Stewards Not Ravagers

If we consider the etymological roots of the word “ecology,” we can see in its Greek root the word oikos (meaning “household”). The word “ecology” itself thus already indicates to us a deep sense of radical relationality between human beings and the world, human beings, and one another. This means that care for the earth and care for persons (particularly the most fragile among us) are intimately bound, that environmental ecology and human ecology stand or fall together. We are one household, marked by an intricate web of relationships. When these relationships are conceived competitively rather than cooperatively, when nature or human beings are treated merely as instruments, both human dignity and the dignity of the created order are compromised.

As Archbishop Wilton Gregory noted in a 2016 address, the divinely ordained task for human beings to be stewards of creation must begin with “the lofty dignity of the human person.” He noted that the created order was a good in itself because the act of creation bestowed “upon all of nature [is] an undeniable reflection of his own divine goodness.” Human beings, of course, are the pinnacle of that creation. “If we are to begin to safeguard God’s creation,” he said, “we must launch an increased reverence for every human life” such that the protection of human life is “the very starting point of environmental security.”[1] The obverse is also true: the radical, unspeakable experiences of suffering that that are deeply injurious to human dignity compromise, so to speak, the entire landscape of the canvas.

Popes Benedict and Francis have said much the same thing. We’ll look first to Benedict. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Benedict speaks of a strong consonance between human ecology and environmental ecology. Pope Benedict conceives of its rupture in the intricate web of relationality as tantamount to Original Sin. In his homily “Sin and Salvation”[2] delivered during Lent in 1981, Benedict suggests that:

Sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual . . . every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. (72-73)

Thus, for Benedict, sin is connected with throwing off the apparent strictures of one’s own creaturehood.

In the homily, Benedict considers the two dominant images which interact in second creation account of the Genesis story in Genesis 3:1-24: that of the garden of Eden, and that of the serpent. The garden, according to Benedict, evokes the world precisely as a place of created beauty, a place where the Spirit moves, sanctifying and beautifying the earth and all that is in it, demonstrating the goodness and the generosity of God. This garden symbolizes, in Ratzinger’s words, “a home, which shelters, nourishes, and sustains” (64), and thus ought to be tended with care and not exploited by its human inhabitants who ought to act as stewards and not ravagers of it.

The second image is that ancient symbol of the serpent, or snake, which was long connected to pagan fertility religions. Recall the historical context of Genesis: composed during the Babylonian exile, the book was written down during a time when the Jewish people were separated from their land and their temple, without political independence, in a time where the main temptation might well have been to forsake the God of their fathers. According to Benedict, the symbol of the snake is that which calls out to human beings to indulge in the now, to “plunge into the current of life, into its delirium and its ecstasy” (65), and to forget the God of Israel. The temptation was, more precisely, to challenge the terms of covenant, indeed to consider that their covenant with God is not actually the means of their radical freedom but rather the constriction and limitation of it.

The temptation is to think of the covenant reductively as an autocratic power play, something imposed externally, all the rules that must be kept which will keep them in check. Benedict makes an enormously productive analogy between the temptation of Adam and the temptation of Israel during the time that the Genesis accounts were being codified. Namely, to forsake the God of their Fathers, the will of whom appears to limit them unduly, and to seek transcendence elsewhere, to seek to slough off their very identities as created beings with intrinsic limits, to say to God, “I know more than you about myself and what I can do.” In effect, then, the exact nature of the sin in the Genesis narrative is actually a rejection of creatureliness as such (which for Benedict includes not merely finitude, but more positively “the nearness of the God of the covenant, the limitations imposed by good and evil, the inner standard of the human person” (70).

This denial of the goodness of the received and limited existence of creaturehood, which relies upon a relation of dependence upon God, and mutual dependence upon other human beings, is for Benedict exactly the crux of human sin. This essential quality of sin results in the distortion or inversion of relationships, not only between persons who become locked in struggles for power or prestige and between human beings and God, but also, importantly, between human beings and the world itself. With the entrance of sin, the human relation to the world is no longer transparent, but becomes exploitative, as human beings seek to overcome the good limits of their creatureliness.

