'Subdued by what we conquered': Pope Benedict's understanding of nature disappointingly inert

by Rich Heffern

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By David DeCosse
David DeCosse is director of campus ethics programs at Santa Clara University in California.

The whale flashed its bulk, like an island in the brilliant sun. The wind whipped away the spray from the spout in a steady gust. I watched in joy and awe from the bluff trail as the majestic, shimmering creature — no more than a half-mile offshore — pushed north through the white froth in submerged, half-hidden power.

I treasure that recent moment on the Central Coast of California because it points to what the American writer Wallace Stegner has called nature’s capacity for bringing “spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe.” I also recall that moment because it points to a profound flaw in the green theology of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

In short, there’s too little room for the dynamic power of the whale in the contemplative sea that is Benedict’s view of nature.
In more technical terms, the natural world in the encyclical is all essence, truth, formality. In Benedict’s wording, nature contains a “grammar,” the rules of which reveal the “design” of God’s love. But there is a diminished sense of nature as existence, act, power — and incomprehensible, wild and beyond our control, too.

Moreover, the natural world in the encyclical is oddly passive. It has rules of grammar but it hardly speaks. Indeed, it doesn’t affect us so much as we affect it, either by continuing its destruction or by respecting its worth as a result of a personal moral transformation.

We will only come properly to respect creatures and seas, Benedict argues, when we respect the principles of nature within human beings that require us to do such things as submit to the rhythms of the female body and reject artificial birth control; to affirm male-female sexual complementarity and therefore oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage; to honor the human embryo’s destiny of personhood and refuse scientific experimentation on the first phases of human life; etc.

Of course, since American society rejects many aspects of these moral requirements, we cannot be expected in Benedict’s view to arrive at a sense of the appropriate value of the external natural world until we respect such internal moral imperatives.

Many commentators have rightfully noted the implausible overreach of this view of nature: Does support for legalized gay marriage really mean that one’s conscience is blocked from correctly appreciating the moral value of sustainability? I would like to extend this criticism to say: Is it also the case that the apparent moral evil stemming from something like support for legalized gay marriage renders one incapable of being moved by the spiritual presence mediated through the things of the Earth?

By contrast, it’s revealing to consider Stegner’s plea in the early 1970s to preserve wilderness areas in the United States not only on biological and recreational grounds but also as a spiritual resource. Like Benedict, Stegner lamented the destruction of the Earth wrought by a technologically-driven society. But Stegner held out hope, if a fading hope, in the power of the natural world to transform us. His best known novel, Angle of Repose, is a meditation on this fading hope.

The power of the natural world worked on generations of Americans like an unmerited gift, shaping us as a people of principle despite our alternately heroic and hellish conquest of a continent. Or as Stegner put it: “If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.”

The wilderness for Stegner was chastening, a place that at once made people aware of their solitude and of their home in an “environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong to it.” Evenings on the “big, empty plains” evoked awe, silenced shrillness, and taught the “trick of quiet.”

All the while, a natural world “as new as if it had just risen from the sea” stirred hope as it offered unspoiled beauty and boundless opportunity to the old peoples and tired cultures spreading across the continent. Stegner as a novelist was concerned with how character was shaped by the interaction with nature. Nature affects us, disposes us in history, and invites the response of our freedom. But it is not simply, as the encyclical insists, of response understood as conformity to given truths. Rather, it is response understood in a narrative dimension, over time, involving reason and emotion. Will we incarnate our awe for the natural world in a habit of reverence — or not?

To be sure, Caritas in Veritate shares Stegner’s sharp eye for environmental destruction. The encyclical also wisely argues that how we treat each other has effects in nature and that how we treat nature has effects on us.
Still, for all of this prophetic insight, Benedict offers a view of nature that is disappointingly inert. Nature is a mediator of divine love through its static testimony to truth but not through its existential power of presence. Here Stegner is more theologically satisfying, speaking as he does of the “mystical” and “semi-religious” influence of nature on us and affirming the abiding power of such an influence, even in the face of human sin. Along with Stegner’s view of nature comes a more complete picture of the whole human person than the encyclical affirms: Embodied, vulnerable, free, a creature at once in nature and in history — even salvation history.

And here I return to the whale, whose sheer, surging existence points toward a creative power upholding the seas and whose pristine beauty stands in judgment on all that we do to tarnish the earth. We should keep watch for this sign of Jonah, spouting and sounding off the California coast.

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