Historian Lynn White, in an often-quoted article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" (linked here), blames Christianity for the ecological crisis. According to White:
Christianity inherited from Judaism . . . a striking story of creation. . . . God planned all [of creation] for man’s benefit and rule: no item in physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. . . . Christianity, in absolute contrast to paganism . . . insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.
Tellingly, White does not quote a single Christian author supporting these views. One author White should have consulted is St. Augustine. This Father and Doctor of the Church wrote two complete commentaries on Genesis, plus another unfinished one. Aquinas is another theologian White should have looked at. Aquinas has a developed theology of creation, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of the views of the Church Fathers.
I am going to consider here what Augustine and Aquinas have said about creation, and then, in a second article, will look at what three recent Popes have said, with an eye to evaluating White’s thesis.
Before I begin, it is worth noting that White did not even look very carefully at Genesis. After the third, fourth, and fifth days of creation, which were prior to the creation of human beings, Genesis says “God saw it was good.” This indicates that non-rational creatures are not simply good for humans but are good in themselves. In addition, Genesis 2:16 says: “God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it.”
White should have also looked to the liturgy, since “lex orandi, lex credendi.” The Sanctus became part of the Roman Eucharistic Prayer in the first half of the fifth century. The Sanctus affirms: “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” This line has a scriptural basis: “And they [Seraphim] cried one to another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:3).
The Relationship between a Theology of Creation and Environmentalism
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas have a somewhat limited environmental ethics. Environmentalism, that is, the branch of ethics which determines how we ought to treat the environment (the soil, air, plants, animals, ecosystems, etc.), was not on Augustine and Aquinas’s radar screen in the same way that is for the recent Popes. Why? This was partly because of the lack of evidence in their day that we could cause extinction or disrupt the harmony of nature in other significant ways. By contrast, we know that certain species have gone extinct at our hands, and we observe air pollution and are aware of its harmful effects, and similarly for many other types of environmental degradation. What Augustine and Aquinas did have was a developed theology of creation, something that serves as the basis for a Christian environmental ethic. Once we determine what is the purpose or purposes that God intends creations to serve, it immediately follows that we ought to respect those purposes.
Augustine maintained that non-rational creatures have intrinsic goodness and that they contribute goodness to the greater whole that is the universe. He further held that non-rational creatures, both by being what they are and by contributing to the universe’s perfection, give glory to God. While Augustine acknowledges that non-rational creatures are meant to serve us, he does not see this as opposed to their giving glory to God; indeed, they only fully give glory to God insofar as they serve us spiritually.
Augustine speaks at length about the goodness of creation in On Genesis:
God’s individual works are found by sensible people who consider them to display, each in its own kind, admirable measures and numbers and orders (Wis 11:20); how much more must this be so with all things together (Sir 18:1), that is, with the universe itself, which is completed by all these individual things being brought together into one whole? Every beauty, after all, that consists of parts is much more admirable in its totality than in any of its parts. Take the human body, for example; if we admire the eyes alone or the nose alone or the cheeks alone or the head alone, or the hands or the feet alone, and if we admire all the other parts one by one and alone, how much more the whole body on which all its parts, each beautiful by itself. confer their particular beauties. . . . If the Manichees would only consider this truth, they would praise God the author and founder of the whole universe, and they would fit any particular part that distresses them because of our mortal condition into the beauty of the universal whole, and thus would see how God made all things not only good, but also very good.
The two themes of the goodness of individual creatures and the goodness of the whole universe reoccur many times throughout Augustine’s works. For example, in the City of God, Augustine addresses the heretical claim that material creatures are bad:
This cause, however, of a good creation, namely, the goodness of God . . . has not been recognized by some heretics, because there are, forsooth, many things, such as fire, frost, wild beasts, etc., which do not suit but injure this thin-blooded and frail mortality of our flesh, which is at present under just punishment. They do not consider how admirable these things are in their own places, how excellent in their own natures, how beautifully adjusted to the rest of creation, and how much grace they contribute to the universe by their own contributions as to a commonwealth; and how serviceable they are even to ourselves, if we use them with a knowledge of their fit adaptations.
