Catholics and the Environment: A Student’s Address

As a recent article noted (“The ‘green’ pope: Benedict’s calls for creation earns notice”), Benedict XVI’s pro-active and public stance on the environment, both in writing and leadership, has earned him the moniker, the “green” pope.

Responding to his teachings and example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, and the Catholic University of America and its Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies sponsored a scholars’ conference entitled “A Catholic Consultation on Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States.” The November 8-10 conference in Washington, DC, drew faithful and eco-friendly Catholics from across the nation.

Mary Ashley took the opportunity to submit a proposal for consideration, which was accepted. However, it was a unique experience for the doctoral student in Ethics and Social Theory.

“My proposal, entitled ‘If You Want Responsibility, Build Relationship: A Personalist Approach to Benedict XVI's Environmental Vision,’ reflected my Ethics and Social Theory background. But the organizers thought my writing was ‘pitched too high’ for their intended audience of priests and bishops,” Ashley explains. “I’m very grateful that the organizers were willing to work with me, especially Keith Warner, O.F.M., who teaches at Santa Clara University. The final result was more like a speech than an academic paper, but many attendees told me they found it exceptionally ‘lucid.’”

Her experience in adjusting her address to a different audience reflects the GTU’s motto, “where religion meets the world.” Not only must religion address the needs and questions of the world, but must also be able to converse with academics and non-academics alike.

Ashley, who also earned a M.A. in Ethics and Social Theory from the GTU in 2007, elevated the first-person perspective in her analysis, an approach advocated by the area. “We investigate ‘doing’ moral theology from the personalist viewpoint to retain the human person’s scope of agency. I was pleased to discover that Benedict XVI was using similarly personalist language regarding our more-than-human world.” She believes that following this approach will keep Catholics from making the same mistake as earlier environmental movements when a preoccupation with the state of the global environment obscured humanity’s relationship with non-human others.

“Benedict understands that human dignity is not primarily founded on our ‘status’ vis-à-vis other creatures, but rather on our actions in their regard. In other words, we enact our humanity in a dynamic way when we care responsibly for creation. Consequently, the exploitation of non-human creatures, in the sense of an unnecessary and unjustified kind of ‘use,’ is not sanctioned by Catholic doctrine.” Ashley, summing up her point, stated, “Our God doesn’t make slaves – of any species.”

Looking toward the future, she plans to make human love for non-human creatures the topic of her dissertation. But for the moment she is focusing on comprehensive exams to prepare for that dissertation work.

The organizers are planning to publish the conference presentations by next year. Even though her ‘speech’ was geared toward a general audience, Ashley plans to revise it and expand it by about 40% for the publication.