I don’t suppose I’ll turn any heads by pointing out that Pope Benedict XVI is no friend to feminist theology nor to those doing theology from LGBTQ perspectives (which often overlap). A less obvious suggestion may lie in identifying a relatively new source of this antipathy, namely, Benedict’s environmentalism.
As Catholic environmental ethicist Christiana Peppard sees it, a commitment to ecological care may be among Benedict’s lasting legacies. In a short piece for the National Catholic Reporter last year Peppard highlights the prominence of environmental issues thus far in Benedict’s papacy, such as in his Messages for the World Day of Peace in 2007, 2008, and 2010, where he made important connections between ecological well-being and peace, and in Caritas in veritate, his second encyclical. Building on the increasing attention to proper stewardship of creation coming from Catholic hierarchical sources since Vatican II, including significant statements from his predecessor, Benedict has also introduced a rather new angle – and this is where feminists may want to take note.
The Pope’s somewhat unique twist is, in Peppard’s words, “a steadily emerging assertion of a reciprocal, and seemingly direct, relationship between ‘natural ecology’ and ‘human ecology’—including, presumably, sexual morality (see, e.g., Caritas in veritate, no. 51).” The relevant text from Benedict’s second encyclical calls people to a new “lifestyle” which runs counter to the rampant hedonism and consumerism of the present day. On the basis that “[t]he way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa,” what is needed is a mentality of “integral human development” that respects the interconnectedness of ecological, social, and individual health and well-being. The final two paragraphs of this section are worth reproducing here:
The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature.
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. 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. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society. [italics are original; bold is my emphasis]
Maura Ryan, an ethicist at Notre Dame, noted this ecological-anthropological dynamic in an article titled “A New Shade of Green? Nature, Freedom, and Sexual Difference in Caritas in Veritate.” There Ryan elucidates Benedict’s move to what has been called a “pro-life environmentalism” against the background of Catholic moral theology and his papacy in general. She charts Benedict’s modulation of themes from Populorum progressio (Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical, which Caritas in veritate commemorates) now familiar to Catholic social teaching, including the insufficiency of economic and technological development when true human advancement is absent or incomplete. Surveying the contemporary scene Benedict identifies the root cause of an array of global problems of this sort in a moral crisis that pertains fundamentally to a distortion of freedom. He applies this diagnosis to widespread environmental degradation, as is echoed in the long citation above, and goes on to tie together this symptom with a slew of others relating to bioethics, family life, and sexual morality.
As Ryan observes, the Pope thereby integrates what is generally considered a social issue – protection and ethical use of the environment – with so-called Catholic “life issues,” all under the rubric of what he elsewhere refers to as the “law of being.” Ryan also points out that while this integration is not altogether unprecedented (insofar as Benedict joins several previous magisterial condemnations of, for example, population control as a means of economic progress), his insistence on the de-formation of conscience – our capacity to “see” and know what is right – through the presence of practices such as abortion and his foregrounding of environmental degradation among these practices signals a distinctive riff on natural law theology and ethics. Attitudes are harbingers of acts, so when humans transgress their limits on the basis of self-aggrandizing view of freedom blind to its true source and end, serious damage ensues. Thus it is essential to appreciate nature as gift (rather than simply a neutral mass of raw material) and revelation (of a purpose imbued by the Creator) which determines the exercise of human freedom. To do so runs contrary – in Benedict’s assessment – to the capricious, consumerist, relativist impulses of modern/postmodern society – all those many ills from which people are called upon to convert.
In and of itself this might not necessarily be a bad thing, if what is intended is a more cohesive ethical framework and one which stresses the interconnectedness of various forms of right relationship. There is indeed a certain sense in which it is laudable to raise up ecological care as a priority alongside of and intimately connected to human sociality, particularly in a way that contextualizes advocacy for specific policies within a broader theological outlook on flourishing. Benedict is certainly not the only thinker to lament the moral and spiritual crisis that manifests in wanton disregard for the integrity of a creation of which humans are a part. Surely recognizing natural limits must be of a piece with a robust theology of creation and an attendant ecological ethic? And surely this has something to do with the vocation and dignity of human beings as well? I would not hesitate to say yes to both.
