Pope Benedict on the environment.

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Dr Augustine Doronila. 

DEU, 05-08-18, Cologne Pope Benedict XVI greeting the crowd accompanied by Federal President Horst Koehler Guido Karl Weltjugendtag gGmbH Gereonstr. 1-3 , 50670 Koeln , +49 221 - 284 66 27
Pope Benedict XVI greeting the crowd accompanied by Federal President Horst Koehler, Guido Karl, Weltjugendtag gGmbH, Gereonstr, flickr cc.

Review of Pope Benedict XVI. The Garden of God: toward a Human Ecology (edited by Maria Morciano), Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 218 pp, 2014.

It might surprise many that Pope Benedict was called by some the ‘Green Pope’, because of his concern about climate change and environmental issues. In writing an encyclical on the environment and social justice, Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ is very much in continuity with Benedict.

At the eve of the Paris climate change summit we have seen a worldwide clamour for decisive action in curbing climate change. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si has been considered as a rallying point, not only for Catholics but people from different faith traditions and of goodwill. It has spoken powerfully about how our religious and spiritual consciousness has a vital role to play to ensure that our planet, ‘our common home’ can turn around from becoming totally uninhabitable as we know it today for humanity and many living creatures.

Pope Francis has drawn on the wealth of spiritual insights on ecology by his recent predecessors. Among the 172 footnotes in the encyclical, not all are from such surprising sources. The writings of John Paul II get referenced 37 times – the most for any one figure; Pope Benedict XVI comes a close second with 30 citations in the text. While some may try to distance the social teachings of Francis on the environment and the economy from his predecessors, these references, as is their purpose, should help remind the reader that he is building on a deeply established tradition of social concern[i].

garden of godIn the book The Garden of God: toward a Human Ecology, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s religious writings, sermons, talks, letters, and encyclicals have been collected and edited by Maria Morciano. Among the many titles Benedict has been given over his eight-year pontificate, the ‘Green Pope’ is certainly one of the most unexpected. But to Vatican observers, Green Pope is entirely appropriate, as Benedict has made environmental awareness a key tenet of his tenure[ii]. The 51 articles in this book give credence to this label. This anthology of Benedict’s ecological writings weave together the issues of social justice, equity, and environmental sustainability. This book is simply a compilation of texts, and does not offer an analysis of Benedict’s thought. The editor has elegantly put Benedict’s writings into three main themes: Creation and Nature the Environment, Science, & Technology, and Hunger, Poverty, the Earth’s Resources.

There is a thought-provoking forward by Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès OP, headed The Urgency of a Human Ecology. He cleverly places Benedict’s works in the context of the ecological writings of other popes, especially John Paul II. Moreover, he also acknowledges the decisive action of Pope Benedict in making the Vatican the first carbon neutral, solar-powered state in the world. In 2009, the smallest country in the world commenced the construction of a massive $660 million 100 MW photovoltaic electricity farm, the largest in Europe. The solar panels, located on a 740-acre site near Santa Maria di Galeria and the rooftop of Paul VI’s conference hall, allow the Vatican to generate enough energy to power all its 40,000 households. They supply all heating, cooling, and lighting for the building, and are estimated to have saved the Vatican 89.84 tons in oil. Osservatore Romano reported that “the Vatican has reached a small record in solar energy power production per capita: 200 watts at peak times per inhabitant, compared to 80 in Germany, the world leader in this field[iii].”

The final comment of the Archbishop Bruguès, however,, may be the most important, whereby he reiterates Pope Benedict’s strong words, especially to people in wealthy nations, to change our mentality about how we live and how much we consume. In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he wrote that the link between human life and ecology “invites contemporary society to a serious review of its lifestyle, which in many parts of the world is prone to hedonism and consumerism regardless of their harmful consequences”.

Human ecology is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human environmental systems. It seeks to combine understanding of the biophysical realities of human existence (such as dependence on natural resources) with the social and psychological dimensions of human health and wellbeing[iv]. Furthermore, the discipline looks to the consequences of human action on our social, natural, and built environments[v]. In simple terms, human ecology attempts to describe the factors in human communities, large or small, which enable wellbeing in a humane world. Some of these applications focus instead on addressing problems which cross disciplinary boundaries or transcend those boundaries altogether. Whether approached via social pathways or environmental ones, eventually the same destination is reached.[vi]

How does Pope Benedict define human ecology? He and his predecessor Pope John Paul II use the term to stand for the inclusion of humans and their communities, institutions, and civilisations, when considering ecological, environmental, and sustainability issues.

photo protect our home
Global Climate March Washington DC, Susan Melkisethian, flickr cc.

“Alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology, in turn demanding 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. The degradation of nature is closely linked to the cultural models shaping human coexistence: consequently, when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits” (p32). Pope Benedict’s definition fits in very well with most of the principles of the discipline of human ecology.

In part one, Creation and Nature, Benedict points out that, “In contact with nature, individuals rediscover their proper dimension, they recognise that they are creatures, but at the same time unique, ‘capable of God’, since they are inwardly open to the infinite. Driven by the heartfelt need for meaning that urges them onward, they perceive the mark of goodness and divine Providence in the world that surrounds them, and open themselves almost spontaneously to praise and prayer” (p3).

