Catholicism and the Natural WorldTHOMAS STORCK
Few Catholics seem aware that there is an authoritative Catholic teaching regarding our proper attitude and conduct toward the environment. In this, as in so many other areas, it seems that the Devil sponsors two opposite errors, two competing outlooks, both of which are wrong.
Too often, we take in uncritically notions from the culture around us, many of which are at variance with Catholic truth. In the turmoil occasioned by the Council, catechetics have declined to the point that very many Catholics have little or no knowledge of their religion, but even among those Catholics who take pains to preserve their orthodoxy there are generally areas in which the ideas that govern their actions are not in accord with the teaching of the Church. This is most likely to occur in matters where we are scarcely aware that there is any authoritative Catholic teaching, especially in those areas which transcend personal and individual morality and concern mankind organized as a community, such as the morality of economic life. It is such a subject that I wish to take up in this essay, namely the question of our proper attitude and conduct toward the natural order, toward the created or natural environment around us. In this area, as in so many others, it seems that the Devil sponsors two opposite errors, for the world offers us two competing outlooks, both of which are wrong. In reacting against the one that seems most wrong to us, we are apt to embrace the other, so, for example, as we rightly reject the New Age account of nature, we are in danger of embracing an ideology rooted in Cartesianism or Deism, which is equally opposed both to the explicit teaching of the Church as well as to the perennial philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The remedy for this is knowledge, knowledge of what the Church teaches in these areas, and a docile spirit toward her authority. In this article therefore I will explicate certain paragraphs of the CCC that deal with the visible created order or nature, and man's relations with that order. We will see that there is definite Catholic teaching on this subject and thus a distinct Catholic way of dealing with it. And far from being something remote from our lives, this teaching is in fact of great importance for how we live, and especially for how our society conducts itself.
The CCC's discussion of the natural creation takes place within its exposition of the Creed or Profession of Faith. After speaking of God as “Creator of heaven and earth” and of “all that is seen and unseen” (325),  it then goes on to speak of the angelic order, and finally of the visible world. Let us look at the paragraphs that deal with this.
God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity, and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically and as a succession of six days of divine “work,” concluded by the “rest” of the seventh day. On the subject of creation, the sacred text teaches the truths revealed by God for our salvation, permitting us to “recognize the inner nature, the value, and the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God.” (337)
Nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God's word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history are rooted in this primordial even, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun. (338)
One of the major points separating Catholics, and indeed all Christians, as well as Jews and Moslems, from much of the rest of the world, is the question of creation. Where did the visible world about us come from? In antiquity many people held that the world had always existed, or that the world was an emanation from God, not a creation by God. This latter is akin to pantheism, the belief that the world is a part of God or indistinguishable from God. Today Hinduism and other east Asian religions, for example, either explicitly or implicitly accept pantheism,  and contemporary New Age writers usually embrace similar ideas.  Even the current scientific theory of the Big Bang, though it has certain resemblances to the idea of a creation, supposes some matter to have existed before the Big Bang, and thus, unlike what is required by the Catholic faith, it is not creation out of nothing.
While rejecting pantheism, or any notion that the world is an emanation from God, we must also reject Deism. Superficially the Deistic concept of creation looks like the Catholic concept, but in fact they are essentially different. The paradigm of Deistic creation and the Deistic God is the Watchmaker. Though sometimes used by Protestant Christians, and even by Catholics, the notion of God as the Watchmaker has serious defects for a true Theism, since the God of Deism is essentially one who creates, but then walks away from His creation, while the true God, the God both of true philosophy and of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, both creates and continuously upholds His creation in being. As Ronald Knox wrote,
Paley's metaphor of the watch once for all wound up is, of course, the classic illustration of this Deist conception. It represents God as having made the universe, but not as guiding it from moment to moment, still less as actually holding it in being. 
A better (but still inadequate) physical image for God and His creation than the watchmaker and the watch is the electric generator and the light bulb, for the light bulb depends on the generator not only for the beginning of its operation but also for its continuing to provide light, while the watchmaker makes the watch, winds it up, and then is free to go away.
