Environmental Ethics

By Cowdin, Daniel | Theological Studies, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Environmental Ethics


Cowdin, Daniel, Theological Studies


SHORTLY BEFORE HIS DEATH IN 1948, U.S. ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold penned this lament:

Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to the land. No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that ... religion [has] not yet heard of it. (1)

Some 60 years later, we can say that religion has indeed heard of conservation in Leopold's sense, meaning harmony between humans and the land. Roger Gottlieb's recent, impressive compendium of religious ecological concern documents its global range and variety. (2) He describes the situation this way: "Religious environmentalism is a diverse, vibrant, global movement, a rich source of new ideas, institutional commitment, political activism, and spiritual inspiration." (3) Christian, including Catholic, environmentalism shares all these dimensions. The work of the World Council of Churches continues, (4) the Eastern Orthodox have a "green Patriarch" in Bartholomew I, (5) and the Vatican as well as regional bishops' conferences regularly address environmental issues. (6) This journal has itself published actively in this area over the past six years, most notably Jame Schaefer's two major contributions grounding esthetic and ethical valuation of nature in historical theology as translated into our contemporary context. (7) Additionally, a variety of recent articles explore nuanced dimensions of the doctrine of creation as it relates to the Trinity, God's action in the world, and eschatology. (8)

Christian environmentalism did not reach its current, vibrant state, however, without some unanesthetized prodding of the tradition by Lynn White some 40 years ago. (9) Being accused of not paying attention is one thing; being held culpable for planetary devastation is another. White charged that Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion in the world (true, I think, although not necessarily ecologically damning); that Christianity is significantly responsible for the environmental crisis (partly true, but overlooks what seems to be a general human tendency toward ecological damage); and that for a Christian, a tree, or any other nonhuman element of nature, can be no more than a bare fact (untrue on biblical and sacramental grounds). But O happy, if partly unfair, attack! Christianity began to take notice.

This Note attempts to take a reading of the present state of Catholic environmental ethics. To do so, I will take a core sample from three major contributions to Catholic environmental ethics in the last five years: David Hollenbach's The Common Good and Christian Ethics, (10) John Hart's Sacramental Commons, (11) and Susan Ross's For the Beauty of the Earth. (12) Each represents a particular type of achievement and a distinct approach within the field; as such, each complements and implicitly raises critical questions for the others. Hollenbach, a Catholic humanist, approaches environmental issues as an area of applied social ethics, exploring how our ecological interdependence impacts the human good. Hart takes a more experimental, radical approach, springboarding from Catholic sacramentality to a wider "creatiocentric" spirituality. Ross, a Catholic feminist, explores natural, human, and divine beauty through the lens of theological esthetics.

After examining these three works in some detail, I discuss the shape of Catholic environmental ethics, in particular the difficulties it seems to have at the level of specific principles and norms. Whether Catholic environmental ethics coalesces around a new and distinct set of principles in the manner of Catholic social teaching, Catholic biomedical ethics, or the just war tradition is yet to be seen. …

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