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On Human Ecology

By Erika Bachiochi

It is the Christian’s duty, in these times as in all times, to cultivate and sustain the social conditions favorable to living the Christian life. 

Mr. Bill Rooney offers a response to this essay here: “A Reflection on Economic Anthropology: The Theistic Synthesis, the Imago Dei, and Personal Economic Exchange.

In Pope Francis’ very lengthy and (in this country) very controversial encyclical, Laudato Si’, the Holy Father recalls a metaphor that his two most immediate predecessors had employed before him. Drawing a cultural analogy to natural ecology (which is, his central concern in the letter) Francis writes:
Human ecology implies [a] profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that [now quoting Benedict] “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.” (Laudato Si’ §155)
Saint Pope John Paul II had first used the term “human ecology” in his masterful 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus. There, John Paul had written:
Although people are rightly worried—though much less than they should be—about preserving the natural habitats of the various animal species threatened with extinction, because they realize that each of these species makes its particular contribution to the balance of nature in general, too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic “human ecology.” Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God’s gift to man. A person must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed. (Centesimus Annus §38)
So we get the sense that for these popes, “the ecology of man” or “human ecology” is meant to approximate what was classically referred to as natural law: i.e., the idea that the human person possesses a nature that must be properly understood and according to which he must live for his true happiness. Most basically, of course, the natural law requires that good is to be done and evil avoided. But it emerges most fully from reflections upon man’s natural inclinations to goodness, truth, and beauty, to self-preservation and intimate union, and to living in community. It is discovered from within, we might say, not artificially imposed from outside.
But whereas “human nature” or moral “law” are concepts that sadly have become reified over time (that is, these terms today seem to connote something fixed and imposed artificially from the outside), the term “ecology” may allow that modern mind to reflect, with fewer intellectual stumbling blocks, upon the dynamic and complex internal structure of the human person and of human experience.
For the inner intelligibility that informs the natural world—that which allows scientists to study it, to understand it, to promote methods of protecting it—that same intelligibility informs all of creation, including man. As Bishop Robert Barron reminds us, it is intelligibility itself, the capital-L Logos (‘through whom all things were made’ and ‘in whom all things hold together’) that is at the heart of, is that which makes possible, every quest for human understanding—every small-L logia (from ecology to biology to psychology).
And so, the intelligible dynamic structure of the human person ought not be confined within concepts that have lost their capacity to ignite insight into the reality of things themselves, the reality, most essentially, of the transcendent yearning that God has placed in each and every human heart.
Now we should of course continue to work to recover the authentic meanings of natural law and of human nature in our postmodern age (and great philosophers such as Servais Pinckaers, Bernard Lonergan, and Karol Wojtyla have helped us begin to do just that). But in the meantime, those of us engaging others in the world can work to reach them by speaking in the tongues of our current culture. Moreover, translating natural law insights not only affords a potential bridge to our fellow man; it also inspires those of us doing so to reappropriate for ourselves the tradition anew so that we do not, in Russell Hittinger’s words, simply “regurgitate truisms” without ever penetrating these ancient truths for ourselves. This inauthenticity is immediately rejected today, as well it should be.
Unfortunately (especially from my perspective as a legal scholar) the term “law” now inaptly conjures for many a kind of Hobbesian command, a fixed statute borne of the arbitrary will of the legislator, to which each solitary individual owes his obedience with little sense of the reasoning, principles, and concrete particularity by which and from which it was derived. Incidentally, this Hobbesian account is a far cry from the more organic, reason-, virtue-, and tradition-dependent, common law understanding in which the jurist, accompanied by the accumulated wisdom and experience of the precedents before him, employed his reason to “discover” rather “create” or “invent” (or “rationalize away”) the way in which enduring legal principles might inform new circumstances. And so we can begin to see how this older understanding of law would have properly served as a strong analogue to natural law in prior days.
With the loss of law as a really good referent, the analogy to “ecology” may more readily represent to the modern mind the complex reality of human contingency, human agency, and human interdependence: that the human person is created, and he is endowed with a dynamic internal structure according to which he desires, knows, and wills, and yet by his choices he creates himself; that he is deeply influenced by and in turn influences others; that he is conditioned by the environment in which he finds himself and yet is capable of transcending it.
