed in his greatest encyclical on social teaching, Centesimus Annus (sections 37-40). There and in Evangelium Vitae in 1995 (see especially section 42) he integrated them with his fundamental teaching on the sanctity and defence of human life, referring again to "human ecology" and describing man as "called to till and look after the garden of the world".
The Pope’s concern for ecology also influenced the Catechism of the Catholic Church: for example in the section on "respect for the integrity of creation" (paras 2415-18). This section also enjoins kindness to animals, citing the examples of St Francis of Assisi and St Philip Neri (but when did you ever hear of a saint who was cruel to animals?). The Catechism’s commentary on the eight days of creation and resurrection (paras 337-49) is noteworthy for its emphasis on the interdependence and solidarity of all creatures.
The Pope teaches that the ecological crisis is the bitter fruit of a long war with nature that began under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve "destroyed the existing harmony" of man and nature established by grace. "This resulted not only in man’s alienation from himself, in death and fratricide, but also in the earth’s ‘rebellion’ against him." That reference goes back to the Book of Wisdom (5:20), in a line much quoted in the Franciscan tradition, for example by St Bonaventure in the first chapter of The Soul’s Journey Into God ("apply your heart, so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honour your God, lest the whole world rise against you"). Quoting St Paul’s Letter to the Romans concerning the Fall (8:20-21), the Pope adds: "All of creation became subject to futility, waiting in a mysterious way to be set free and to obtain a glorious liberty together with the children of God."
It is evident that the Pope bases his teaching on Scripture, as if to counteract a body of literature (starting with a much-reprinted article by historian Lynn White in a 1967 issue of Science) blaming the crisis on the Biblical injunction to "subdue the earth" (Gen. 1:28). The mastery God has given man over other living things must not be taken out of context, he seems to be saying. From the beginning, man is master of the earth but subject to God, and he is to subdue the earth not to his own selfish purposes but to the purposes of the Wisdom that created, sustains and continually loves it.
Christianity gives us no excuse to plunder the planet - but it does perhaps help to explain the reasons why we do. The doctrine of Original Sin describes the beginning of the process. Death, suffering and disorder were the results of a deliberate sin, in which we are all implicated - not just the eating of an apple, but the conscious decision to destroy an order of nature established by God. From the effects of this, the world can only be liberated by Jesus Christ, in whom all things "hold together" (Col. 1:17).
Exactly how we understand the nature of that first sin, and the relationship of the original state in which we were created to the historical (and biological) reality we know today, is a profound and difficult question. The Pope is following an ancient tradition of biblical interpretation, but that tradition is not "fundamentalist" or "creationist" in the modern sense, for it assumes a multiplicity of levels and states of being.
His catecheses on Genesis show that he is well aware of the "mythical" character of these ancient texts, but that he sees in them nonetheless a profound revelation of what it is to be created, to be human, to be male and female. The Pope also shares with the early Church Fathers the sense that the rest of creation constitutes the "extended body" of humanity. It is part of our flesh, and what we do to it is intimately related to what we do to ourselves - for how can you isolate one part of nature from another?
Modern physics, sometimes called the "new physics", itself confirms this ancient intuition in its own way. But it was not necessary to wait for quantum theory before we could know what the mystics have always said: every gesture we make, every breath we take, every mouthful we eat, every sight we see connects us to the entire fabric of creation, on which we depend, and which we affect in our turn.
Therefore it must be that all nature that surrounds us (as the Pope writes in an address to German youth in March 1990) "shares a common destiny with us, in God himself, to find its ultimate destiny and fulfilment as the new heaven and the new earth." Not for John Paul II the sad, bleak view that, since animals and plants have no immortal souls, they will not in some way share in the Resurrection. No, the cosmos will be transfigured, eternalized, perfected in its living integrity. But it will pass through death as through a refining fire, and emerge re-moulded in the image and likeness of God.
A New Religion?
The sciences have certainly done a great deal to illuminate for us the order and harmony that exists in nature. The mutual interdependence of creatures is the specific subject matter of the new science of ecology. The famous photograph of the earth from space, and of "earthrise" on the moon, that became the banner and the inspiration of the Green movement in the 1960s.
However, the Green movement, like the New Age movement with which it is entangled, is a very diverse phenomenon, with many different scientific, political, economic, moral and religious strands. For one thing, in the absence of any generally accepted metaphysical framework scientific hypotheses are soon and easily swept up into more ambitious ideological or speculative systems. That has been the fate of scientific ecology.
New versions of the old pagan religions, of course, are big business. They sell books. I remember being told by one leading San Francisco publisher many years ago that he was actively looking for the bestseller that would create a new religion with maximum appeal to all those who were then becoming interested in ecology, women’s issues and liberation theology.
