Ecology teaches us about love, what it means to be human

June 2011

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.

Thus wrote His Holiness Benedict XVI in Charity in Truth, his 2009 letter to the church and the world. Last week, the pontiff referenced these words when speaking to new ambassadors to the Holy See.

Each time Benedict XVI speaks about environmental issues he challenges us to consider what it means to be human. He asks us to see ourselves and our world as a unified whole.

He teaches us that the “book of nature” connects the myriad ways in which human life comes into being, grows, is nurtured (and nurtures), relates, sacrifices, loves, and is ultimately offered eternal and fully human life with God.

All this came to mind the other day at a meeting about marriage. The discussion kept coming back to basic issues at the core of why too many marriages in the Western world fail—such as the eroding understanding of what marriage actually is. Ultimately, the discussion was about our shared humanity, and it resonated profoundly with the Holy Father’s words about nature.

In ecological parlance, marriage is about the nurturing and support of relationships in which opposites join and bring about new life. Marriage is not an isolated relationship that seeks its own ends. Rather, its aim is similar to that of local or planetary ecosystems: the greater good of all life.

This gets to the issue of the common good—a concept that many today have forgotten. But anyone who cares or knows about the laws of nature—“the book of nature,” as His Holiness refers to it—knows that systems of biological life have much to teach us.

For instance, one of the most fundamental ecological relations is that between animals and plants, which goes something like this: animals release carbon dioxide and nutrients that plants feed on to grow, mature and reproduce; in turn, animals consume plants and benefit from the oxygen that plants release. Thus, thanks to the life and death of plants and animals, other plants and animals grow, mature and reproduce. The balance of all this is a beautiful but sometimes painful duet of differing life forms that have evolved to compliment each other and to foster new life. The laws behind all this are not human creations. They are not ours to change without consequence.

When we speak of marriage we are speaking of the same kind of laws—for that book of nature is one and indivisible. Marriage is a societal necessity for the support of gender-inclusive couples that, by their very nature, have likewise evolved to bring about and foster new life. Communal encouragement of marriage is meant to help the common good by celebrating and rallying around the (sometimes precarious) bond of two people and the innocent young that they seek to generate and orient to the world.

In a perfect world—the one we all strive for—part of that orientation involves providing a family where a male and a female are witnessed parenting together. A mom and dad not only provide children with a genetic code, they also demonstrate through their pairing the genetic code of society. This is what the Holy Father means when he speaks of the integrated realities of the “environment . . . life, sexuality, marriage, the family, [and] social relations.”

In our contemporary world—where marriage has become founded on the quicksand of sentiment, or is viewed as a legal construct that any couple has the “right” to seize for themselves—much could be learned by looking to the natural order of things. In doing so, we’d see that marriage is not the stuff of Hallmark cards or Hollywood. It is about openness to the greater, glorious good of what exists beyond all our biological urges. Ultimately, this is what we witness in nature, where no one organism—or grouping thereof—ever truly lives for itself, even if it might act as if it does.

There is much that ecology has to teach us about what it means to be human—especially about sacrificial love and relation—and I believe this is one of the many reasons that the Holy Father, as did his predecessor Blessed John Paul II, often speaks of ecology in the context of a larger dialogue. Indeed, the great desire of Benedict XVI is to remind his flock and the world that this dialogue exists and that the Gospel offers it a rather unique voice. Thus, the church must bring this voice to the public square—and she must do so always by speaking the truth firmly and, naturally, with charity.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.