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The Contradictions of Nature’s Defense

Pope Benedict is at it again. Recently he spoke to the Roman Curia here, and had much to say on the importance of families. At the root of the crisis of families, he says, is an anthropological crisis, in the denial of the nature of the human being. Here is the central idea related to the environment: “The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.”

The Pope is clearly not against the deploring of the manipulation of the environment, he has insistently made that very point many times. A great example is the unprecedented article by Pope Benedict last week in the Financial Times called “A time for Christians to engage the world”. In the public article, addressed to the world he explicitly said: “Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable.”  Here is the obvious relationship between caring for nature and caring for people, making explicit the importance of Environmental Solidarity. So clearly, the point is not to underplay environmental care. Rather, he is calling out the inconsistency in approach, where so many are ready to deny human nature so quickly at the expense of an unbridled freedom. At the end, the Pope is calling for a correspondence between an ecology of nature and the ecology of humanity,  a human ecology, mentioned before here and here. Below the text of this section: 

The great joy with which families from all over the world congregated in Milan indicates that, despite all impressions to the contrary, the family is still strong and vibrant today. But there is no denying the crisis that threatens it to its foundations – especially in the western world. It was noticeable that the Synod repeatedly emphasized the significance, for the transmission of the faith, of the family as the authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint of human existence. This is something we learn by living it with others and suffering it with others. So it became clear that the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human. The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

Pope Benedict XVI: “Concern to safeguard Creation” is a Sign of the Times

In a recent Catechesis, Pope Benedict XVI focused on “how to speak about God in our times”. While his talk emphasized the importance of prayer and direct contact with Jesus, among other elements, towards the end he mentioned the importance of listening to the signs of the times. The care for creation was 1 among 4 elements mentioned, and the most specific of them all.  These are his words:

And in this we must take care to perceive the signs of the times in our epoch, namely, to identify the potentials, aspirations and obstacles we encounter in today’s culture and in particular the wish for authenticity, the yearning for transcendence, and concern to safeguard Creation and to communicate fearlessly the response that faith in God offers.

The term “signs of the times” is of great importance for the Church, and has been used widely in her tradition. It can be found in official documents, theology manuals and Papal addresses. It explains the idea that while the Church’s message is always the same, the person of Jesus Christ, the way it is expressed responds to different realities expressed in different historical times. To understand the signs of the times is to know how to communicate Jesus to the world. Gaudium et spes explains this well. Below one quote from Pope John XXIII (a) and an important reference from Gaudium et spes (b) from Vatican II which use the term:

a) Today more than ever … we are called to serve man as such, and not merely Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person, and not merely those of the Catholic Church. Today’s world, the needs made plain in the last fifty years and a deeper understanding of doctrine have brought us to a new situation … It is not that the Gospel has changed, it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have …were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.

b) 4. To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. Some of the main features of the modern world can be sketched as follows…

The fact that Pope Benedict XVI speaks of “concern to safeguard creation” as a sign of the times in this magisterial fashion, then, has a great significance. It confirms, with Papal endorsement, the point made throughout this blog. The environment is important for evangelization today!

And in this same catechesis, Pope Benedict XVI mentions creation as important  in another sense: it speaks to the style of Jesus = REALISM. This is a wonderful point that the Pope is emphasizing for evangelization in our times. We must speak with realism, with our feet firm on the ground, from our daily experience and existence. The parables of nature serve to bring this realism into our spiritual lives, that God is close to us and speaks our language, and that his kingdom can be understood by looking at phenomena in nature: birds, seeds, sheep, vines for example . The point is that “proclamation and life are interwoven”, to live in Jesus is to preach; much like matter and spirit are interwoven. This is the style of Jesus, divine words drenched in realism. And this takes us full circle to the sign of the times… with this incarnate realism, imbibed with Christ, we must be aware of the signs of the times, and share the Word with others. Below the text:

At this point we should ask ourselves: how did Jesus communicate? Jesus, in his oneness, speaks of his Father — Abba — and of the Kingdom of God, his gaze full of compassion for the hardships and difficulties of human life. He speaks with great realism and, I would say, that the essential feature of Jesus’ proclamation is that it makes clear that our life and the world are worthy of God. Jesus shows that in the world and in Creation God’s face shines out and he shows us that God is present in the daily events of our life. Both in the parables on nature, the mustard seed and the field with various seeds, and in our own life — let us think of the parable of the Prodigal Son, of Lazarus and of other parables of Jesus. From the Gospels we see that Jesus takes an interest in every human situation that he encounters, he immerses himself in the reality of the men and women of his time, with complete trust in the Father’s help. And that in this history, although hidden, God is really present and if we are attentive we can encounter him. And the disciples, who live with Jesus, the crowds who meet him, see his reaction to the most disparate problems, they see how he speaks, how he behaves; in him they see the action of the Holy Spirit, the action of God. In him proclamation and life are interwoven: Jesus acts and teaches, always starting from a close relationship with God the Father. This style becomes an essential indication for us as Christians: our way of living in faith and charity becomes a way of speaking of God today, because it shows, through a life lived in Christ, the credibility and realism of what we say with words, which are not solely words but reveal the reality, the true reality. And in this we must take care to perceive the signs of the times in our epoch, namely, to identify the potentials, aspirations and obstacles we encounter in today’s culture and in particular the wish for authenticity, the yearning for transcendence, and concern to safeguard Creation and to communicate fearlessly the response that faith in God offers.