By Daniel Burns
Pope Benedict XVI’s most famous use of the term “human ecology” was in his speech to the German Bundestag in 2011. He praised the German ecological movement for calling everyone’s attention to the natural order around us—an order that demands our respect and stands above all our attempts to manipulate it. But he added a related point that he said is often left out in our contemporary discussions of ecology:
“There is also a human ecology. Man too has a nature, which he must respect and cannot arbitrarily manipulate. Man is not merely a self-making freedom. …Man wills rightly when he listens to nature, pays attention to her, and accepts himself as what he is and has not himself made. Precisely in this way, and only in this way, is true human freedom achieved.”
Benedict was speaking as a German to his countrymen, and as one public servant to a group of public servants. He was also speaking as a representative of the Christian tradition that, as he emphasized, has played a major role in forming the common culture of Germany and its neighbor European nations. He argued (there and elsewhere) that if we are to recover an understanding of human ecology, we will need to maintain and honor Christianity’s historical and irreplaceable role in Europe’s political culture.
The French political philosopher Pierre Manent was visiting Boston College in 2011 shortly after this speech. He told us there that Pope Benedict had given Catholics a model for our own political engagement today: “He was saying things that you didn’t have to be Catholic to accept, but that no one except the Pope would have said.”
American politics, like European politics, is unthinkable without the historical influence of Christian morality. Anyone who is proud of our political tradition is proud of something that cannot be separated from Christianity. Of course no one has to be a believing Christian to be proud of our political tradition—in fact, few if any of our country’s greatest statesmen have been devout and orthodox believers. But our greatest statesmen have always known how to listen to, and to adopt for themselves, insights from their more devout countrymen. Believing Christians engaged in public life say things that you don’t have to be Christian to accept, but that no one except a Christian would have said.
Today our culture is full of threats to “true human freedom.” What factories in my parents’ generation were doing to our air and water, tech companies are now doing to our children’s minds. A drug epidemic, feeding on despair and driven by greed, is slaughtering our youth in numbers comparable to a major war. Most of our institutions of higher education promote the cheapest of substitutes for the highest human goods: desperate and lonely sexual experimentation in place of love, frantic careerism in place of honorable ambition, servile virtue-signaling in place of self-respect, angry activism in place of the shared search for truth.
My own circle of friends shows me that non-believers are perfectly capable of recognizing these contemporary threats to human ecology. But Christians today (along with other religious believers) have our own language for describing these threats and for calling our fellow Americans to fight against them. We should be making full use of that language. As the friendly reaction of Benedict’s German audience showed us, our fellow citizens do not resent us for sounding like Christians when we speak about issues that concern believer and non-believer alike.
Our common political reason is stronger when it engages with and incorporates voices of faith. If people of faith do not have the courage to raise those voices, human ecology will suffer for it.
Daniel Burns is an IHE Fellow and Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas. He spent Academic Year 2018-19 at The Catholic University of America as a Research Associate, writing a book on Joseph Ratzinger’s understanding of “healthy secularity.”