Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
hands holding loose dirt

The “Wild and Perilous” Catholic Balance on the Environment

May 8, 2024


In his philosophical masterpiece Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton memorably pictured the Church’s faith as a chariot thundering through the ages, whose doctrine maintains a “wild and perilous” balance to avoid lurching into opposing half-truths and fashions that become sprawling heresies. This daring yet delicate balance is also on display in the “social doctrine” of the Church, and in particular in its understanding and position on “the environment”—the nature, ecology, and atmosphere that we humans inhabit and depend upon. Here the crosswinds arise from two opposing ideological tendencies, which we may roughly label as utilitarianism and environmentalism. 

The Utilitarian Error: Nature Is Not an Object

The utilitarian tendency—or “technocratic paradigm”—which is visible in much of economics, sees nature as a resource, as useful, for people and the economy. Aided by the science and technology that was in turn inspired by the Enlightenment thinking of Bacon and Descartes, mastering and modifying nature is seen as a necessary stage in economic development. Certainly, twentieth-century economic growth has brought untold millions out of poverty, enabling more people to live and flourish. In the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church welcomed this progress as a manifestation of a God-given human creativity and vocation. Pope Francis himself declares that “it is right to rejoice in these advances . . . how can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?” (Laudato Si, 102)

At the same time, the utilitarian regards the nature around us as no more special than any other object or resource. Whether stemming from the radical empiricism of David Hume or the cramped rationalism of Immanuel Kant, this thinking denies external nature having any knowable “intrinsic value.” The logic is that all “value” is experienced and conferred by subjective individuals: if humans were not around, there would be no subjects to confer value. And consistent with Kant’s grounding of ethics in individual autonomy, this view denies that nature, unlike a person, has “a sake” or will that must be treated as an end in itself. Conservationist arguments for the protection of nature “for its own sake,” are therefore a category mistake. 

For the utilitarian, the environment can only have “instrumental” value to people. Not just its material resources—water, minerals, fossil fuels, timber, crops—but its non-material benefits too. I may be enraptured by a mountain or coastal scene, or simply delight in a woodland walk or the birds in my shrubbery, but that delight is still “my” value, an expression of my subjective preference—even if many others share that delight. 

With no “intrinsic” value, nature becomes an object for the human subject to exploit and profit by, as Francis spells out in Laudato Si (2015) and Laudato Deum (2023). Over time, the result is widespread environmental degradation, alienation, and even desecration where, in a pithy phrase of John Paul II, “the environment as ‘resource’ risks threatening the environment as ‘home’” (quoted in Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 461). This technocratic reductionism is redoubled by a growing loss in Western culture of the sense of God, as Francis and Benedict have both identified: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognise any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (Laudato Si, 6). 

The Environmentalist Error: Nature Is Not God

Popes, of course, have not been alone in sounding the alarm at environmental degradation. In its critique of Enlightenment presumption and “anthropocentrism,” the conservation and environmentalist movement is a totem of postmodernity. Many of us in the affluent West get this. We are more conscious of our “environmental footprint.” We see the value of “connecting with nature” in a hundred ways: through gardening, hiking, birdwatching, kayaking, wild-swimming, eco-tripping. Contact with the earth keeps us truly rooted yet makes the soul soar, a lifeline in our overly urbanized and digitized daily lives. 

Nature not only has “intrinsic value” which must be protected at all costs, it is seen as the source of all ethical, social, and even economic values.

Yet beguiled by nature’s beauty, unsatisfied by materialism, and fretful of environmental collapse, a new (or perhaps not so new) metaphysics starts to present itself for many. Rightly conscious that “nature precedes us,” people and even corporations are rediscovering the “Mother Nature” that they have dishonored. We as humans, the logic goes, have no right to decide what is or is not valuable. Nature not only has “intrinsic value” that must be protected at all costs, it is seen as the source of all ethical, social, and even economic values. We invasive humans have no more rights or intrinsic value than the biodiversity and ecosystems around us. What makes you better than a panda, a puffin, or an oak tree?

Again, Catholic teaching balks at these totalizing tendencies that, “in the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the ‘dignity’ of all living creatures, end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings” (Benedict XVI, “Message for the 2010 World Day of Peace,” 13). Without God the Creator, “this position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism—human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense” (Caritas in Veritate, 48). Worse, such reductionism can justify an inhuman ethics that views “men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited” (Laudato Si, 60). When babies, for example, are disparaged as “pollution,” abortion becomes a moral act. What havoc might be wrought by such a subhuman ethics? 