However, one must remember the contours of the moral universe the Pope envisions and attend carefully to the connections he draws, especially as they shape and are in turn shaped by his anthropology. His view of the “ecology of man [sic]” is, in short, rife with gender essentialism. One can safely fill in even more of the content and consequences of his “pro-life environmentalist” position in Caritas in veritate on the basis of another address in the January 2011, where he opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage: “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.” Here it is evident how Benedict reads the “one and indivisible” book of nature: in the same way that fish need water, human creaturely well-being entails exclusive heterosexual relationships. This view of the natural law or “law of being” posits a clear indication of a “divine meaning” that inheres in apparently observable facts, via reason, and exercises a normative and prescriptive function for what follows. As to what follows in the realm of (human) sexual morality, one can look to the critical discussions of gender complementarity, contraception and artificial insemination frequently undertaken here at WIT. Ryan also teases out the presence of gender essentialism and its lurking, correlative assumptions about gendered social roles in: 1) the encyclical’s failure to extend a Catholic “critical justice lens” to the domestic arena, i.e. the “natural family,” and 2) despite nominal affirmation of women’s education, the document’s silence about the importance of investments in improving women’s status – as per U.N. Millennium Development Goals – as a means of transforming the daily conditions in which so many women struggle globally to live in healthy and dignified ways and to provide for their families. One need not expect the Pope to sign off on a liberal agenda of “women’s rights” in order to expect a more elevated concern on this score; the lacuna, I believe, exposes a more insidious side of this particular “ecology of man.”
 Of course I’m merely reinventing the wheel with these observations. Yet the argument from an all-encompassing ecology might at first blush suggest that something like an eco-feminist theology is verboten or perhaps just unintelligible. A would-be feminist might be prompted to wonder: Doesn’t Benedict’s appeal to the dire consequences of disrespecting the constraints of our natural environment lend a credibility to his claims about a correlative distortion of human personhood in regard to its natural and foundational sexual (and gendered) differentiation? Of course I don’t think this is the case. Not at all, in fact. The reasons why this “whole cloth environmentalism” is “unconvincing,” as Ryan puts it, are multiple. Let me note just two that she adduces. First, there is the practical critique that the subjective formation of conscience along “pro-life” lines is not by any stretch always brought to bear on environmental issues: witness the Bush administration; staunchly anti-abortion but disastrous for environmental policy. Second, there is the larger critique of this rendering of a natural law ethic: consider the complex debates about scriptural hermeneutics; how do we go about “reading” the “book of nature?” Might we not be well-advised to do so with a bit more humility, Ryan suggests, and in the recognition that even a profound commitment to ascertaining a God-given moral structure may well result in greatly contested understandings of human nature? Moreover, I would personally want to go further and more sympathetically into the territory of some postmodern critiques, to ask, perhaps, how inquiry into the socio-cultural construction of gender – and even sex?! – could ground a reconsideration of the category “nature” as it operates in environmental discourse, even as we seek to take seriously embodiment and materiality.
A full critique of Benedict’s anthropological-environmental ecology and an account of alternatives from various feminist perspectives will remain in the offing for future posts, hopefully situated in a more general introduction to eco-feminist theology on its own terms. For the time being, let me just say of Benedict’s vision of a holistic ecology that I’m quite certain “this ain’t it.” Yet his emerging environmentalism is a notable framework insofar as it highlights the potential tension found in this pairing of commitments, to anthropology and ecology. For feminist theologians with an ecological consciousness, and vice versa, I think it may occasion the work of disentanglement – of women’s embodied experience from an essentialized nature; of a sense of “givenness” as it pertains to gendered persons from the material realities of environmental degradation; of critiques of late capitalist consumption or anthropocentric, unfettered exercises of individualistic freedom from sweeping judgments of “moral relativism,” and so on – even as we seek to re-articulate our real, relational, and thoroughly messy entanglement with all of creation, inasmuch as we are “eco-social” subjects, to borrow a phrase from Catherine Keller.
