Saturday, August 15, 2009

John L. Allen Jr. on the "greenest Pope in human history."


Debra Murphy of Idylls Press pointed her blog readers towards an article by John L. Allen, Jr. about Benedict XVI's growing reputation as the "greenest Pope in history."

Although I am very interested in the Pope's new encyclical, indeed in the environmentalism he has been promoting almost since his election, this is not what grabbed me. What I found of great interest is his reflection on Benedict's thought that the green movement may be leading secular thinkers to develop what is essentially a natural law theory -- not that environmentalists use that term! According to Allen, the Pope hopes that this might lead thoughtful secularists to reason out, and then re-think, their opposition to Catholic moral teaching on issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. As Pope Benedict is only too keenly aware, these derided teachings, no less than the applauded teachings in the new, "green" encyclical, stem from Catholic understanding of natural law.

Here's what John Allen writes:

Natural Law

Whenever church officials enter a moral debate these days, someone will inevitably object that they’re attempting to impose a particular religious teaching upon a pluralistic culture. According to this way of thinking, church teaching on abortion, stem cell research or cloning is disqualified as a basis for public policy because it’s sectarian in nature. That’s a deeply frustrating reaction for thinkers such as Benedict XVI, who argue that it puts things exactly backward. Abortion and human cloning are not wrong because the church says so, they insist -- rather, the church says so because they’re wrong.

The argument goes like this: The church’s moral teachings are not a set of arbitrary rules for joining the Catholic club, like wearing a fez or using a secret handshake. They’re based on universal truths rooted in human nature, which in principle anyone can recognize. This mode of reasoning is known as a “natural law” argument. It assumes that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, are real qualities which exist in nature, and which human beings can discover using their conscience. So when Catholicism says “x is wrong,” the ultimate validity of that claim rests not on the authority of the church, but the fact that x really is wrong.

According to Benedict’s vision, today’s environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation, illustrate that natural law is real. We now clearly understand, for example, that endlessly pumping out greenhouse gases in order to satisfy our consumer instincts exacts an objective physical price.

In that sense, Benedict XVI sees the rising tide of environmental consciousness as the most promising route for a recovery of the natural law tradition. In July 2007, Benedict said that environmentalism presumes that there are laws written into creation, and that “obedience to the voice of the earth is more important for our future happiness than the voices of the moment, the desires of the moment.”

Without any reference to religion, Benedict seems to believe, the secular world today is arriving at its own version of natural law theory. To put the pope’s point simplistically, if the world is willing to limit its carbon output on the basis of the laws of nature, then maybe it will become more willing to accept limits in other spheres of life as well.
The article is titled "Benedict XVI's very own shade of green", and is well worth a read.

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