Augustine acknowledges that certain specific creatures may not serve us in a physical manner, but nevertheless have goodness insofar as they contribute to the perfection of the universe: “even if they are not needed for our homes, at any rate, they contribute to the completion of this universe, which is not only much bigger than our homes, but much better as well.” Moreover, they have goodness in themselves:
Study any tiny creature you choose. I want you simply to consider the disposition of its organs and the life that animates it: look how it avoids death, loves life, seeks pleasures, avoids painful conditions, deploys its various senses, and flourishes in the mode proper to itself. Who gave the flea a sting with which to suck blood? How tiny is the pipe through which it drinks! Who arranged matters so? Who made these things? If you tremble with awe at these minute creatures, praise him who is so great.
Augustine further maintains that individual creatures both in themselves and as part of the whole universe are ordered to the glory of God:
It is not with respect to our convenience or discomfort, but with respect to their own nature, that the creatures are glorifying to their Artificer.
When you look at all these things in our lower world you are struck by how changeable they are, how turbulent and terrifying and prone to decay. Yet they too have their place, for they keep their appointed order and contribute in their own way to the beauty of the whole, and therefore they praise the Lord.
These excerpts make it abundantly clear that Augustine would reject wanton destruction of species and ecosystems.
Of course, Augustine also sees creation as ordered to us, both to our physical and spiritual well-being. As to the former, Augustine responds thus to those who maintain we should not eat animals or even plants:
And, in the first place, your abstaining from the slaughter of animals and from injuring plants is shown by Christ to be mere superstition; for, on the grounds that there is no community of rights (societatem iuris) between us and brutes and trees, He both sent the devils into a herd of swine, and withered by His curse a tree in which He had found no fruit. . . . The signs which Christ wrought in the case of men, with whom we certainly have a community of rights, were in healing, not killing them. And it would have been the same in the case of beasts and trees, if we had that community with them which you imagine.
Augustine’s affirmation of the legitimacy of killing plants and animals is not tantamount to endorsing the exploitation of nature. Augustine thinks that our use of natural things should be measured by human need and not human whim:
Take stock then: not only can you manage on a few things only, but God himself asks very few from you. Ask yourself how much he has given you and then pick out what you need; all the rest of your things lie there as superfluities, but for other people they are necessities. The superfluity of the rich is necessary to the poor. If you hold onto superfluous items, then, you are keeping what belongs to someone else.
When it comes to creation serving our spiritual well-being, Augustine has this to say:
What does that mean—His confession fills earth and heaven? The confession God makes? No, that by which all things confess him, and all things cry out his praise. The very beauty of all these things is like a voice that they raise to confess God. The sky cries to God, “you made me, I did not make myself.” The earth cries out, “you founded me, I did not establish myself.” How do these things cry out in worship? Whenever men and women observe them and discover the truth of them, all creatures cry out through your appreciation of them; they shout with your voice.
Non-rational creatures of themselves silently and unconsciously praise God, and they serve us by leading us to consciously praise God, wherein lies our true happiness. Ultimately, it is only rational creatures who praise God in the full sense of the word:
Animals lack the interior rationality, the intelligent and discerning mind that human have, with which to praise God. . . . Why do we say that they praise God? Because when we see these things and ponder on the creator who made them, it means that all of them praise God.
Augustine holds a similar view in regard to giving God glory. Augustine understands glory to be “illustrious fame with praise” (“clara notitia cum laude”). Having fame requires being known. Thus, while non-rational creatures witness to God’s glory, their witness only is completed in us who are capable of recognizing it and praising God accordingly. Consequently, Augustine would hold that when we make use of creation, we should avoid defacing it, to the extent possible, as this would have a negative impact on its and our ability to glorify God.