The new religion would contain many elements of the old: a Fall from the matriarchal harmony of the Garden, brought about by the Original Sin of industrialization, leading to the threat of planetary Apocalypse. By identifying industrialization with capitalism it would bring in the Left. By describing it as the "rape of the earth" by patriarchy it would bring in the feminists.
In the early 1970s, a scientist called James Lovelock tried to show that the entire ecosystem of the planet functions like a single organism, imbued with a kind of instinctive intelligence, able to regulate the temperature of the atmosphere within a certain range to enable life to continue.
His "Gaia Hypothesis" was merely an elaborate metaphor, but the application of the name of a Greek goddess to the planet earth caught the popular imagination. It appealed to eco-feminists, who were already speaking of the earth and nature as the feminine victim of male aggression, and to "process theologians" who saw God as somehow evolving with nature out of matter.
"Deep Ecology" is another example. Developed by Arne Naess, Joanna Macy and others, it over-reacts to the limitations of scientific ecology and piecemeal conservation by identifying humanity, and even God, with the entire natural world, dismissing as "shallow" any attempt to judge relative values from a merely human point of view.
The feminist version of Deep Ecology simply identifies the divine cosmos as feminine, stressing everywhere the metaphor of connectedness and relationship at the expense of hierarchy and stewardship. The intellectual enemies of Deep Ecology include two of the founders of modern science at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon (who wanted to "put nature to the rack") and René Descartes (who saw mind as a "ghost in a machine").
Now a Catholic or Orthodox Christian may agree that Bacon and Descartes were radically mistaken. The trouble with Deep Ecology, and most of the other new religions and philosophies of nature, is that they are so narrow compared to the great pre-Cartesian tradition. Their founders tend to take a fragment of the tradition and blow it out of proportion. For example, take the view that God is immanent, within us: Christians can agree with that, and even with the idea that this divine presence is (symbolically) feminine. But God is also transcendent, other than his creation, and in relation to it - to us - he is primarily (symbolically) masculine. Tradition maintains both halves of the paradox.
Similiarly, we can agree that everything in nature has inherent value, that all being is good, and that there is no simple hierarchy of values to be determined by reference to human purposes alone. But we must add that precisely because all things exist in relationship to one another as an (imperfect) expression of the attributes of God, they each have different roles and importance. The behaviour of the human race affects the system as a whole: that fact alone (admitted by every conservationist) establishes a hierarchy of sorts. The existence of an order of archetypes and principles - even if we limit these to the mathematical principles and natural laws as discerned by science - establishes another.
The post-Christian goddess-worship that we find in Europe and America seems to be in part a response to the loss of a sense of the feminine nature of the Church and of her cosmic significance. For any deeply Catholic or Orthodox mind, the Church is a person, typified in the Virgin Mary. The institutional aspects of the Church are subsidiary - or else they represent the "skeleton" that performs a necessary but ideally hidden function within the Body of that person. Her actual boundaries extend far beyond her formal membership, into the realm of nature itself. It is in her that the flowers bloom and the rivers flow. Through his telescope the atheist scientist gazes at her stars. One can in fact only exclude oneself from her by a conscious act of rejection.
The responsibility for the loss of this poetic or mystical sense of the Church as a cosmic, supernaturally organic community lies with the same dualist mindset that has pervaded Western society since the seventeenth century, and which is associated with the rise of industry and of the merchant classes. In other words (each of them ending with -ism), it is associated with rationalism, postivism, scientism, communism and capitalism. The answer to that industrial mindset, however, is not Deep Ecology, it is Deep Christianity. In one way Lynn White was right. Christians helped to get us into this mess. They got shallow. And if Christians got us into it, Christians might bear a special responsibility for getting us out.
Around the time of the Cairo Conference on Population and Development (September 1994) I was sitting on a plane and struck up a conversation with an elderly American. We got along fine for a few minutes - until he told me he was part of an organization that believed "we have to stop the population growing in the Third World". What right did he and his fellow Americans have to do that, I wondered.
If the 30% of the world’s population living in the richest countries uses 80% of the world’s resources (another of those famous free-floating statistics), it could certainly be argued that the global "problem" was as much the lifestyle of the average Westerner as the number of children born to a poor family in the Third World. It would take 9 billion Indians to do as much environmental damage as all 300 million Americans.
That, at any rate, seems in part to be the Vatican’s view, and the reason why at the Cairo Summit it was able to make such a spectacular alliance with countries in the Third World against the developing consensus of the self-appointed leaders of the world in favour of population control. Behind a lot of Western demographic panic, it seems, there lies a deep-seated fear of losing our own hard-won material and cultural privileges.
There is also a tendency, reflected in all the official documentation, to generalize the experience of Europe to the rest of the world. The nineteenth-century myth of inevitable progress, based on a kind of social or even racial Darwinism, has been replaced by the theory of "demographic transition" (invented by Frank Notestein in the 1940s). According to this, economic progress eventually results in the reduction to a new equilibrium of birth and death rates, as people live longer and lose the desire for large families.
