The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology, Pope Benedict XVI, foreword by Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2014.
Summary: A collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s statements in homilies, papal greetings, letters, and other written documents, pertaining to a theology of human ecology.
Many would consider Pope Francis to be the environmental pope, especially with the issuance of Laudato Si. This volume shows that, at least in this respect, he builds upon the theology and actions of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Afterall, it was under Benedict that the Vatican went carbon neutral. This collection of the Pope’s writings on the environment in speeches, homilies, greetings to various governmental and international bodies, to youth and workers groups conveys a robust and far reaching ecological theology that offers distinctive contributions to our contemporary discussions.
The collection is divided three sections, and because of the “occasional” nature of these writings, many repeat similar ideas. I will discuss some of the key themes in each section.
Creation and Nature
Benedict begins with the idea of creation as the gift of a rational God, intended to be the Garden of God in which he placed human beings to enjoy and tend. From the beginning the peace and prosperity of human beings and the environment are seen to be integrally and reciprocally connected. And for our present day, we cannot hope to have peace in the world if we fail to protect the creation. Its peace is our peace. The creation was set up so that we might fulfill God’s plan for the flourishing of all his creatures, when we set ourselves up at the center and exploit the environment, we threaten our own existence. The protection of creation is also a matter of justice. Our failure to protect creation often puts at risk the poor and marginalized. Benedict celebrates the importance of everything from the Arctic to the Amazon as well as the fragile beauty of the earth as scene by space, with its vanishingly thin envelope of atmosphere on which our lives depend.
The Environment, Science, and Technology
Building on the idea of creation as the rational work of God, Benedict sees faith, knowledge, and science as in harmony. At the same time, the technological applications of science must be informed by the Church’s theology. Human ecology and environmental ecology must work together. He does not accept the pitting of humans against the natural world. The flourishing of families and societies, including the begetting of children is not at odds with seeking creation’s flourishing. Indeed, it is our task. In our time, this means moderating our consumption, turning to alternate energy sources, and ensuring the equitable access to the earth’s resources for all nations. He decries financial gains at the expense of the workers who make this possible, as well as speculative economies, that in the collapse of 2008, inflicted harm to the lives and livelihoods of the global community, as well as leading to environmental degradation.
Hunger, Poverty, and the Earth’s Resources
A number of the Pope’s messages in this section are to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He urges the adequacy of the earth’s resources to feed the world’s people without compromising biodiversity. He decries policies that denigrate the dignity of agriculture and the rural parts of the world. He upholds the farmer as a model of upholding faith and reason, acting on his knowledge of the laws of nature while trusting in the providence of God. He calls for our solidarity with all of humanity for equitable access to food and the world’s resources. He believes this leads to sustainable development.
Most of the pieces are short, sometimes excerpts of longer documents. That makes this at once a resource for thoughtful Christian reflection on caring for the creation and a resource for those studying the environmental thought and advocacy of Benedict XVI’s papacy. Benedict contributes to the conversation the conviction of the transcendent basis for our use of reason in the care of creation. He affirms the role of humans, not only in environmental degradation but also in remediating these impacts. Human beings are part of God’s plan for the world. As leader of a global church, he speaks to global leaders about their responsibilities to all of humanity, and all living things. He affirms the spiritual values that enable people to renounce excessive consumption and make changes for the sake of both fellow human beings as well as the rest of nature.
I did find relatively few references to global climate change. There are concerns regarding his encouragement of equitable sharing of resources if this only means increased consumption of carbon-based fuels and more greenhouse gas emissions as other nations “catch up.” He seems more focused on land and water resources and assumes that climate will not drastically affect food production. Perhaps because we are further down the road as I write in 2023, we see more clearly the implications of our changing climate. Yet these impacts were not unknown in the years of Benedict’s papacy. Indeed it motivated the Vatican’s move to carbon neutrality. It seems more could have been said.
Yet what the Pope said and advocated was significant and far-reaching both in geographic scope and on the aspects of human existence on which he touched. It is striking how he wove these themes into so many papal messages. It both offers models and raises questions about how well we do this throughout the church. May we do as well.