Aquinas presents in a more systematic manner the same notions concerning the purposes of creation that we find in Augustine. In response to the question of whether material creatures are made for the sake of divine goodness, Aquinas affirms:
It is to be considered that the whole universe is constituted from every creature, as a whole from parts. If, however, we want to assign the end of some whole and of its parts, we find, first, that the individual parts are for the sake of their acts, as the eye for seeing; secondly, that the less noble part is for the sake of the more noble part, as sense is for the sake of the intellect, and the lungs for the sake of the heart. Third, all parts are for the sake of the perfection of the whole, as also matter is for the sake of form; for the parts are as the matter of the whole. Further, however, the whole man is for the sake of some extrinsic end, for instance, that he may enjoy God.
Thus, therefore, also in the parts of the universe, each and every creature is for the sake of its proper act and perfection. Secondly, however, the less noble creatures are for the sake of the more noble ones, as the creatures that are below man are for the sake of man. Further, however, individual creatures are for the sake of the perfection of the whole universe. Further, moreover, the whole universe, with its individual parts, are ordered to God as to an end, insofar as divine goodness is represented in them by means of a certain imitation, to the glory of God; although rational creatures have God as their end in a certain special mode beyond this, whom they can attain by their own operation, by knowing and loving [him]. And thus it is manifest that divine goodness is the end of all corporeal beings.
Material creatures are ordered to their own perfection, as well as to serving humans and contributing to the completion of the universe, all of which ultimately give glory to God. Aquinas not only articulates these different finalities, but he also shows that they are not opposed to one another.
In this passage, Aquinas shows that the intrinsic goodness of non-rational creatures is not opposed to their serving human well-being or giving glory to God:
It is required for genuine love (ad veritatem amoris) that one wants the good of another according as it is that other’s good. For someone whose good one wants only insofar as it yields to the good of someone else is loved incidentally, just as he who wants to safeguard wine to drink it or a man to be useful or pleasurable to himself, loves that wine or man incidentally; essentially, he loves himself. But God wants the good of each and every thing according as it is its good; for he wants each thing to exist according as it is good in itself, granted he also orders one thing to the utility of another. Therefore, God truly loves both himself and other things.
An analogy with health can better help us understand what Aquinas is saying here. Health is desired as a means to other things. For example, we want to be healthy so that we can attend school or play soccer. However, even if we had nothing in particular to do, we would want to be healthy rather than sick. So, health is both a means and an end. In certain circumstances, health can be rightly sacrificed to serve a higher end (as is the case of those caring for people with contagious diseases). Similarly, non-rational creatures are ends insofar as they have goodness in themselves, but they are also a means to human well-being and to God’s glory.
The love that God has for non-rational beings is not an unqualified love that would preserve these things from all evil that did not potentially contribute to their ultimate good. As Aquinas puts it, those things one loves simply speaking one wants to exist forever.
For since the good of the creature comes forth from the divine will, therefore from the love of God by which he wants good for the creature flows some good into the creature. The will of man, however, is moved [by] the good pre-existing in things; and whence it is that the love of man does not entirely cause the goodness of a thing but presupposes it either in whole or part. Therefore, it is manifest that from any love on the part of God follows some good caused in creatures; nevertheless, sometimes not [a good] coeternal to his eternal love. And according to the difference of the sort of good is discerned a differing love of God for the creature. One [love] indeed is common, according to which “he loves all things that exist,” as is said in Wis 11:25; according as he bestows natural being on created things. Another love, however, is special, according to which he draws the rational creature above the condition of nature to a sharing in the divine good. And according to this love something is said to be loved simply speaking, because according to this love God wants simply speaking the eternal good that is himself for the creature.
God does love each existing creature in some sense for its own sake, insofar as he himself bestows on it the goods of existence and the ability to act. However, he does not will for every creature goods that are coeternal with his eternal love. Non-rational creatures are destined to perish, and accordingly God’s love sustains them for a limited span of time with an eye to the greater good of the universe; he loves them primarily as means. The only things that God loves for their own sake properly and without qualification are those for whom he wants the eternal good which is himself. For this reason, we cannot love non-rational creatures the way we love persons, for love in the full sense of the word means wishing that the other enjoy the Beatific Vision.
