Lent's lessons for life

Ecological efforts should have nothing to do with a culture of death

Today’s lifestyles can be a bit like Mardi Gras—full of excess consumption and carrying on. But with Mardi Gras all that stops on Ash Wednesday. Then we enter Lent, a way of life focused on abstinence and growth. Many argue that nations, cultures, and individuals should enter into and maintain a similar way of living if we want to care for our neighbors and the globe’s life-sustaining ecosystems.

Pope Francis is one person making this argument. So did his predecessors. Themes of restraint, virtue-over-vice, and new lifestyles have been part of the papal ecological record and they will most certainly be part of the Holy Father’s upcoming encyclical on ecology. And it is certain that the encyclical will link environmental issues and issues of human life—again, as already exists in the papal record and elsewhere.

On desires and duties

The links between ecological and life issues come with profound implications for discussions of population levels and topics like contraception and abortion—which are commonly offered as answers to the problems of the planet.

Take, for instance, Maureen Fiedler's concerns over Pope Francis’s support of the Paul VI and the Church’s teachings on contraception. Her recent words in the National Catholic Reporter summarize many others I’ve heard on the matter.

Maybe Francis does not feel that he can change [the Church’s teaching on contraception] just now, but emphasizing it when he is calling the world to face both widespread poverty and the global climate crisis is, for many, a contradiction. The climate crisis especially calls us all to look at contraception through a new lens.

In stepping outside accepted Catholic thought, Fiedler misses a core truth—an essential and helpful one that connects our duties toward the environment and our duties toward the human person, as Benedict XVI put it. (Caritas in Veritate, 51.)

Themes of restraint, virtue-over-vice, and new lifestyles have been part of the papal ecological record and they will most certainly be part of the Holy Father’s upcoming encyclical on ecology.

But this truth is not only being spoken by popes. When it comes to discussions of ecology and human population, many Catholic thinkers are making helpful and nuanced observations.

These insights are ones we should heed as we make our way through Lent.

“We are overconsumers”

Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard, professor of theology at Fordham University, often gets questioned about population pressures and environmental degradation. “It's tricky,” she said when I asked her thoughts on the matter. “Yes, population growth is a factor in environmental degradation, both now and historically. Yes, environmental crises are real and pervasive. But we need to remember several things when parsing pollution vis-a-vis population.”

Peppard explains that “first, not all people or societies are equally responsible for environmental degradation. Resource depletion is highly variable and correlates more to form of life than it does to the sheer fact of existing as a human being. Consider, for example, that my three-person family's carbon footprint in the U.S. is infinitely larger than that of a six-person family living in many other parts of the world today.”

Those of us born in places like the United States, she notes, naturally have lifestyles and habits that are significantly shaped by the political economy into which we are born.

“And that political economy is very powerful in the incentives it gives to, say, agricultural production,” she adds. “U.S. citizens' frequent demand for meat means that arable land is dedicated to generating food for livestock; along the way, major negative externalities accrue from petrochemical effects of fertilizers and herbicides, not to mention things like "manure lagoons" attached to hog farms.”

Peppard notes that from any number of critical vantage points, the productive resources of the planet tend to be disproportionately directed to a privileged minority.

“So we have to ask: Which populations are consuming what kinds of resources, with what sorts of effects? The problem is not only ‘out there.’ It's right here, at home: Our population problem is that we are overconsumers.”

“So we have to ask: Which populations are consuming what kinds of resources, with what sorts of effects?" Dr. Christiana Peppard

Peppard’s words are vital ones. As she notes, they illuminate another serious moral issue.

“It is always easier to blame some other person (or group)—to suggest that ‘global others’ should reproduce less in order to reduce planetary environmental burdens. It's easy for scholars and pundits to make ‘population’ seem as if it were an objective and apolitical issue, a basic question of numbers; and therefore to conclude that limiting population growth rates is a simple way to ease pressure on scarce resources.

“But make no mistake: foisting blame onto other bodies—without gazing hard at how our own consumptive habits create environmental problems like scarcity—can be tantamount to yet another form of neocolonialism. Theorists of both religious liberty and feminism should agree that this is anathema: self-determination matters.”