The Catholic Balance

Recoiling from these polarizing tendencies yet sifting the elements of truth in each in the light of reason and revelation, the Church offers an alternative that is not a mere compromise but a substantive, balanced, and integral vision. 

Its metaphysical foundations are simply stated. Nature is not divine—but it is God’s gift to us. So we can indeed meaningfully speak of, or “re-cognize,” the intrinsic value of nature that is a reflection of the “thought” of the Creator. “It is not enough to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves” (Laudato Si, 33). Even if, to respond to the utilitarian, there were no human subjects to “confer” value on nature, there is yet a Subject who confers that value, for “other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes,” and indeed, “The Lord rejoices in all His works” [Psalm 104] (Laudato Si, 69). The creation account in Genesis hammers home the point that the wonders of the cosmos and earth, though not God, are regarded by God as “good,” even before humans appear on the scene (Gen. 1:20-25). 

But with men and women it becomes “very good” (Gen. 1:26-31). Whilst nature has its own intrinsic goodness and value, people, made in the image and likeness of God, have an unsurpassable and unique dignity and value. Chopping a branch off a tree is not morally equivalent to chopping a limb off a person. 

Stewardship and human dignity are mutually implicative, not antagonistic. 

And nature surely does have “instrumental” value, as human experience and Scripture attest. This opens up the space for scientific and economic inquiry of the environment. We understand intuitively how this “both/and” principle applies even to ourselves: for example, we can value and indeed price the utility of our labor—we earn a wage—without detracting from our human dignity. Our own homes also have something of this quality. A home is useful, but it is also special—just not the way in which the people in it are special. 

And nature is our created home, “Our Common Home” in the words of the pope, albeit one “that is falling into serious disrepair” (Laudato Si, 61). We are tenants, not the Landlord. With unique dignity comes unique responsibility, for the Creator has given 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” (Benedict XVI, “Message for the 2010 World Day of Peace,” 13). Like some ancient and magnificent country estate, we are to manage and hand on this, our earthly home, to those who come after us. In this vision, stewardship and human dignity are mutually implicative, not antagonistic. 

Upon these foundations, the principles of Catholic social thought add a unique texture and balance. The “universal destination of goods” reminds us that nature is there for all, “a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” (Laudato Si, 95). The principles of the common good and solidarity broaden our gaze beyond narrow individual or nationalistic interests to one that is open to the needs of others, for “we cannot remain indifferent to what is happening around us, for the deterioration of any one part of the planet affects us all” (Benedict XVI, “Message for the 2010 World Day of Peace,” 11). 

And in that wider landscape, we need “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si, 49). This “preferential option for the poor” should sensitize us not only to how poorer peoples, in both developed and developing countries, can suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation. It is also to be alert to the possibility that future-focused environmental policies can hurt those who are poor now, for example, by raising costs of living, stifling much needed agricultural or industrial development, or by diverting resources away from poverty reduction programs. “Let us,” Francis pleads, “not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep waiting” (Laudato Si, 162).

Light of the Sacraments
Get The Book

Most intriguing of all is the recent papal stress on “human ecology.” Human ecology has roots in the Garden of Eden where the two great tasks of stewardship of creation and family go together (Genesis 1:28; 2:15), for “the book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development ” (Caritas in Veritate, 51). As there is an environmental “ecology” that we did not invent yet grounds us, so there is a human and moral “ecology” that constitutes us and which we cannot ignore or treat as raw material. How odd then that some today would condemn the utilitarian tampering of the environment but approve a utilitarian tampering of the human body. “It is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. . . . Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will” (Laudato Si, 136, 155). This is why the Church speaks of “integral development” rather than the more conventional “sustainable development.” 

Echoing Chesterton’s haunting image in Orthodoxy of disintegrated virtues now wandering wild and alone across the culture, Francis, like his predecessors, insists that an environmental sensibility alone is insufficient: “It is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values” (Laudato Si, 224). For the pope as for Chesterton, that reintegration is to be found in Christ and his Church. 

A vision is necessarily broad-brush. Like much of its social thought, the Church proposes guidelines and guardrails rather than policy prescriptions. The presumption would be for environmental protection, but not “anything green goes,” as we have already seen. There are indeed difficult issues, uncertainties, risks, and trade-offs to navigate, offering a broad ground for debate and research, for “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But . . . to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (Laudato Si, 188). 

So if we (or our secular friends) want to protect the environment, we don’t need to buy into an ideology of environmentalism. And if we value economic wellbeing and human ingenuity, we needn’t defend a proud and careless utilitarianism. We can embrace and witness to the “perilous balance” of the Catholic position, which is reasonable yet rooted in the anthropological and metaphysical understanding of the Christian faith.