More B16 in Germany: human ecology and acid rain

Benedict XVI has been on fire with his talks and homilies during his four-day visit to Germany. As noted in my previous post on his speech to Germany’s parliament, his words have once again included thoughts on ecology. Two days after he received a standing ovation in parliament, he gave a homily that compared Germany’s trials under Nazi and Communist dictatorships to acid rain. For Catholic ecologists—indeed, for all Catholics and all those who seek what is true—these words invite reflection.

His talk to German lawmakers was a probing reflection on law and its relation to justice, the common good and the roots thereof. Human law must participate in something prior to itself if it is to flourish—and that something we Catholics proclaim is a Someone. What surprised many listening to Benedict XVI (and what resulted in a round of applause) was the pontiff’s calling attention to the good intentions of (apparently) Germany’s Green Party. According to the Green Party’s website, “for nearly 30 years we have been working in the parliament for environmental protection and sustainable development, democracy and human rights, social justice, peace and multilateral international policies.”

Benedict XVI had this to add:

I would like to recall one of the developments in recent political history, hoping that I will neither be misunderstood, nor provoke too many one-sided polemics. I would say that the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s, while it has not exactly flung open the windows, nevertheless was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. 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.

A few observations: The Holy Father has clearly learned to anticipate the misinterpretation of his words. As an academic, he will over and again use examples of other worldviews to make his points—that is, he will contrast or demonstrate one way of thinking with another. Sometimes listeners and commentators wrongly interpret this as endorsements, which causes Rome to then “clarify” the pontiff’s remarks. But here the Holy Father made a pre-emptive clarification.

More importantly is the main thrust of Benedict XVI’s point: “Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature . . . 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.”

Here the Holy Father praises as noteworthy the views of a political party that may otherwise not be enamored with the Church’s teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage and the like. He does this for a number of reasons, two of which require mentioning.

First, Pope Benedict is and always was certain that dialogue among peoples is central to being human, and thus to evangelizing. We find this in his early seminary studies, in his doctoral work and in his many writings. It does little good for one to demonize those who do not agree with you on every point; in doing so one merely closes doors and isolates human from human, which is antithetical to the incarnational, sacramental nature of Christ’s Church. After all, isolation is the goal of our ancient enemy. It is not the will of God.

Photo: M.Mazur/

Beyond that, Benedict XVI finds evidence in the Green Party of the fundamental human yearning for truth, order and justice. This does not surprise the Holy Father, who knows that one can not seek the good without stumbling into a dialogue with Christianity. Again, we find in this discourse those key elements of dialogue, relation, and charity that undergirds Benedict XVI’s (and Blessed John Paul II's) view of “New Evangelization.”

None of this minimizes the Holy Father’s own concerns for real ecological harm. But he sees this harm as a significant symptom of the greater harm being done to, and by, modern worldviews—especially those that would silence the voice of God and ignore the dialogue that He invites us to. But God finds ways to appear among us nonetheless, for it is the very nature of creation that one be confronted with God’s will. Benedict XVI made this clear in his talk to the German parliament by demonstrating in a grandfatherly, academic way that the Green Party has something in common at its core with Christians—with the Gospel.

That said, we finish listening to the Holy Father’s words:

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.

Again, we find the pontiff offering the world the saving power of Christian anthropology—that is, “an ecology of man.” Moreover, he is confident that in pointing to such commonalities—to the common sense of relating natural ecology to human ecology—that his listeners will find much to consider about what it means to be human and what it means to be in relation with God. This is the heart of Benedict XVI’s use of ecology.

Two days later, in his homily during Mass at Erfurt's Cathedral Square in Thuringia, the pontiff says this:

Dear Brothers and Sisters, “Praise the Lord at all times, for he is good.” These are the words that we sang just before the Gospel. Yes, we truly have reason to thank God with our whole hearts. If we think back thirty years to the Elizabeth Year 1981, when this city formed part of the German Democratic Republic, who would have thought that a few years later, the wall and the barbed wire at the border would have come down? And if we think even further back, some 70 years, to the year 1941, in the days of National Socialism, who could have predicted that the so-called “thousand-year Reich” would turn to dust and ashes just four years later? Dear Brothers and Sisters, here in Thuringia and in the former German Democratic Republic, you have had to endure first a brown and then a red dictatorship, which acted on the Christian faith like acid rain.

As he often does, Benedict XVI uses a real world ecological issue to demonstrate the role of sin in modern human activity. Indeed, Germany is struggling to protect its signature forests from acid rain. The pope’s words were certainly understood by his listeners. Should this surprise us? Didn't Christ Himself teach us to use examples from nature to teach others greater truths?

Lastly, one hopes that such use of ecology will bridge the ideological divides within the Church, for that is another benefit of the Holy Father’s eco-speak. But then, that is his way. As the Successor of Peter, he continues to seek unity within Holy Mother Church by seeking dialogue with and invitation to those on the outside and those within, however one defines this. (As a good Augustinian, Benedict XVI knows this is not always clear.)

Such dialogue and invitation, using real-world eco-examples, seem to come naturally to Benedict XVI, and for this we give thanks to Almighty God.

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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.