But what if this too proves to be a myth? What if the Third World did not simply imitate the pattern of Europe and North America? Could it not, even now, leapfrog the industrial stage into a more decentralized, community-scale economy using what E.F. Schumacher called "appropriate technology"? In that case, the picture could be very different.
None of this is to gainsay the evidence of severe demographic problems in parts of Asia and Africa. As the Western economies move into a crisis caused by a declining or aging population, their active workforce increasingly "liberated" from stable, full-time work by the new technologies, many nations in the South are suffering from chronic overcrowding caused by a combination of high birthrate and economic mismanagement.
Pressure from the population control lobby and the contraceptives industry has helped to reduce the fertility rate in the Third World from 6.1 children in the 1950s to 3.7 today, but these are only average figures. And the world’s population - up from a billion in 1800 and two billion in 1929 to five billion in 1989 - is likely to grow by a couple more billion in the next two decades.
In these circumstances, the Vatican’s position has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented. In 1994, the year that the Pope made his bold and influential stand against the anti-humanistic assumptions underlying the Cairo Summit, the Pontifical Council for the Family produced a very clear and helpful document called Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends.
While accepting the idea of democratic transition, the document concludes that international agencies need to adopt a more sophisticated concept of human and economic development. Authentic development "respects women and children and gives attention to the rich diversity of cultures." Furthermore, if human life is not respected "from conception to natural death" and the family as its natural sanctuary, attempts to respond to population pressure will only result in the dehumanization of society and the creation of a "culture of death". Contraception, sterilization and abortion are evil means to a dubious end.
The causes of "underdevelopment" are not merely an excess of mouths to feed, but lie in the relation of the local to the global economy, the threat or reality of war, and patterns of consumption in the developed nations. Mouths belong to human beings, and human beings - with their creativity, their capacity for work and their love of life - are potentially the solution to all these problems. And even if it were possible to create a sustainable economic system by killing or sterilizing a large part of the population, would we really want to live in a society built upon the slaughter of innocents and contempt for life?
The most common misunderstanding of the Church’s position concerns the issue of contraception - and it has been ever since Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968. Long before his election as Pope, John Paul II was a supporter of that encyclical, and his writings since then, especially his teachings on the family and his "theology of the body", have deepened our understanding of reasons for Paul VI’s decision to rule out recourse to "artificial methods" of birth control both philosophically and theologically. Yet this strong position, the basis of which we will examine in a moment, is combined with an openness to recognize that there might be valid reasons for a couple to wish to limit the number of children they invite God to create in their own marriage.
Reasons for limiting the size of one’s family could be personal to the couple - to do with health or extreme poverty, for example - or they might be connected with social problems such as urban overcrowding or a state of civil war. If such valid reasons exist, Church teaching would recommend one of the several forms of "natural family planning". These can now be just as effective as the artificial methods, yet at the same time they respect the nature and dignity of the human person.
The new forms of "NFP" are easily taught person-to-person even where levels of literacy are low, and might even form part of a government population campaign in some Catholic Third World countries, provided the purpose of the campaign were simply to communicate accurate information about an existing crisis, without overt or tacit coercion, leaving married couples free to decide their own response.
Humanae Vitae and the more recent pronouncements of John Paul II (in Familiaris Consortio, etc.) have to be understood in the context of the Church’s long defence of a positive attitude towards the human body and sexuality. In the early days of Christianity, Gnostic and Manichean sects taught that the body was a trap from which to escape. Matter was the invention of an evil deity.
Even the Neoplatonists, while rejecting Gnostic dualism, redarded matter as ultimately unreal and aspired to transcend it in pure intellectuality. The Church rejected such positions, and accepted matter as part of a good creation redeemed in Christ. Great stress was laid on the fact that Christ’s human body rose from the dead and ascended into heaven: he did not leave it behind. The Virgin Mary, at the end of her life on earth, was assumed bodily into heaven. Meanwhile marriage was dignified by Christ with the supreme status of a sacrament, the sexual relationship being regarded as an analogy (or even foretaste) of the eventual communion of Christ with his bride, the Church. St Thomas Aquinas speculated that sexual pleasure would have been more intense in Paradise, if there had been no Fall. The Devil had not invented sex, only spoiled it.
So it was that Pope Paul VI felt himself obliged to overrule a majority of his advisory committee, and issue his famous encyclical against the contraceptive pill. In the light of the potential population exposion in some parts of the world, that document encouraged the regulation of births to a level the earth could support - but only through non-interventive methods (and he encouraged the scientific improvement of those methods). A leading figure in the early stages of the Green movement, the economist E.F. Schumacher, who at that point was not a Catholic, reacted to the encyclical with the words: "If the Pope had said anything different I would have lost all respect for the Papacy."