Moreover, the concept of miracles was difficult or impossible to fit into the Deistic universe, for if their God simply made the watch, wound it up and went away, how could the course of this mechanical creation ever deviate from its predetermined path? Even the idea of God's providence, of God hearing and answering our prayers, while perhaps not absolutely incompatible with Deism,  is foreign to its spirit, for it is hard to see how the Deistic God has any continuing interest in his workmanship. And though Deism is a heresy most characteristic of the eighteenth century, Deistic attitudes are still active today, as we will see below.
Since the CCC speaks of the “six days” of creation, it might be well to mention the controversial but related questions of the literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis and of the evolution of the species. Protestant fundamentalists hold that the six days of Genesis must be interpreted literally, and thus they necessarily reject the theory of evolution of all organic beings from one or a few primeval one-celled creatures over long aeons of time. Catholics have never been required to accept the first chapters of Genesis literally,  but it does not follow from this that the theory of evolution is true either. It is possible to reject both the fundamentalist view of Genesis without at the same time accepting organic evolution, for there is much purely scientific evidence that casts doubt upon macroevolution, without requiring a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis. 
Each creature possess its own particular goodness and perfection. For each one of the works of the “six days” it is said: “And God saw that it was good.” “By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth, and excellence, its own order and laws.” Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment. (339)“Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection” and “Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness.” In these two sentences we have a perfect summary of the Catholic doctrine on and attitude toward the created order of natures. Without denying that mankind is the crown and ruler of creation, nevertheless the individual beings of the plant and animal kingdoms, even rocks and minerals, have a perfection of their own and reflect “a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness.
As St. Thomas Aquinas explains in article 3 of question 5 of the Summa Theologiae, something is called bad only if it lacks what is proper to it, “as a man is called bad insofar as he lacks virtue, and an eye is called bad insofar as it lacks sharpness of sight.” We call a car that runs well, for example, a good car, and one whose engine is broken, bad (not morally bad, of course). So therefore everything that God has created has its own goodness, simply in itself, regardless of how it may benefit mankind. But if we forget this truth, we are apt to take a view of the rest of creation that looks on it much as a Deist might-they are simply external objects like the watch, with no relation to God. For if the watchmaker simply makes the watch and then goes away, the watch not only displays no dependence on it maker, and thus no special relation to him, but it is simply a neutral object which we may treat any way we choose. The watch is an essentially secular object, that is, divorced from God. In the Deistic universe, the world of natures is a world (apart from its origins) that exists on its own. Its God is far from it, and it awaits (should we so choose) our exploitation.
In a volume that contains much just criticism of the Green movement's attitudes toward man and the natural order, The Cross and the Rain Forest,  two of the book's authors, Robert Whelan and Joseph Kirwan, seem to regard the natural order in this Deistic way. Whelan criticizes those who regard a tree “as more than just a source of wood” (p.40), and Kirwan seems to raise difficulties over whether animals should be called “creatures” or simply “things” (pp.114-15). These sorts of attitudes have been common in the Western world for some time, even among those, such as Catholics, who should have known better, and since error tends to breed error, the reaction against the Deistic way of looking at the earth and the other creatures who live on it is in part the reason for the absurdities and immoralities of the Green and other movements that reject traditional Christianity.  As Catholics we must try to make our attitude toward our fellow creatures that of Holy Scripture, which eloquently speaks of animals, plants and even ice and snow or clouds and lightning, as praising God simply by their existence. 
God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other. (340)
The system of “interdependence of creatures” is what we generally call nature. Nature is simply the system of natures. Each created thing, sun and moon, large tree and little flower, has what we call a nature, that is, a whatness: each is a distinct and different kind of thing. As we saw above, it is by being itself in its own integrity that a thing is good. But none of these individual goods exists entirely by or for itself, “no creature is self-sufficient.” Thus even though all created thing praises God simply by existing, they also exist “in the service of each other.” Plants make use of the sun, rain and minerals from the soil; animals eat plants and other animals and use wood or grass or sand to make nests or other dwellings. So while it is good to allow animals and plants to live their own life, for of themselves they praise God, it is also good to cut down trees to construct buildings needed for mankind's use or to eat plants and animals, since they exist also to serve us and each other. According to the Deistic concept of creation, created things would exist solely for our use, and even for our misuse. But since each created thing praises God by being itself, we cannot use them except in our genuine service and for our genuine welfare. It is as if we employed a servant who, whenever he was not actually serving us, spent His time worshipping before the Blessed Sacrament. Would we dare call him from this holy work to help us in something immoral or even frivolous? We can consider our use of the natural world analogously. Since each created thing blesses and praises God in its natural state, simply by existing, we ought not to take away that praise from God unless we have good reason. For natural things are not simply at our disposal, but exist “to complete each other, in the service of each other.” If we use them for frivolous reasons, or for things which ultimately are harmful to human society, then we are not using them in our service, but to our hurt. The mere piling up of consumer goods, the spending of huge sums on unworthy objects, our insatiable appetite for amusements are any of these sufficiently important to justify our taking away things of the natural order from their work of praising God? As Pope John Paul 11 wrote in Centesimus Annus:
It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being,” and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. (no.36)
The gravity of sin involved in misusing natural objects doubtless depends on many factors, but one can hardly deny the existence of some sin.