The analogy to natural ecology also allows, even calls for, empirical and scientific validation. Just as we can measure toxins in our waterways, we can use social science to empirically corroborate the destructive “downstream effects” of the pill, pornography, and fatherlessness on real women, men, and children. The ecological analogue can better reveal, up and against the prevailing libertarian view, that the supposedly “harmless” acts of solitary individuals, when popularized among the population, can have a deeply harmful ecological—or cultural—effect. Furthermore, we can make direct analogies, as Pope Francis did in Laudato Si’, from our culture’s normative calls to respect the natural world—rightfully urging a sense of grateful stewardship rather than complete subjugation and grotesque manipulation—to a selfsame stewardship over our own bodies, not subjugating and manipulating them at will but respecting and working to heal that which has been gratefully given.
Finally, both our natural ecosystems and our human and social ecosystems are fragile—they need protection and cultivation to thrive. Here is Pope Francis in November 2014:
The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection. And although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well.
As with Laudato Si’s striking claim that the decadent consumer habits of the first world are disproportionately harming the world’s poor, sociological data confirm quite clearly that it is the most vulnerable, fragile human beings who are most threatened by and least equipped to protect themselves from a deteriorating moral environment. We see this most clearly with the sharp decline in marriage among the poor, disproportionately harming those very persons and communities most in need of the many personal, social, and economic benefits that life-long marriage provides.
(Now some of us may wish, that in light of all this, Pope Francis had spilt even half the ink in Laudato Si’ on the human ecological crisis as he did on the natural one. After all, “ecology” from the Greek, “oikos logia” (or the “study of the household”), is at least etymologically more properly focused on the health or corruption of the immediate human environment: the home. Further, Pope Benedict XVI taught quite rightly that when we work to shore up the moral life by recognizing the real poverty in the pursuit of consumption and the fleeting pleasures of this world, and turn our attention instead to the love we owe toward God and one another, authentic stewardship of the natural world follows. “When ‘human ecology’ is respected,” Benedict writes, “environmental ecology also benefits.”)
The idea of human ecology implicitly assumes the existence of the moral law written on the heart of every human person—a law that when nurtured, cultivated, and protected, affords each of us an internal guide toward happiness. But today the term “ecology” is also better able than “law” to help call to mind the social influences that may either support or undermine the development of that internal guide. In John Paul the Great’s words:
Man receives from God his essential dignity and with it the capacity to transcend every social order so as to move towards truth and goodness. But he is also conditioned by the social structure in which he lives, by the education he has received and by his environment. These elements can either help or hinder his living in accordance with the truth. (Centesimus Annus §38)
What the great saint was urging us toward, of course, was a more dignified culture, a social ecology worthy of the dignity of the human person. It is to this “social ecology” that I’d like to now turn.
* * *
When John Paul the Great used the term “human ecology” in Centesimus Annus he was entering a robust conversation that was already taking place among social thinkers. Since the beginning of the last century, social scientists had been making use of the term to describe the now common idea of society as a complex organism and to study the myriad ways in which various surroundings influence the human person. The Russian-American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner notably wrote in 1977 of an “ecology of human development” in which one seeks to understand the human subject from within his “nested,” varied, and ever-changing arrangement of environmental structures. An ecological approach is one that is by nature interdisciplinary and that seeks to integrate diverse perspectives to achieve a wider angle.
In the US by the 1990s, social theorists from across the political spectrum were thinking ecologically about the dynamic interaction among familial, political, economic, and social influences and about how these “mutually conditioning systems” affected children, families, and communities across America. The ecological analogy helped a diverse group of thinkers to diagnose (even without agreeing on causes) the growing deterioration of once stable families and communities, the deleterious impact that was having on the nation’s children and the nation’s poor, and the consequences of this cultural, or ecological, disintegration on American institutions. In particular, “communitarians” such as Mary Ann Glendon, Michael Sandel, and Amitai Etzioni worried that America’s celebrated economic and political institutions were at risk of undermining their own cultural foundations due to an erosion of the “moral ecology” or, in Robert Putnam’s more economic term, “social capital,” that these free institutions needed to thrive.