The chapter which gives the title to this book comes from a self-descriptive title, “Creation Is a Gift So That It Might Become the Garden of God and Hence a Garden for Men and Women”, Benedict expresses in his homily at Pentecost 2006 that “The world we live in is the work of the Creator Spirit. Christians who believe in the Creator Spirit become aware of the fact that we cannot use and abuse the world and matter merely as material for our actions and desires; we must consider creation a gift that has not been given to us to be destroyed, but to become God’s garden, hence a garden for men and women” (p4).

In a letter to Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Bartholomew, Benedict states: “The joint effort to create awareness on the part of Christians of every denomination, in order to show ‘the intrinsic connection between development, human need and the stewardship of creation,’ is truly proving more important than ever” (p11). Ecumenical cooperation has been important in the journey to foster a healthy human ecology. “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 (p14).

In part two of the book, “The Environment, Science, and Technology,” Benedict underlines how science is vital in the effort to find solutions to the difficult problems of sustainable development and environmental issues: “it is the duty of all peoples to implement policies to protect the environment in order to prevent the destruction of that natural capital whose fruits are necessary for the wellbeing of humanity. To meet this challenge, what is required is an interdisciplinary approach” (p97). He makes a strong case for the moral necessity of promoting social and environmental justice and adds: “In meeting the challenges of environmental protection and sustainable development, we are called to promote and safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic ‘human ecology’” (p98). In a chapter titled The Irresponsible Exploitation of the Environment Reflects an Inhumane Concept of Development, he describes that exploitation “or hoarding of land or marine resources affects the poorest countries most” (p101).

In part three of the book, Hunger, Poverty, & the Earth’s Resources, Pope Benedict’s writings shed further light on the failure to consider the causes of poverty in many nations and societies or the finite nature of natural resources by the industrial, developed world. He highlights the importance of international cooperation in order to foster sustainable development, and the need for a human ecology, which has a moral approach that considers the needs and rights of the poor to an equal share of Earth’s resources, which combines environmental protection.

In a chapter titled Nourishing the World’s Population with Respect for Biodiversity, the dilemma of producing biomass (food) or protecting biodiversity, Pope Benedict clearly points out that “famine is not entirely due to geographical and climatic situations or to the unfavourable circumstances linked to harvests. It is also caused by human beings themselves and by their selfishness, which is expressed by gaps in social organisation, by rigidity in economic structures all too often oriented solely to profit” (p139). Following on from Pope John Paul II and further expanded in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’: on Care of our common Home. Benedict’s various texts consistently state the obligation to consider the needs of the poor and of future generations through just environmentally responsible and equitable use of the earth’s resources. “In fact it is a question of adopting an inner attitude of responsibility, able to inspire a different lifestyle, with the necessary modest behaviour and consumption, in order thereby to promote the good of future generations in sustainable terms, the safeguarding of the goods of creation, the distribution of resources” (p208).

Human ecologists strive to identify problems, discover their origins, examine possible solutions and their implications, and then make recommendations for implementing those solutions. Pope Benedict, the ‘Green Pope’, through his writings, has certainly made a significant contribution to putting ecological thought at the service of humanity. Like any respectable academic human ecologist, Benedict coherently connects protection of nature, development, and human dignity: respect for nature is intimately linked to the need to create relationships between individuals and nations attentive to the dignity of the person and capable of satisfying their genuine needs. The wanton destruction of the world’s ecosystems, their improper or self-serving use, and the aggressive sequestration by a few people of the earth’s resources cause rancour, conflicts, and large-scale wars, precisely because they are the consequences of an inhumane concept of development. This understanding of the deeply interdependent web of existence-including individual humans and their communities, as well as all of nature, permeates Benedict’s writings.

In compiling Pope Benedict’s ecological thoughts, Maria Morciano has provided a valuable publication to help people from highly industrialised and technologically advanced societies to reflect on and experience the ecological conversion that is required to save our planet from ecological catastrophe. Benedict is telling us that, in order to save people and the planet, we should go back to the profound meaning of the Garden of Eden, to know and learn how to love God and our neighbour, and to tend to the garden that was given to us by God. Benedict, too, has tended God’s Garden in order for Pope Francis to gather a harvest to offer a world crying out for help.


[i] Kevin Ahern, 18 June 2015, Follow the footnotes. The National Catholic Review.


[ii] Daniel Stone, 28 February 2013. How Green was the ‘Green Pope” One of Benedict’s lasting legacies might be how he steered the global debate over climate change. National Geographic News

[iii] http://inhabitat.com/the-vatican-city-is-the-greenest-state-in-the-world/

[iv] Dyball, Robert, & Newell, Barry. (2014). Understanding human ecology: A systems approach to sustainability. Routledge 234 p

[v] http://societyforhumanecology.org/human-ecology-homepage/about-she-2/

[vi] Dyball & Newell, 2015, p. 205


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