The well-being of the Earth; an after thought in Catholic Social Teaching

1st September 2009 - by Fr Sean McDonagh

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In this week‟s column I will continue my critique of Catholic Social Teaching from an ecological perspective. My intention is not to denigrate Catholic teaching but to help us realise that there has been little sensitivity to the Earth and other creatures in Catholic teaching in recent centuries. Unless we truly understand our past, with both its good and bad aspects, we will not be able to experience the “ecological conversion” which Pope John Paul II called for in 2001. The reason is to be found in the quotation from Lord Acton that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

According to the historian Keith Thomas in his book Man and the Natural World, “ in Tudor and Stuart England, the long-established view was that the world had been created from man‟s sake and that other species were meant to be subordinated to his wishes and needs. This assumption underlay the actions of that vast majority of men who never paused to reflect upon the matter. But those theologians and intellectuals who felt the need to justify it could readily appeal to the classical philosophers and the Bible”.1 Homocentric assumptions are so deeply embedded in our culture that we need to confront them directly if we want to develop, a new understanding of the place of humankind within the Earth-community and also the longer story of the formation of our Universe.

As I pointed out last week, Vatican II also shared this anthropocentric bias. In Gaudium et Spes (The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) No 12 “according to the unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on Earth should be related to man as their centre and crown.” (No. 12). This echoes the philosophy of the Stoics, who taught that “nature existed solely to serve man‟s interest,” rather than the teachings of the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures. 2 The Book of Job in Chapters 38 and 39, rejects an exclusively human-centred view of creation.

But while the Stoics and people such as Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon may have subscribed to such views, the vast majority of tribal people in the world and believers in Hinduism or Buddhism hardly share these views. They would be much closer to the views attributed to Chief Seattle who wrote “if all the beasts were gone, we would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts happens to all of us. All things are connected: whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the children of the Earth”.

An exclusively homo-centric view of creation is understandably for people, like Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, who calculated in the 1630s that the Earth was only six thousand years old and that all the creatures that we see now were there from the very beginning. Today, we know from the various sciences that the Earth is over 4 billion years old and that there were a fully functioning ecosystems in place, for example, in the Lower Carboniferous period 354 to 324 million years ago. At that time there were no flowering plants, or insects, birds or mammals, but there were giant horsetails and an array of other creatures, most of which are now extinct. Theologically, I am sure that God would have spoken the Genesis words, “it is good”, over this and other phases of evolution of life on Earth. He/She would not be waiting until Homo sapiens arrived over one million years ago to give meaning to creation!

Despite its great achievement in helping to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world, Vatican II remained almost exclusively human-centred. One initiative during the Council could have led to a more sensitive presentation on the rights of other creatures if it had been pursued vigorously. In response to an appeal from the National Catholic Society For Animal Welfare in the U.S, the Vatican undertook a symposium on animal rights in October 1962 under the chairmanship of Archbishop Pietro Palazzini, the secretary for the Congregation of the Council. The symposium had two aims, to compile Church teaching on animals and to promote a greater sensitivity to the needs of animals and to have this enshrined in legislation”. 3 Unfortunately, the deliberations at that seminar or its recommendations did not make their way into the documents of Vatican.

1 Keith Thomas, 1983, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London, page 17
2 ibid
3 Denis Carroll, 1987, Towards a Story of the Earth, Dominican Publications, Dublin, page 38.