At that time, few would have denied that America’s systems of free market capitalism and constitutional democracy, circumscribed within a strong juridical framework and respect for the rule of law, had shown themselves to be unique in the history of the world in their capacity to protect individual rights, create wealth, reduce poverty, inspire technological innovation, and provide the space needed for full human flourishing. This is why John Paul II, for the first time in the Church’s history, affirmed free political and economic systems in Centesimus Annus—at least when those systems are duly constrained by a robust moral culture or social ecology. Our free economic and political institutions, after all, say nothing about how we are to use our freedom or our wealth, or, importantly, how to transmit the sorts of habits of mind and heart that are necessary for self-government and a just and humane economy.
Indeed, as Centesimus Annus strongly proclaimed, without countervailing cultural values that teach individuals to use their freedom and their wealth for the common good, the capitalist quest for material gain will ultimately erode our ecology, giving rise to hedonism, individualism, and consumerism. Similarly, without a strong cultural edifice promoting the true, the good, and the beautiful, our liberal democracy’s tendency to give equal hearing to all ideas will corrode the culture, leading to a relativization of all lifestyles, the tyranny of popular opinion, an equality that demands erasure of all differences (even, increasingly, biological ones), and an undermining of religion, the most vital force of a culture’s ecosystem.
American institutions do provide an important precondition for a robust moral environment or social ecology: freedom. But freedom—whether it be political, economic, personal, or even religious—can never be its own end. So without discounting the importance of freedom to human ecology, or minimizing the political and economic rights by which freedom in our country reigns, we must say that freedom is merely instrumental. It is at the service of social ecology and human flourishing. But this instrument, this handmaiden of happiness, also has its own preconditions that it cannot provide for of itself. Indeed, the Catholic would want to say (and I think the American founders would agree) that the proper end and the necessary precondition of freedom are both the same: virtue and the cultivation thereof. And so here is our current quandary, put in ecological terms: our complex, mutually conditioning systems must supply for themselves something that they themselves now lack.
The American founders designed a remarkable system of free institutions but, as Mary Ann Glendon has presciently noted, they didn’t assure the conditions for that freedom. So, though they guarded against rampant self-interest through a system of checks and balances, and well understood that self-government needs particularly virtuous men to sustain it, the Founders seemed to take for granted that Americans would continue to be formed in the sorts of social environments that would produce this sort of virtue—environments like the deeply religious, tightly knit, self-governing colonies that stood as the backdrop of, and provided some of the impetus for, the Constitutional Convention.
But we well know (from our experiences with others and especially ourselves) that virtue cannot be taken for granted. It must be taught, inculcated, practiced, and esteemed in every generation, every family, and every human heart, and that, of course, includes yours and mine. This is a tall order—and a real struggle for anyone who takes it seriously. But it is this interior struggle—this determination to reduce the pollutants that enter our very souls and that work to nourish the good God has planted therein—that was passed from one generation to the next until quite recently.
Indeed, over the last several decades, we have witnessed the Supreme Court in particular use arguments from personal autonomy (or freedom misunderstood as its own end) to weaken precisely those institutions—motherhood, fatherhood, marriage, religion, other mediating structures—that are best suited to cultivate and sustain the social ecology, to teach persons how to use their freedom well. America’s long tradition of self-determination has morphed over the years into a constitutionalized sort of no-holds-barred self-invention, the freedom to define myself just as I wish, free from any claims or constraints upon me.
And herein lies the deeper problem, a problem also brought into clearer focus by the ecological lens. The self-defining, self-sufficient, radically autonomous individual at the heart of the modern paradigm simply does not exist. From the very moment each of us comes into being, we are embodied, fragile, and embedded in relationships, nested in a particular social environment. We are social or political animals, as Aristotle put it. And as such, our freedom is defined by our dependence upon others and, as we mature, others’ dependence upon us. Human vulnerability and dependence are the most basic and enduring facts of human existence, of human identity, before even sin. Like our natural ecosystems, we human beings flourish (or don’t) within the context of this interdependence, never in isolation. As Alasdair MacIntryre reminds us, the sort of responsible independence for which we properly strive requires the prior care and sacrifice of others—of mothers, of fathers, of families, of communities; we do not acquire the virtues necessary for independence, for the good use of our freedom, for flourishing on our own. We depend on others to teach us these virtues and to model them for us.