The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will. (341)
The CCC here reflects what men for centuries have concluded when they examined carefully the cosmos. Aristotle wrote concerning knowledge of animals:
For if some [animals] have no graces to charm the sense, yet even these, by disclosing to intellectual perception the artistic spirit that designed them, give immense pleasure to all who can trace links of causation, and are inclined to philosophy. 
This ability to “trace links of causation,” as well as our perception of the “beauty of creation” ought to lead any unprejudiced person to recognize “the infinite beauty of the Creator,” and further “ought to inspire the respect and submission of [his] intellect and will.”” As St. Paul wrote,
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)
The fact that many today see the things that God has made and yet, not being able or willing to “trace links of causation,” fail to see the Creator, certainly calls into question our notion of the superiority of our civilization over all past ages. Centuries of bad philosophy and bad education have rendered modern man less capable of true philosophical insight and perception of beauty than our supposedly rude ancestors. A comparison between a church built in the Middle Ages and nearly any church built in the last forty or fifty years should be sufficient to show which civilization is really superior.
The hierarchy of creatures is expressed by the order of the “six days,” from the less perfect to the more perfect. God loves all his creatures and takes care of each one, even the sparrow. Nevertheless, Jesus said: “You are of more value than many sparrows,” or again: “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” (342)
It is necessary to make very careful distinctions in commenting on these passages in order to avoid the errors which lurk on each side of truth. On the one hand are those who deny that man has any special place in creation. For example, the organization Earth First! in one of its proposals stated that:
the central idea of Earth First! is that humans have no divine right to subdue the Earth, that we are merely one of several million forms of life on this planet. We reject even the notion of benevolent stewardship as that implies dominance. 
In 1987 two Earth First! members held up a banner at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. that proclaimed “EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL SPECIES.” Such notions, if interpreted literally, are contrary to what God has revealed. But I fear that in some cases people have reacted not against the Catholic and biblical teaching on man's place in the cosmos but against a distorted version of it. This Deistic deformation of truth seemed to allow mankind to do absolutely anything to the earth and the other creatures living on it, with no object except man's short-term gain. This of course is not what the Church teaches, as the CCC makes very clear, for the fact that man is the “summit of the Creator's work” does not mean that everything he desires to do with the natural world is good. For the desires that flow from the heart of a fallen man are not all for the good or for the glory of God. Therefore we cannot cloak man's frequent misuse of the natural creation under the truth that we have been commanded by God to subdue the earth, for God has not given us authority to do absolutely anything we may want with the created cosmos.
There is a solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator and are all ordered to his glory.  (344)
In human affairs solidarity is equated with social charity by Pope John Paul.  Obviously we cannot have charity toward plants or irrational animals, but we have something akin or analogous to it. We can treat them as, in a way, our brothers who join us in praising God and “Are all ordered to his glory.” That is, instead of looking on the natural world as something alien or other, something neutral or passive, something waiting for us to use or shape, we can see that world as alive with praise of God. This is not pantheism or an unChristian worship of the natural order. It is simply a realization of what is proclaimed in Holy Scripture and explicitly reiterated in the CCC. Again, this does not mean that we cannot use these natural creatures and objects, but it does mean that even as we use we ought to use with reverence, we ought to realize that they are ordered not just to our use and benefit but directly to God also. Then we can speak of a true solidarity of creatures, a solidarity that will be ultimately crowned when “all things are subjected to Him” and “the Son himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be everything to every one” (I Corinthians 15:28). 
