Environment and the Natural Law

Environment and the Natural Law July 27, 2007

In his latest column, John Allen discusses a highly interesting conversation between Pope Benedict and a group of priests on the issue of the environment. Reflecting on his now familiar theme that there can be no separation between faith and reason, Benedict argued that the environmental movement allowed morality to re-enter the domain of rational debate in the modern mind, for, as Allen puts it, “nature itself carries a moral message that can be deciphered utilizing the faculty of conscience, even by those who aren’t Christian or who aren’t religious at all.” Thus, natural law reasoning comes back with a vengeance! Here is what Benedict said on the matter:

Everyone can see today that humanity could destroy the foundation of its own existence, its earth, and therefore we can’t simply do whatever we want with this earth that has been entrusted to us, what seems to us in a given moment useful or promising, but we have to respect the inner laws of creation, of this earth, we have to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive. This obedience to the voice of the earth is more important for our future happiness than the voices of the moment, the desires of the moment. … Existence itself, our earth, speaks to us, and we have to learn to listen.”

Allen’s conclusion is that the pope “sees in the modern environmental movement the most promising route for recovery of the natural law tradition”. This little discourse offers lessons on many different levels. First, it shows the hollowness and bankruptcy of the ideas used to denounce environmental concerns, such as the need to combat global warming, ideas that are often based on naked utilitarianism. These ideas are far removed from the natural law tradition, and yet many Catholics (including some prominent Catholic bloggers) continue to mock environmental concerns for mere economic reasons (and the economic concerns of me-now, rather than future generations). And just look at Benedict’s language. I’m waiting for somebody to claim that his reference to “obedience to the voice of the earth ” is evidence of some eerie neo-paganism! As always, Benedict’s keen intellect is a step ahead.

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