According to Benedict, this way of thinking about sin is not merely an ancient relic, but is actually constitutive of modern humanity. He aligns the issue along two axes: first, the aesthetic or the artistic, and, second, the technical or technological, although he privileges the second. In both instances, human beings collapse the distinction between “can” and “ought.” That is, if I can do something, if it is possible (artistically, technologically, and so on) then there should be no other limit imposed (68). If technical progress is unrestrained by moral or ethical questions of “ought,” why not, for example, make an atomic bomb, if it is technically possible to do so? Benedict goes on:

Hence the same question pertains: What may technology do? For a long time the answer was perfectly clear: It may do what it can do . . . Rudolf Höss, the last commandant of Auschwitz, declared in his diary that the concentration camp was a remarkable technical achievement. If one took into account the pertinent transportation schedules, the capacity of the crematories, and their burning power, seeing how all of these worked together so smoothly, this was clearly a fascinating and well-coordinated program, and it justified itself . . . We should see that human beings can never retreat into the realm of what they are capable of. (68-69)

Paradoxically, what looks like freedom, that is, being able to do anything we want to do, actually is a truncation of freedom, and what looks like constraint paradoxically grants freedom because we are on the side of the truth, and of care for the world. To do otherwise, to exercise the human will to the brink, to treat the world and other human beings merely as matter, merely as manipulable, as entities upon which the will can be exercised, is a destruction not only of the world but also of that which makes us truly free.

Pope Francis’s position is similar, both in terms of his commitment to the interconnectivity of human ecology and environmental ecology, and in terms of the diagnosis offered regarding a reduction of the richness of reality to the merely technical. The consistent refrain in his recent encyclical Laudato Si’ (published in June of 2015) is exactly this: “everything is connected.” “When we fail,” he says, “to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities . . . it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected” (§117). There is thus an organic inter-relatedness between environmental ecology and human ecology, so social and environmental crises are always already interwoven. Ecology and anthropology are of a piece. This connection is what is meant by the term “integral ecology.” Laudato Si’ puts it thus:

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (§139)

Second, the same grim diagnosis we saw in Benedict is also operative in Francis. While both popes speak to a tendency in modern culture to valorize technological progress, neither could fairly be said, however, to be anti-technology. Laudato Si’ in particular is technology-affirming, especially in the opening paragraphs of chapter 3, which celebrates technological advances in transportation, food production, medicine, engineering, and communications. The fundamental issue, though, is what Francis calls the “dominant technocratic paradigm” over-reaches its boundaries, attempting to be the definitive solution, to establish all the terms for other things. The problem, then, is that the technocratic paradigm is one-dimensional:
This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. (LS §106)

Both Benedict and Francis note a shift in modernity from a posture of reception to that of domination, whatever the cost. In this respect, then, the technocratic paradigm is not first and foremost one that respects human dignity.

Moreover, especially when technology is tied intimately to business interests, as it often is, it puts blinders on and cannot see what Francis calls “the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others” (LS §20). It cannot see the integral nature of ecology, it cannot see that “everything is interconnected” (LS §138). This statement qualifies how we should think and talk about “nature,” not as something separate or even separable from ourselves over against we can exercise independent will.[3] This means as well that it is impossible, or at least imprudent, to attempt to disconnect environmental issues from social issues, since they are mutually implicated. According to Francis, “strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature” (LS §139).

Without a strong theology of creation, of the goodness and inherent dignity of created beings precisely as created beings and not in spite of this fact, we might be tempted toward what Pope Benedict has termed a “culture of exploitation,” or what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture.” What has happened in modern culture, as Pope Francis laments in his encyclical Laudato Si’, is that financial economic concerns have “overwhelmed” the real human or integral ecology such that grasping after profit is the primary consideration. This “bottom line” mentality leads to a certain permissiveness with regard to technological developments, without taking due account of the myriad ways in which these advances might negatively impact human beings, especially the most disenfranchised of the human population who are disproportionally affected (LS §109).

Editorial Note: Throughout the month of October Church Life Journal will explore the sanctity of life and the hospitable imagination. What we mean by the hospitable imagination is the ecclesial formation of a way of seeing the world that is more spacious and welcoming. It is a way of seeing that recognizes the inherent sanctity of life and seeks to heal the perceived division between life issues and social justice issues. Catholic Social Teaching teaches us that a radical hospitality for life at all its stages and solidarity with the weak is cruciform. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the hospitable imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us. 

A longer version of this article was originally delivered as a McGrath Institute for Church Life "Life Lunch" lecture entitled, “The Book of Nature: Exploring Human Dignity and Integral Ecology in the Genesis Paintings of Samuel Bak.”

Featured Image: Goya, Fight With Cudgels in Quicksand (detail), 1823; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] "Archbishop: Care for creation and human life aren’t opposed–they go together," Catholic News Agency,,

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…': A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[3] “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (Laudato Si’, §139).


Jennifer Newsome Martin

Jennifer Newsome Martin is Associate Professor, Program of Liberal Studies and concurrent Associate Professor, Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought.

Read more by Jennifer Newsome Martin