Intercom Magazine December 2009

01 Dec 2009

December 2009/January 2010 issue

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Feature Article

Tuning in to Catholic Ecology

Nancy Rourke PhD

Injustice propagates injustice. Economic injustice in an area exacerbates gender injustice, racial injustice, and environmental injustice. Environmental injustice puts pressure on human society and on all life, worsening conditions and leading to further injustice.

Ecologists live by the understanding that a person can never change only one thing. Recent Vatican encyclical Caritas in Veritate exemplifies this understanding in its refusal to treat issues in isolation of one another. It considers economic justice alongside sexual ethics alongside the question of development alongside a call for openness to life. And it is true that no question of life grows apart from all life’s other questions. In this sense, the document demonstrates what we could call a faith-ecology: a treatment, rooted in faith, of many pressing issues and questions which takes seriously their dynamic interrelationality. Pope Benedict XVI’s next World Peace Day address will continue this practice, expanding on the connections between justice, peace and ecological issues. The theme is: If you want to cultivate peace, take care of creation.

Injustice propagates injustice. Economic injustice in an area exacerbates gender injustice, racial injustice, and environmental injustice. Environmental injustice puts pressure on human society and on all life, worsening conditions and leading to further injustice. Environmental writers observe the same kinds of interrelationality. Changes in a bioregion (such as decreased crop diversity) lead to other changes (such as changes in feeding patterns) which lead to more changes (such as changes in numbers of animal populations), and on and on. No participant in an ecosystem is exempt from being affected by these networks of relationships. For humans, deliberate and thoughtful participation in these webs of life is required for environmentally responsible living. Awareness of this reality can make us feel vulnerable and it can also be an experience of awe, enjoyment and gratitude. Awareness of our participation nurtures in us a sense of the great privilege of living within such a complex and dynamic world. As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. (Caritas in Veritate par. 53) Life is everywhere, and all life is interconnected! Patterns of dynamic interrelationships are reflected within us, as well.

A human person’s internal moral world is a web of intentions, will, conscience, virtues, vices, chosen duties, prevenient grace, original sin, etc. These elements of an internal moral world grow and change in relationship with the others. Consider the virtues. The interrelationality among all virtues resembles, again, an ecology. No virtue can exist or function without the others. Within this ecology, certain virtues in particular shape, organize and unify the others. These are the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance). In Catholic ecological ethics, prudence takes on special significance.

Prudence is moral wisdom. Like all wisdom, it develops and strengthens with lived and reflected-upon experience, throughout a person’s life. Prudence links intellect, reason, our perception of the world’s needs, and our own character formation. Prudence is responsible for accurately and insightfully perceiving the nature of a situation within which we must act, and therefore it must include environmental, ecological awareness. There is no sufficient practical reason without a sufficient understanding of where one is and of all that is happening there. Environmental ethicists in philosophy have also noted that prudence requires attunement to our ecological systems. We are inhabitants of the ecosystems to which we belong, and within which we are embedded. Without the other lives of our ecosystems, we would not be who we now are. (In fact, without them, we would not be at all.)

If prudence requires attunement, it must follow that prudence entails humility. What is the point of tuning in to something if we are not also willing to let it speak to us? The attunement of prudence comes with being attentive to the webs of life among which our lives are lived, and being willing to allow ourselves to be changed by these. This both necessitates and develops humility. When we allow our ecological systems to change us, we are agreeing that the created world does not exist exclusively for our own benefit. Instead, it means participating in creation’s complex dance of interacting systems, whose beauty we have a unique ability to enjoy, and which exists because of God, for God’s own purposes. It means acknowledging that we are not above it all.

Increased attunement to our environments reminds us to define ourselves in light of the ecologies within which we exist. Are we members of the dominant species on the planet, the only species capable of responding to and enjoying the presence of God, and the main purpose of all of God’s Creation? Or are we participants in a system of organic networks of relationships, mutually interdependent and flourishing in relationships with all the life that surrounds us? The best answer to this comes both from our faith (consider which of the above best reflects the image of God as Trinity!) and from practiced attunement to all the life that surrounds us. Catholic commitment to Natural Law thought means at least this that we can gain insight from such attunement. Since we are one of many participants in the webs of life that God created, the kinds of relationships we have toward life’s other participants are of enormous import. When we are attentive to all the life that is around us and to the character of the relationships we have with that life, we come to understand ourselves better. Such contextualised self-understanding is another benefit of the virtue of prudence, and it heightens our gratitude for the worlds within which we are embedded. Ecological attunement enhances our awareness of life’s abundance.

Nancy Rourke PhD
Canisius College, Buffalo, NY


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