Fertilizing Eden: Francis encyclical and the Copernican revolution

One of the questions Catholic theologicans have about the Vatican’s imminent new encyclical on the environment is just how central the human being will be depicted in the order of things.

Iquitos, Peru Aerial view of a river in Peru's Amazon region of Loreto, September 29, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

Recent papal teachings, notably Pope John Paul’s Centesimus annus and Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, have emphasized a contrast between “natural” and “human” ecology, with the latter granted more importance – indeed, Benedict in 2009 warned that thinking otherwise would lead to neo-paganism, or at any rate some form of pantheism.

In short, the view has been that humans should improve their “stewardship over nature,” which is itself God’s gift to humanity.

Pope Francis, however, grew up in Latin America, not Europe, and has reportedly been discussing matters ecological with Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan cleric who left the cloth after conflicts with the Holy See, where Joseph Ratzinger – his former dissertation adviser - had ordered him to be silence for his Marxisant screeds. Boff has evolved into a radical ecologist and advocate of the Amazon rain forest and its inhabitants.

It’s worth noting that one of the ideas of his circle is that Mother Earth is as much as a legal person as a human one or U.S. corporation. Indeed, Bolivia has passed a constitutional law granting Mother Earth – comprising “all life systems” – specific rights to life, diversity, water, clean air, equilibrium, restoration and to live free of contamination.

There’s no particularly special place for humans there.

Francis mentioned the environment in his first Mass as pontiff , alluding to the role of “protector” as having an a priori dimension beyond Christianity and referring to all of creation.

Last month, Cardinal XX Turkson, in charge of writing the coming ecumenical, gave an important speech in Ireland.

Outlining the Vatican’s evolving view. He repeatedly used the term “integral ecology,” signaling that while Francis may not unambiguously put human ecology on par with a natural one, he intends to batter the convention.

Cardinal Turkson also noted Francis has already exhorted in favour of “the creation of a new mind-set which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all” and that – referring to Genesis 2:15, wherein humankind emerges in a garden and is told to “till it and keep it” – there are “ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little.’

It’s true that the cardinal noted in a radio address that “our human story begins in a garden, and not the wilds.”

But depicting the environment as a garden rather than a wilderness was a rhetorical ploy to note that when we overtill and pour in chemical fertilizers, our interventions cause changes that change ourselves as well.

Catholic teaching has long been pinned to imago dei, the idea that humans are intrinsically good because, as noted in the first book of Genesis, they were created in the image of God. But if we can spoil the setting which in fact spoils us, the logic could be tested – a point amply underscored by the deep Protestant focus on sin.

Curiously, Boff was once accused by a Vatican prelate of speaking like Martin Luther, an accusation he took with pride.

Luther was born in 1483, so was still a child when Columbus sailed to the Americas, discovering the New World for Christianity if not for humans. Europeans had also been making more contact with Africa, at one point asking papal advice on whether apes should be subject to religious conversion efforts.

They were fateful times. It was then, researchers now suggest that the Anthropocene began.

It was in 1610 that the world’s carbon dioxide level hit its most recent nadir, provoking a massive rearrangement of ecological conditions and redistribution of global flora and fauna, according to Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, writing in Nature. The so-called “Little Ice Age” worked wonders, especially for forests such as the Amazon, which Pope Francis onced described as the world’s lungs.

Much of what happened was probably accidental, as Columbus surely didn’t plan on introducing an era of trans-Atlantic slavery nor intentionally trigger the death from disease of 90 percent of the people living in the Americas.

But just as climate change today promises havoc for some parts of the world but almost pleasant outcomes for others, the Little Ice Age was exceptionally benign for Europe. Think Renaissance, the end of the Malthusian trap, colonial power, industrialization and, more recently developments in fertilizer technology.

The invention less than a century ago of the so-called Haber-Bosch process, which converts atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia for application to soils and consequently greater farm yields – enabling the quadrupling of the world’s population - is a geological event whose magnitude hasn’t been matched in 2.5 billion years, according to Lewis and Maslin.

The Anthropocene paradigm offers a new frame for the debate about the position of humanity in the scheme of things. Dating it to 1610 – due to the Orbis spike in carbon dioxide – links it directly to globalization – from colonialism and slavery to fossil fuels – and concomitant social concerns dear to Pope Francis although more awkward to European Christians than people elsewhere.

On the other hand, it would sharply reverse the Copernican revolution that so rudely removed man as the center and measure of all things.  As Maslin told Scientific American: “We argue that Homo sapiens are central to the future to the only place where life is known to exist.”

Pope Francis may not decide to drop his predecessors’ concept of human ecology as “more serious” than natural ecology after all.

@CHCEmsden


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