“The ‘Good’ and the Environment” – by Fr. Bud Grant
Consider the word ‘good’. What is the difference between doing good and being good, or between a good dog and a good boy? What makes a good Christian? Defining this elusive word is key to Catholic Ethics. Defining it in reference to nature is the heart of Catholic Environmental Ethics which, though still nascent, is not without great resources in our Tradition and none greater than Thomas Aquinas.
For Thomas, the good (bonum
, in his Latin), like Aristotle’s arête
, or excellence, is a pursuit. For Christians, the good is not what a person does, or is, but is seeking God. The highest good is a goal, a telos
, synonymous with perfection, happiness, and union with God: all embraced in his one term beatitudine
. So, in Christian Catholic ethics, the good is to be done and to be pursued so as to enjoy the fullness of God (Summa Theologiae I.II.94.2). The most interesting thing, at least for environmental ethicists, is that the good is that which all things seek. Animals, plants, the earth itself are able to attain what Thomas calls “natural perfection” (ST III.7.5). He asserts that nature—which he rightly calls creation—is good.
Non-human nature’s good is not the same as human good, and Christian good is something else yet. This is crucial for a green reading of Thomas: there are three distinct but intensely intertwined definitions of the termbonum. With them we have the makings of a uniquely Catholic ethic of creation.
The natural good (bonum naturalis) is simply that non-human nature is creation. It is intrinsically good because it is God’s. It is from God, it points toward God, it even reveals God. To be sure, this is not a moral good (the good dog is not the same as the good boy). As Lisa Sideris has pointed out, we err in trying to find emulative moral principles in nature. (Mary Midgley, by the way, also points out that we err in describing natural events as evil.) Nature is profligate and blindly disdainful of individual fates, be it the lion-consumed gazelle or the comet-devoured dinosaur. The intrinsic good of creation consists in its order, its harmony, its balance among diverse and complimentary parts, its complexity, its sustainability, in a word, its health (from the Latin salus, which also gives us the word salvation). If Thomas is right, then any Catholic environmentalist must be committed to restoring the health of God’s creation. Period.
The human good (bonum connaturalis) is where we find morality. Humans, while always part of the rest of creation, are uniquely endowed with the gift of reason, by means of which we can distinguish between the moral good and immoral evil. We ought to live in such a way that human communities flourish, with special attention to the weakest and most vulnerable members—including future generations. All people, not just Christians, can and ought to know this moral truth, since it is the fruit of proper thinking (recta ratio). Our basic human nature imprints this in us and the taught discipline of a virtuous life reinforces it.
What makes environmental ethics peculiarly Christian? There is a third order…the spiritual good (bonum supernaturalis) defined as the self-sacrificing love which the believer, through grace, returns to our loving God. The Christian, in hope and faith, experiences this Love and is compelled to share it with others, or, in the sweet phraseology of Kierkegaard: “Love loves Love in the beloved.” So the defining characteristic of a Christian environmental ethic is the willingness to suffer like Christ for the sake of that which Christ loves; all peoples and creation itself. Most of the world’s people, including all the yet-to-be-born, and the very earth itself, have become victims of the rich. Suffering is now an ecological fact to which we must adapt. All of us are already experiencing it, but it falls disproportionately on the earth itself and on the world’s vast marginalized communities—those who have benefited least from the despoliation of the planet are paying the highest cost in famine, disease, poverty, and conflict. To restore earth’s order, to redress injustice, to ensure a quality of life for future generations requires redistributive sacrificial suffering.
What makes this Christian environmental ethic uniquely Catholic? The Eucharist. This most humble of the earth’s products becomes the very Body of Christ. With trembling hands, the priest dares to break this bread in the sight of the faithful to remind us that we are to be broken and consumed. The consecrated host is not merely a symbol of God’s presence in matter, it is the union of the material and spiritual orders: the physical substance of the Eucharist, as Christ, makes holy the cosmos. As Sacrament it infuses us with a power beyond the limits of our intellect and weakness of will to incarnate Divine Love in and for all of God’s creation. No wonder we bow before Him, extending our shaking hands, whispering our faint but resilient amen, receiving the Lord of Earth and Heaven.
And now finally, how can this Catholic Christian environmental ethic of sacramental redistributive suffering manifest itself in our nation’s rural communities and farms? It is easy, but cheap, to point the self-righteous finger of indignation at corporate farming greed that puts profit ahead of sustainable practice. Without being naïve about any corporation’s margin motives, I have never met a farmer who wants to destroy the land or poison the consumer. Yet soil erosion, ground water depletion, chemical pollutants, biological mutants, habitat loss, invasive species, and all the rest are too real to be ignored.
The mandate is clear: heal the earth; share what resources there are with those who are most in need; suffer as necessary to make this happen. There are all sorts of good initiatives underway that serve as incubators of sustainable farm practices…the slow food movement, farmers markets, no till, reduced input, set aside programs, alternative crops, use of natives such as switch grass and bison, employing alternative energies. The non-farmers among us can buy locally, avoid over packaging and chemical laden produce, do urban gardening and reduce meat consumption.
Will it work? By century’s end we may have 9 billion mouths to feed: 3 billion more than at century’s inception. Some say that all of these quaintly romantic methods will not suffice, that we need to rely on massive technologies, chemicals, and industrial farms but the dirty secret is that these destructive methods will not work and even if they did succeed at feeding more, the cost in environmental consequences would be ultimately disastrous. Catholic Christian ethics is not naïvely romantic. It is measured not by what it reaps, but by how it sews; not by its effect, but by what motivates it.
To do and pursue good necessitates suffering motivated by love. Specifically, it requires that the yoke of suffering shift from the earth and the marginalized to those of us who have reaped the bounty of excess. This is no doomsday vision, no gloomy punishment. The suffering of Christ is redemptive and ends, not in death, but resurrection. So too ours…happiness, perfection, the good, is found not by avoiding sacrifice, but through it.
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He’s the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose’s environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to Iowa.
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