3.5.1 Critical overview of CST on ecology: Dorr

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Unit 3 Contents

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One of the best books on CST is by Donal Dorr, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching.  A third edition of this came out in 2012.1  Writing in the early 1990s for the second edition (Orbis, 1992), Dorr assessed CST in his final chapter. He suggested several strengths and weaknesses in the tradition, as it was then.  You will be asked to read his assessment in the final unit of this module – and, in turn, to assess for yourself what he says.

According to Dorr, one main weakness was that CST “has not yet become sufficiently ecological in scope”.  He continues:

In a sense, this is the negative aspect of its greatest strength which is its humanistic character; it has become unduly anthropocentric… What is needed… is to situate the Church’s social teaching and the theological anthropology on which it is based within the context of a renewed … theology of creation. (p. 369)

The term ‘theological anthropology’ here refers simply to a Christian account of human persons (from the Greek for man, anthropos).

Dorr’s assessment poses a question.  Does the very strong affirmation in CST of ‘human dignity’ – the incalculable worth of human beings uniquely within God’s creation – stand in tension with the need which ecological crisis seems to manifest for emphasis on what humans and the rest of nature have in common, and on human respect for the rest of creation?

Dorr was writing not long after Pope John Paul II’s important 1990 World Peace Day Message, ‘Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation’, and also after two of his encyclicals that include (along with much else) passages on ecology (Solicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus).

But he was writing before John Paul’s 2001 statement, ‘God Made Man the Steward of Creation’ and his joint declaration with Patriarch Bartholomew of 2002.  Since then there have also been Pope Benedict’s contributions, the most significant of which you have read, and the strong emphasis on ecological protection in the first year of Pope Francis’s papacy.

To what extent was Dorr’s assessment right in the early 1990s, and to what extent does it remain fair two decades later?

It is certainly true that by the early part of John Paul II’s papacy around 1980, CST had come to have a very strong emphasis on human dignity, as we shall see in the next unit on working life and also later in the module.  That theme had come to the fore in the 1960s.  It was expressed especially in two places.  The first was the encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963 which presented a powerful vision of the human rights which always must be upheld for everyone.  The second was Gaudium et Spes, issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, whose first chapter is entitled ‘The Dignity of the Human Person’.  You will have the opportunity to study both these directly in Unit 7 of this module.

It is intriguing that Lynn White Jr’s critique of Christianity was made shortly after those two documents, in 1967. As Henning put it (in McCarthy’s book), White’s charge was that “Christianity, particularly in its Western form, is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” (p. 185).

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Reflection

From what you have learned about CST so far, especially from this unit and also from Units 1 and 2, do you think that it is accurate to assess it as too anthropocentric?  Or do the various statements on ecological issues you have read mean this is no longer the case, even if the earlier very strong focus on human dignity made it appear so?

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It is quite possible that, in the light of what you have learned in this unit, you are surprised that this question is even being raised.  Central in what this unit has covered is the doctrine that human beings are made in the image of God (3.3.4-3.3.7).  While this is fundamental for CST’s affirmation of human dignity, our study of it brought out that its implications are clearly not anti-ecological.   This is for two reasons. First, the ‘dominion’ granted to those made in God’s image is not a licence to ruin it but a role of stewardship of what is “very good” (Gen. 1:31).  Second, human wellbeing is above all a matter of good relationships, not instrumental domination of the rest of nature to the end of maximum production and consumption.

Nevertheless, even if Lynn White Jr was wrong theologically, he was to a large extent right historically (as we concluded earlier, 3.3.7).  In other words, during much of Christian history, that doctrine was interpreted in an “unduly anthropocentric” way (in Dorr’s words, quoted above).  Especially once the seventeenth century shift to a mechanistic way of seeing the world had taken place, such a reading of it helped to legitimize treating non-human nature as though it is only a resource to be exploited.

To the extent that White was right historically, an important repair or renewal has been needed in the way Christians articulate what the Bible and Church tradition teach about the place of humans within the wider creation, a move away from excessive anthropocentrism.  We can see the several recent papal statements, especially since John Paul II’s 1990 Message, as major contributions to making such a repair.

At least this is one way of reading them.  In order to equip us for assessing the extent to which this interpretation is right, we turn now to an excellent article by Celia Deane-Drummond, entitled ‘Joining in the Dance: Catholic Social Teaching and Ecology’.

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End of 3.5.1

Go to 3.5.2 Critical overview of CST on ecology: Deane-Drummond

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  1. This has a new title: Option for the Poor and for the Earth: Catholic Social Teaching (Orbis, 2012). 

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