Peppard’s colleague at Fordham, Dr. Charles Camosy, put it this way: “The cultures which contribute most to climate change are already saturated with birth control. A plurality of these countries are suffering from a lack of population balance and actually have too few people to support their aging populations. Somewhat ironically, the ‘more birth control’ approach generally comes from rich, white, carbon-spewing countries—and is directed at poor, black or brown developing countries—countries with negligible impact on climate change.”

Dr. Tobias Winright, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at St. Louis University, agrees. And he adds a caution: “The immediate problem seems more to do with quality of life (overconsumption that disproportionately harms the environment) rather than quantity of lives, although at some point these may intersect. Imagine how bad the problem will be as more populated nations develop the quality of life (e.g., every individual has a car that runs on gasoline) that US citizens currently have and feel entitled to.”

"The cultures which contribute most to climate change are already saturated with birth control." Dr. Charles Camosy

Peppard notes that that whether and how Catholic stances on sexuality, gender, and reproduction may disproportionately burden some bodies (both human and ecological) while benefitting others is a very important topic.

“But let's not oversimplify things,” she adds. “Neither contraception nor natural family planning are the causes of, or the remedies for, environmental degradation.”

Camosy adds that “the key to combating climate change has nothing to do with exporting Western-style reproductive practices to those who don't share our views. Indeed, embedded in these Western practices is the very consumerism which needs to be defeated if we are ever to manage a meaningful resistance against climate change.”

The value of the Link

But if population control through artificial means is not the solution, what is?

Last fall I interviewed Dr. David Cloutier, a professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University. He had written on similarities between American author and farmer Walter Berry and Pope Benedict XVI. Both men stressed the link between environmental and sexual ethics.

The second installment of Cloutier’s interview is well worth a read for insights on this population-ecology link. In part, he says that

What I would say to conservatives is that the desire to have the kind of destructive capitalism that we have and to somehow assume that a large majority of people will not lead pretty reckless, wasteful sexual lives is just … unrealistic. It doesn’t match with the reality that most people typically experience.

On the flip side, people who want to believe that we can tolerate the reckless sexual economy while reining in the larger business economy, and making that environmentally sustainable, have not figured out the extent to which real stewardship requires discipline—at a fundamental level. And I make this point in the Berry article. When I say discipline, I mean discipline in work, discipline in raising children, discipline in thinking through mature relationships. I don’t see how you can expect the kind of discipline that is necessary for environmental sustainability to come about without some kind of discipline in the sexual economy.

"What I would say to conservatives is that the desire to have the kind of destructive capitalism that we have and to somehow assume that a large majority of people will not lead pretty reckless, wasteful sexual lives is just … unrealistic." Dr. David Cloutier

Pope Francis has been saying for some time that we live in a “culture of waste,” one that discards people as easily as it tosses away food. This is his way of stressing Benedict XVI’s link between our duties toward the natural environment and the dignity of the human person.

And so, as Cloutier points out, arguments like those represented above by Fiedler are unhelpful—as are other voices who defend Church teachings on sexual ethics but do not support ecclesial statements on ecology, especially lately about climate change. Here one could put Maureen Mullarkey’s now-famous essay in First Things, a piece that was shockingly hostile to Pope Francis.

This bickering from both perspectives must please our ancient enemy, who relishes it when people don’t see what they share. In this case, the Fiedlers and Mullarkeys of the world do share an urgent call—whether in regards to our duty to protect the planet or to protect people. They both call our attention to the more fundamental duty of sacrificial self-restraint in all areas of our lives. And at all times.

This means that if we are going to look at the issue of population through the lens of how we ourselves regulate the number of children in our families, then that must come from natural means—from mutual love and mutual choices—which requires the kind of self-restraint that's at the core of chastity and natural family planning.

True, self-restraint is usually difficult—maybe even impossible. But God has not abandoned us. His presence remains with us sacramentally and however else He chooses to help. With Him, nothing is impossible.

Thus popes and theologians keep telling us that for a variety of reasons repenting and believing in the Gospel is not just for those people and it is not just about Lent. Sacrifice, abstention, and (by the grace of God) growing in virtue—all rooted in sacrificial love of God and neighbor—must be our year-round spiritual and worldly foundations.

Indeed, they are what we are all called to as we journey together, crosses held high, to the life-giving promises of Easter.

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.