My main purpose at the moment is simply to highlight this mode of argumentation in the Pope’s rhetoric and to sound a note of caution. We’d do well to be on the lookout because it appears this “pro-life environmentalism” is here to stay. Benedict’s speech to the German parliament in September on the moral foundations of law marshaled the successes of the environmental movement as evidence of the pressing need to remember that this call to “listen to the language of nature and … answer accordingly” applies equally to the “neglected … ecology of man.” To my mind, it’s both a brilliant and a highly troubling move; Benedict has brought a pressing contemporary concern into the service of shoring up the (supposedly) traditional moral code dictated by Catholic natural law, as it (purportedly) speaks the intentions of the Creator God. To the extent that the anthropology entailed in this theological ethic is deeply problematic with respect to sex and gender, I will continue to be suspicious of the appeals to ecology by our “green Pope.”
 Theological Studies; Jun2010, Vol. 71 Issue 2, p335-349.
 Citation drawn from Ryan’s article in Theological Studies, p. 340
 This image appears on the cover of Ecofeminist Philosophy by Karen J. Warren (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000). Warren’s explanation of its significance and origin may be found on her personal webpage: http://www.macalester.edu/~warren/
 “Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives. In saying this, I am clearly not promoting any particular political party – nothing could be further from my mind. If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture. Allow me to dwell a little longer on this point. The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”
Masterfully done, Beth. Great post. I’ll have to check out Maura’s essay as soon as possible.
Thanks for this post, Beth!
The more I think about it, the less convinced I am that the pope is doing anything really revolutionary here. As far as questions of gender and sexuality go, how does this advance the conversation beyond the same old “Don’t do what’s ‘unnatural'” morality?
I guess what’s significant is the pairing of bio-ethics/sexual ethics with environmental ethics. But how does the pope understand human freedom in this context? (perhaps this is something like Maura Ryan’s point 2?) He’s a really smart guy, so I’m sure he’s aware that a human being is different from a tree. But it seems like the natures of these things differ in significant ways that would ultimately problematize a sort of “whole cloth environmentalism.” Or it seems that anything that could be said about both sorts of things might be extremely vague and platitudinous. I dunno. Just some thoughts.
Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin and sorry for my delayed response. I would agree that this doesn’t much change the content or the form of moral teaching on gender and sexuality. I think, as you say, that what is significant is precisely that pairing with environmental ethics and perhaps actually with something of an ecological spirituality as well. Whether that linkage is revolutionary or not is another question; another WIT contributor pointed out that in some ways Benedict ‘s vision resonates with the so-called “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life” forwarded by some American Catholics. And I am by no means expert enough to really put the interaction of life issues and social issues in a full historical context. What I’m interested in here is, I suppose, what the evocative power of this appeal to ecology might be with respect to “nature” as applied to human beings, particularly as naturally sexually differentiated. Your question about freedom gets at one angle of the potential snags in making this kind of widespread application. But while I can’t say I understand the pope’s view of freedom fully, I get the pretty strong idea that responsibility to truth and the role of reason have a lot to do with it (the latter is really the central theme of his address to the German parliament). And somehow those constraints are both unique to the exalted position of human beings in the hierarchy of created being and in keeping with some sort of common ratio of any given nature and its flourishing– all under the aegis of a particular notion of order, harmony, and wholeness. Those may be the kind of platitudes you’re suggesting. I think i agree that as far as ascertaining normative values for human well-being from observations of environmental ecology there are some serious problems; and I say this even as I’m interested in the potential insights to be gained from situating human persons in an ecological context and convinced of the necessity of doing so.
Well, if anything is clear it’s that I have a lot more thinking to do about this! Meanwhile we’ll stay tuned to see how this kind of argument from the pope continues to plays out.
Postscript: Pope JP II also used the phrase “human ecology”, for instance in an address in St. Peter’s square on 19th Jan. 2001 where he also raised up the idea of an “ecological conversion.” (Cited by Celia Deane-Drummond in _Eco-Theology_, p. 181.)