Let us now look at a later section in the CCC which takes up the topic of man's treatment of the natural world in more detail and from the standpoint of the commandments.
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorce from respect for moral imperatives. Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation. (2415)
This second set of paragraphs is from part three of the CCC, “Life in Christ,” which deals with Christian moral life. The paragraphs here are from a discussion of the Seventh Commandment, You Shall Not Steal. For to misuse any created thing is surely to take what does not belong to us, since all creation belongs to God and is granted to us for our use, not our misuse.
This section of the CCC sets forth the dual truth about created natures: they have an integrity, and thus a goodness, of their own, “their mere existence” blesses and glorifies God, but yet at the same time they are “entrusted ... to [our] stewardship” and “Destined for the common good of ... humanity.” The limits of our use of animals, and even plants, however, lie not only in the effect of such use on mankind but in “a religious respect for the integrity of creation,” and in the kindness we “owe” them. We may safely assume, however, that we are not violating this “kindness” as long as we use animals and plants for the true welfare of mankind. But the mere piling up of goods, as we saw above, is likely to be a misuse rather than a use.
But unfortunately, this is exactly what modern man does. For example in the United States, as the average family size has declined, the average size of new houses built has increased. In 1970 the average size of a new single-family home was 1,500 square feet; by 1996 it had increased to 2,120 square feet. In 1970 the average family size was 3.58 persons; in 1996 it was 3.20 persons.  In many other areas what our fathers considered luxuries are now items of daily use, or have even been surpassed. In fact, our economic system even requires such a continual and irrational consuming in order to stave off economic disaster, and unless corporate profits are increasing businessmen are likely to be dissatisfied. But I fear that most of us do not even think to include these sorts of things in an examination of conscience, forgetting St. Paul's dictum, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (I Timothy 6:6-8). Since we have much more than “food and clothing,” perhaps we should be content with that.
The CCC states that “Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.” Yet many experiments on animals are conducted not for saving lives, but for testing cosmetics. It would seem hard to reconcile this kind of testing, which is often very cruel, with the “solidarity' and the “kindness” we should have for animals. It must be noted, however, that people use certain cosmetics to cover disfiguring facial or skin marks. 
The principles that ought to govern our attitude and conduct toward the created order of natures that are stated in the CCC and in Holy Scripture, if carefully followed, are able to bring about behavior that neither exploits and misuses animals and plants nor, on the other hand, abdicates man's role as steward of creation. To desire to have as little effect on the natural life and environment of animals and plants, consistent with real human needs, is not to embrace a romantic attitude toward the natural world. Rather it is to remember that “by their mere existence” animals “bless [God] and give him glory” and that each of God's creations “Reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness.” Every one of man's works must be in response to some genuine human need, or truly enhance the life of man, not just add useless gadgets or otherwise contribute to our fascination with what is new. A more sober use of created things would lead to an attitude more akin to the solidarity that we are to have with all creatures. It is a worthy effort of Catholics to promote such solidarity in order to change the often wasteful and profligate way that mankind lives.
As I said previously, Satan promotes error in pairs, so that there will always be two warring camps, both zealously championing positions that are flawed, and both keenly aware of what is wrong with their opponent's point of view, but blind to what is wrong with their own. And in the modern world, too often Satan has managed to divide Catholics between these two camps. The only remedy, the only means by which we can escape this bitter but sterile secular warfare, is by obtaining an understanding of what the Church really teaches. Usually we will find that it coincides with neither of these two camps. And this is the case with the subject I have discussed here, our treatment of the environment. If we embrace what the Church teaches in Holy Scripture, in the CCC and in other magisterial documents, then we can have some hope of avoiding being consigned to one of the two dreary secular camps. If we have some vision of the fullness of Catholic life and thought, then we can rejoice in our “solidarity [with] all creatures” at the same time as we recognize that we are the “summit of the Creator's work.” Only thus can we ourselves contribute to the “beauty ... order and harmony of the created world” and render it a more fitting gift to be placed at the feet of Him, who is both “the image of the invisible God” and “the first-born of all creation” in whom “all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:15-16) and who one day will return to judge mankind and renew all things Himself.
Stork, Thomas. “Catholicism and the Natural World: A Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The Catholic Faith 5, no. 6 (November/December 1999): 6-12.
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.
Thomas Storck is a writer living in Maryland.
© 1999 The Catholic
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