Pope Francis: “Human Ecology” is a matter of life

In announcing the new head of two Vatican bodies dedicated to life and the family, the Holy Father continues the work of his predecessors

In announcing yesterday that Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia would head up the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Francis stressed the need for life ministries to adopt a “human ecology,” which is a term coined by Saint John Paul II and carried forward and deepened by Benedict XVI.

The single appointment that joins the two bodies was meant to bring a common voice to their missions. The particular person of Archbishop Paglia was seen by many as a sign that Pope Francis wants that voice to stress the mercy side of the mercy-justice DNA of Catholic teachings.

The pontiff made that clear in his public announcement. According to the Catholic news site Crux, Pope Francis directed Archbishop Paglia to stress and nurture the following:

  • “Care for the dignity of the human person in different ages of existence.”
  • “Reciprocal respect between the sexes and among the generations.”
  • “Defense of the dignity of every single human being.”
  • “Promotion of the quality of human life that integrates material and spiritual values.”
  • An “authentic human ecology,” which can help restore “the original balance of creation between the human person and the entire universe.”

There’s a lot there to chew on just in that summary. But it’s that last bullet that has Catholic ecologists buzzing.

Human ecology is a dense term which I’ve showcased often in this blog and elsewhere. (See here and here for instance.) For now, one way to look at the term is in how it connects ecological issues and life issues—a link that for many of us is self-evident but nonetheless has been a tough sell in some parts of the pro-life movement.

The video above is based on a column I wrote back in 2009 after the release of Caritas in Veritate, in which Benedict XVI laid out a mini manifesto that prefigures Laudato Si'. In it he made this important statement:

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. [Original emphasis.]

Here, the pope emeritus is quoting his own use of Saint John Paul II's term “human ecology.” Benedict’s particular reference is to his 2007 message for the World Day of Peace—which is one of those sadly forgotten gems that could have easily been written by Pope Francis.

"Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa." Benedict XVI

This is a critical point in today’s divisive environment. Some Catholic warriors on both the political Left and Right continue to hammer the false hermeneutic that Pope Francis is somehow a rupture with all that had come before him. And indeed he is not. (Sorry, all you political ideologues.) And so it’s worth allowing the pope emeritus to speak for himself, because in expanding Saint John Paul II’s use of the term “human ecology,” Benedict becomes a bridge to understanding the weight of Pope Francis’s words yesterday.

Below is part of the eco-quote from Benedict XVI’s 2007 message for World Day of Peace (again with the original emphasis). When you’ve read that, take some time to read Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which helped introduce the very term “human ecology” that Pope Francis continued yesterday when he laid forth his vision for fostering a culture of life.

In his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God's gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.” By responding to this charge, entrusted to them by the Creator, men and women can join in bringing about a world of peace. Alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a “human” ecology, which in turn demands a “social” ecology. All this means that humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology. Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa. It becomes more and more evident that there is an inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men. Both of these presuppose peace with God. The poem-prayer of Saint Francis, known as “the Canticle of Brother Sun”, is a wonderful and ever timely example of this multifaceted ecology of peace.

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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.