Pope Francis to Emphasize ‘Human Ecology’ in Forthcoming Document, Says Theologian

Vatican theologian Father Paul Haffner expects Pope Francis to reiterate the Church’s human-centric model of caring for creation, while also correcting erroneous ideas dominant in the secular environmental movement.

(photo: CNA/Kyle Burkhart)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ forthcoming document on ecology is likely to put the human person at the center and draw attention to the connection between environmental problems and poverty, according to a Church expert on theology and the environment.

Father Paul Haffner, professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and author of the book Towards a Theology of the Environment, believes such a document is urgently needed to correct many philosophical and theological errors that have crept into the environmental movement.

Although he says it is difficult to predict its contents, he believes it will “put the human person as central and focus also on the margins of society, those places where there are environmental problems because of poverty.”

On Jan. 24, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed that the Holy Father had begun work on a “draft text on the topic of ecology, which could become an encyclical.” But he stressed that the project is in an “early stage, so it is too early to make any prediction about the timing of possible publication.”

He added that it is important to note that Pope Francis intends to put “particular emphasis” on the theme of “human ecology,” a phrase used by Pope Benedict XVI to describe “not only how people must defend and respect nature but how the nature of the person — masculine and feminine, as created by God — must also be defended.”


Following in Benedict’s Footsteps

Since his election last year, Pope Francis has frequently shown concern for the environment, following the example of Benedict XVI. The pope emeritus was sometimes labeled the first “Green Pope.” He persistently called for the safeguarding of creation, arguing that respect for the human being and nature are one. He also instructed that solar panels be installed on the roof of the Paul VI hall at the Vatican and signed the Vatican up for a project that offset carbon-dioxide emissions.

From the beginning of his pontificate, many have seen Pope Francis’ choice of papal name — St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of ecology — as indicative of his concern for the environment. In his inaugural Mass homily, he called on everyone to be “protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

His later comments on the subject also give clues about the forthcoming document’s probable content. On World Environment Day last June, he stressed the need to “cultivate and care” for the environment, saying it is part of God’s plan that man “nurture[s] the world with responsibility,” transforming it into a “garden, a habitable place for everyone.”

Mankind, however, is driven by “pride of domination, of possessions, manipulation, of exploitation,” he said, adding, “We do not ‘care’ for [the environment]; we do not respect it; we do not consider it as a free gift that we must care for.” 

He regretted that people are losing the “attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation” and said the implications of living in a horizontal manner is that “we have moved away from God; we no longer read his signs.”

And as Benedict had often done, Francis concluded by linking human ecology with environmental ecology, issuing a strong challenge to rethink the culture of waste and to oppose a lack of ethics in economy and finance. “I would like us all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation,” he said, “to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste and disposable [mentality], to promote a culture of solidarity” and of living alongside others, especially on the margins, as opposed to individualism.

The Pope most recently repeated his concerns in his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on Jan. 13. Noting the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last November, he warned against “greedy exploitation of environmental resources” and quoted the popular adage: “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature — creation — is mistreated, she never forgives.”


Correcting the Errors of ‘Ecologism’

Environmentalists have welcomed news of the future document, and some hope it will cause a “paradigm shift” in the Church’s approach to the issue.

But this is the danger, according to Father Haffner, who feels secular society and the green movement are at risk of misinterpreting the Pope’s comments and believe he will subscribe to their worldview.

“We always have, as I say in my book Towards a Theology of the Environment, to distinguish between ecology as a science and ‘ecologism’ as an ideology,” he said. “Ecologies that seemingly begin with the program of saving man’s environment quickly run their logic to the point where the environment takes absolute priority over man.”

Father Haffner said this ideology “easily takes root in Darwinist circles,” where man is seen to be the product of purely natural forces.

“Part and parcel of this pernicious view is the erroneous claim that man is simply one of a very large number of species, all equally valuable and enjoying the same rights,” he said, adding that one ideology which is widespread in environmentalist circles “is the myth about overpopulation.” Furthermore, he said, often those who exaggerate the effect of climate change “are also the same ones who want population control and all that entails.”

He also noted other errors, which include “considering Earth or the cosmos as a gigantic living organism” — a view held by the former priest, theologian and ecologist Leonardo Boff — “or the errors of those with a pantheistic view of creation.”

Father Haffner would like to see the new papal document “correct the many and various philosophical and theological errors which have crept into green thinking, as I have done in my book, and also to make clear that the ecological problem is but one of many symptoms of a society which lives without God, without Christ.”

“Care for the environment was a natural way of life in the medieval monasteries,” he pointed out. “To recover the integrity of creation, we need a renewed Christian culture.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.