The Pope’s decision reaffirmed the Church’s whole latent, positive teaching on the body as a vital element of the human person. It reaffirmed the principles of ecology in the most intimate environment known to man. If the Pope had encouraged the use of the Pill, he would have been encouraging couples to pollute the waterways of the human body with chemicals, deliberately to prevent it from functioning in a healthy way.
A profane, industrial mentality would have been extended into the most sacred, private sphere. He would have been capitulating to the heresy of Descartes: the body would have become a machine at the disposal of its invisible pilot, sex reduced to an activity for giving and taking pleasure - rather than the expression of self-giving love, in which pleasure is integrated as a blessing.
This all sounds very idealistic, perhaps. But it is the Church’s job to hope and to trust, and to treat the ideal as the true human norm. She insists that, with the help of grace, the "impossible" ideal can be realized. What if it is not, either in one case or a million? Then she must be compassionate. But she must not declare to be normal and acceptable any action that would be unworthy of a saint.
The argument rages on. While the majority of the earth’s resources are being consumed by those who have successfully "controlled" their populations, leading figures in the WWF and other agencies call for the wider distribution of contraceptive pills and condoms in the Third World. (In 1990, the President of the WWF stated: "It should be obvious by now that further population growth in any country is undesirable.") In a century of unprecedented bloodshed, life has become cheap.
Thanks to the new technology, it can be kept frozen on the shelf until needed - if not needed (or past its sell-by date) it is simply thrown away. At the Beijing conference on women, abortion came close to being defined as a universal right. The killing of the elderly and comatose, as well as the very young, has become standard medical procedure. One might even surmise that the spread of AIDS is secretly regarded with relief in certain quarters: an ally against the population explosion on the one hand; and an undeniable inducement to promote the condom on the other.
"A New Solidarity"
The Catholic Church is not a political organization, and she is not in the business of designing legislation as such. Centesimus Annus made that clear enough. But as the largest and most ancient moral authority on the planet, she cannot fail to be a significant influence on international policy. Furthermore, while it may not be the role of clerics to develop economic and political policies, "the Church" is more than its ecclesiatical hierarchy alone. And it is precisely the role of the laity to involve themselves in these matters. In his 1990 Peace Day message, the Pope spells out some of the implications of this involvement.
"The ecological crisis," he writes, "reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized. States must increasingly share responsibility, in complementary ways, for the promotion of a natural and social environment that is both peaceful and healthy." Then the Pope gets more specific. "The newly industrialized States cannot, for example, be asked to apply restrictive environmental standards to their emerging industries unless the industrialized States first apply them within their own boundaries.
At the same time, countries in the process of industrialization are not morally free to repeat the errors made in the past by others, and recklessly continue to damage the environment through industrial pollutants, radical deforestation or unlimited exploitation of non-renewable resources. In this context, there is urgent need to find a solution to the treatment and disposal of toxic wastes."
He then moves to the structural level. "It must also be said that the proper ecological balance will not be found without directly addressing the structural forms of poverty that exist throughout the world. Rural poverty and unjust land distribution in many countries, for example, have led to subsistence farming and to the exhaustion of the soil. Once their land yields no more, many farmers move on to clear new land, thus accelerating uncontrolled deforestation, or they settle in urban centres which lack the infrastructure to receive them."
The question of Third World debt is not neglected (the Pope has since suggested that many of these debts ought to be written off, in a kind of global Jubilee). "Likewise, some heavily indebted countries are destroying their natural heritage, at the price of irreparable ecological imbalances, in order to develop new products for export. In the face of such situations it would be wrong to assign responsibility to the poor alone for the negative environmental consequences of their actions. Rather, the poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty. This will require a courageous reform of structures, as well as new ways of relating among people and States."
The structural changes the Pope calls for in society (both here and in Centesimus Annus) must be accompanied by a profound change in individual lifestyles, especially in the West. If those changes do not come voluntarily, they will eventually be forced upon us. "Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as the spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few." A culture of life would also be a "culture of asceticism".
Peace - including peace with nature - can only be created by the gift of self. That universal law operates at every level of society and of human decision-making: governments and economic systems that break this law will be humbled and destroyed (as Communism was humbled in the Soviet Union.) The science of ecology hints at the interconnectedness of all things, especially of all living things.
The abortion massacre, the readiness of nations to threaten each other with war or terrorism, the spread of plagues and pollution, the "export of hazard" by transnational corporations, and now the exploitation of genetic and other resources of the Third World by the "First", are also interconnected, springing from a single root in the heart of man and tending to the same end. Against this attitude and this tendency toward death stand the great religions of the world, and among them the religion of St Francis of Assisi, the religion founded on a rock deeper than Peter, the rock of Mary’s fiat - the love of life in its Source and its unfolding.