It is apparent from what has been said that Aquinas would be against the needless destruction of individual creatures, both because of their inherent goodness and their contribution to the universe as a whole, which in turn gives glory to God. At the same time, Aquinas holds that non-rational creatures are meant to serve our material and spiritual well-being. Like Augustine before him, Aquinas sees there to be morally right and wrong ways of ordering lower beings to us. In a homily on Luke, he says:
Whence Blessed Peter says: each of you, according to the grace you receive, be helpers of one another, as good stewards of Christ. And the sage says “what I have learned without pretense, I share without envy” (Wis 7:13). Furthermore, you ought to administer temporal goods to others and not keep them [to satisfy] your will alone. The Apostle says: “warn the rich not to have a taste for the sublime things of this world and to distribute their goods readily” (1 Tim 6:17). The Philosopher says that the best states are those in which possessions belong to distinct individuals and the use of these possessions is common (Politics, Bk. II, lec. 4). Basil say . . . “Men are accustomed to say that God is not just. Why is God not unjust in dispensing things to us unequally? The unjust one is not he. Why therefore are you enjoying abundance while that one begs, if not so that by dispensing life-sustaining food you may obtain the reward of life and he be crowned with the wreath of patience? Are you not the predator in appropriating what was entrusted to you to dispense? It is the bread of the needy that you hold back, the tunic of the naked that you store in your closet, the shoes of the barefoot that you on rare occasion stroll in, the money of the indigent that you hide in the ground; that is why there are as many injuries as what you are able to give.”
At the basis of Aquinas’s homily is the notion that the earth is intended by God to sustain the life of every human being:
The things which pertain to human law cannot derogate natural law or divine law. According to the natural order instituted by divine providence, lower things are ordered to the end that human necessity be alleviated from them. And therefore, the division and appropriation of things proceeding from human law may not impede that human need be alleviated by things of this sort. And on that account things that some have superabundantly are, according to natural law, owed to the sustenance of the poor.
For this reason, Aquinas goes on to say that “to use a thing taken from another in the case of dire necessity, strictly speaking, does not have the notion of theft, for in virtue of this sort of necessity what someone takes for sustaining his own life is made his.” Aquinas clearly holds that when we hoard or waste the earth’s resources and the goods made from them, we injure people in need and disrespect God’s intentions for how the earth is to be used.
Aquinas, like Augustine, also sees creation as serving human beings’ spiritual well-being:
All corporeal beings are believed to be made for the sake of man; whence even all things are said to be “subject” to him. However, they serve man in two ways: in one way, to the end of sustaining his corporeal life; in another way, to advance his knowledge of what is divine, insofar as man “perceives the invisible things of God through the things that are made,” as is said in Rom 1:20.
According to Aquinas, our perception of the beauty and order of created beings is meant ultimately to lead us to love and praise God:
Secondly, this consideration leads to admiration of the highest power of God, and as a result it gives birth to reverence of God in the human soul. For it is necessary that the power of the maker be understood as more eminent than the things that are made. . . . Thirdly, this consideration inflames in the souls of men love of divine goodness. For whatever goodness and perfection is distributed individually in diverse creatures, is completely united in him as in a fountain of all goodness. . . . If therefore the goodness, beauty, and sweetness of creatures thus attract the souls of men, when the fountain of goodness of God himself has been diligently compared to the rivulets of goodness dispersed among individual creatures, it draws to itself the souls of men completely inflamed.
We’ve seen that Lynn White’s claim that Christianity is to be blamed for the ecological crisis is unfounded. Augustine and Aquinas, who are certainly among the greatest of Catholic theologians, did not advocate the unbridled exploitation of nature, nor did they limit nature’s purposes exclusively to serving humankind’s material needs. Rather they recognized the intrinsic goodness of each species and the beauty of creation as a whole, and they saw non-rational creatures as giving silent praise to God the Creator, as well as leading us to praise God. While they would prioritize human well-being in cases where there was conflict between it and preserving a species or ecosystem—on the grounds that we alone are made in the image of God and are called to an eternal destiny—they strenuously reject wanton destruction of creation, a creation which God Himself deemed “good.”
EDITORIAL NOTE: This article is part of a collaboration with the Society of Catholic Scientists (click here to read about becoming a member). You can read a more complete version of this article with extensive footnotes here.