Humane to Ecology

Register Summary

The world's people need to undergo an “ecological conversion” to protect the environment and make the earth a place where all life is valued and can grow in harmony, Pope John Paul II said Jan. 17 during his weekly general audience.

“The human creature receives a mission of governance over creation to make all its potential shine,” the Pope told several thousand people in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

God's plan for creation “was and continually is upset by human sin,” he said. He called on the men and women of today to return to a domination over creation that is not one of exploitation, but of service and ministry aimed at continuing “the Creator's work, a work of life and peace.”

In the hymn of praise just proclaimed (Psalm 148:1-5), the Psalmist convokes all creatures, calling them by name. Angels, the sun, moon, stars, and skies appear on high; 22 creatures move on earth, as many as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, to indicate fullness and totality. The faithful is like “the shepherd of being,” namely, the one who leads all beings to God, inviting them to intone an “alleluia” of praise.

The Psalm takes us into what seems a cosmic temple, which has the heavens as apse and the regions of the world as naves, and in whose interior the choir of creatures sings to God. This vision could be the representation both of a lost paradise as well as that of the promised paradise. Significantly, the prospect of a cosmic paradise, presented by Genesis (2) at the very origins of the world, is placed by Isaiah (11) and Revelation (21-22) at the end of history.

Thus it is seen that man's harmony with his fellow creatures, with creation and with God is the plan intended by the Creator. This plan was and is continually upset by human sin, which draws its inspiration from the alternative plan portrayed in the Book of Genesis (3-11), which describes the emergence of man's progressive conflictual tension with God, with his fellow men and even with nature.

Mission to Govern the Earth

The contrast between the two plans emerges clearly in the vocation to which, according to the Bible, humanity is called and in the consequences caused by his infidelity to that call. The human creature receives a mission of governance over creation to make all its potential shine. It is a delegation attributed by the divine King at the very origins of creation, when man and woman, who are the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27), received the order to be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, to subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over every living being that crawls on the earth (see Genesis 1:28).

St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the three great Cappadocian Fathers, commented: “God made man in such a way that he could perform his function as king of the earth. Man was created in the image of the One who governs the universe. Everything shows that from the beginning his nature is marked by royalty. … He is the living image who participates in his dignity in the perfection of the divine model” (De Hominis Opificio, 4: PG 44,136).

Continuing God's Work

Man's lordship, however, is not “absolute, but ministerial: it is a real reflection of the one infinite lordship of God. So, man must exercise it with wisdom and love, sharing in the boundless wisdom and love of God” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 52). In biblical language, “to name” creatures (see Genesis 2:19-20) is the sign of this mission to know and transform created reality. His is not the mission of an absolute and unchallengeable master, but of a minister of the Kingdom of God, called to continue the Creator's work, a work of life and peace. His responsibility, defined in the Book of Wisdom, is to govern “the world in holiness and justice” (Wisdom 9:3).

Unfortunately, if we take a look at the regions of our planet, we realize immediately that humanity has disappointed God's expectation. Especially in our time, man has unhesitatingly devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted the waters, deformed the earth's habitat, made the air unbreathable, upset the hydro-geological and atmospheric systems, blighted green spaces, implemented forms of unregulated industrialization, humiliating — to use an image of Dante Alighieri (Paradiso, XXII, 151) — the “flower-bed” that is the earth, our home.

Ecological Conversion

It is necessary, therefore, to stimulate and sustain the “ecological conversion” which over the last few decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe it was heading toward. Man is no longer a “minister” of the Creator. However, as an autonomous despot, he is understanding that he must finally stop before the abyss.

“Another welcome sign is the growing attention being paid to the ‘quality of life’ and to ‘ecology,’ especially in more developed societies, where people's expectations are no longer concentrated so much on problems of survival as on the search for an overall improvement of living conditions” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 27).

If we take a look at the regions of our planet, we realize immediately that humanity has disappointed God's expectation.

What is at stake, therefore, is not only a “physical” ecology intent on safeguarding the habitat of the various living beings, but also a “humane” ecology that will give greater dignity to the existence of creatures by protecting the radical good of life in all its manifestations and preparing an environment for future generations that is closer to the Creator's plan.

In this recovered harmony with nature and among themselves, men and women will once again walk in the garden of creation, seeking to make the goods of the earth available to all and not just to the privileged few, exactly as the biblical Jubilee suggested (see Leviticus 25:8-13,23). In the midst of those wonders we discover the Creator's voice, transmitted by the heavens and by the earth, by the day and by the night — a language “without words whose sound is heard,” capable of crossing all frontiers (see Psalm 19:2-5).

The Book of Wisdom, echoed by Paul, celebrates this presence of God in the universe, recalling that “from the greatness and beauty of creatures, by analogy, the Creator is contemplated” (Wisdom 13:5; see Romans 1:20). This is what the Jewish tradition of the Hasidim also sings: “Wherever I go, You! Wherever I stop, You … wherever I turn, wherever I admire, only You, again You, always You” (Martin Buber, I Racconti dei Chassidim, Milan 1979, p. 256).

(Translation by Zenit and Register)