If we are to safeguard (or these days we may need to say, rehabilitate) the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology we must take far more seriously the care, nurture, and cultivation of virtue in the young. This obviously also means rehabilitating the social organisms that support such cultivation. We must focus on that “first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology,’ the family” (as John Paul II called it in Centesimus Annus) and all that supports its critical work.
Just like threats to our natural habitat, threats to our moral environment are multifarious. And because we are dealing with even more complexity in human beings who possess both free will and concupiscence, we are most often left with a complex picture without obvious solutions. So though I now offer three practical challenges, I do so in the spirit of Professor Glendon’s characteristic ecological approach that we first, do no harm, and then by our actions seek to “create conditions and shift probabilities” in favor of the full flourishing of the human person and the human community.
To create such conditions in our current circumstances I think it is necessary to prioritize our support of three important segments of society: first, child-rearing families, which are in themselves an education in virtue both for children and for their parents; second, schools that intentionally cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues; and third and most briefly, local churches as centers of ecological revitalization.
In a lengthy 1998 article on “moral ecology” the political scientist Allen Hertzke insightfully writes,
Family lies at the center of the moral ecological nexus, both shaping and being shaped […] both a cause and effect of ecological disruptions. The extent to which children resist moral toxins from the outside environment depends largely on how well their families have inoculated them. In turn, the ability of families to do so can be undermined by larger ecological forces. The interactions are dynamic and interactive—in a word, ecological.
The formation of children in the home is essential for both the children who receive formation and their parents who, in taking seriously their parental duties, are transformed by them. This formation is deeply devalued in our culture today. With the movement of women en masse into the workforce over the last half century, the staggering unemployment and underemployment among working class men, the growing dependence on two incomes for middle and working class families, the sheer number of single mothers rearing children alone, and the valuable and often distinctive contributions women make beyond the private sphere, we can no longer simply point to the traditional breadwinner-husband and homemaker-wife as the obvious fix for our current ecological crisis, as much as some of us may like to. We can no longer take for granted the family and community sustenance that women provided as a matter of course—and gratis!—for centuries. If the work of the family, that essential work of caring for the dependent and vulnerable, of forming the minds and hearts of both child and parent, was once regarded as among the most essential of all labors, it no longer is.
We are thus at a time in our history in which we need to take strong, affirmative steps to manifest far more cultural regard for the family’s essential work. Let us work to inspire and incentivize fathers to devote themselves to their families; to counter the financial and professional pressures mothers especially feel as many now seek to work while prioritizing caregiving; and to think creatively about how technology and business ingenuity can help create an economy that is on the side of child-rearing families, especially those that are struggling.
Religious believers understand better than most that both children and the work of the family are indispensable public goods. Thus it is religious believers and others of good will who must be the ones thinking creatively about how to publicly support, endorse, affirm, and celebrate the work of care and formation that takes place in the home. By seeking ways to offset the real financial sacrifices parents make to rear their children well, we recognize that the service parents render is not just to their children or themselves but to the whole of society.
Finding innovative ways to accommodate the needs of the family would not only serve children and marriages well but would also benefit the workplace and the culture at large. It could serve to rewire the world of work so that persons were attended to as a priority, both as the subjects of their work but also within the broader decision-making processes of an enterprise, ensuring that the drive for efficiency and profits does not supersede the more human quest to serve the person above all. More practically, greater flexibility and respect for the demands of the family could translate into decreased rates of burnout, higher morale, and, some studies have shown, greater profits over the long run.
But family-encouraging policies on the part of the government and the business sector are certainly not all that is needed to restore our social ecology. Mothers and fathers need other supportive institutions—vibrant schools, churches, and other cells of civil society—to help them form their children in the virtues they need to use their freedom well. So, my second challenge is that we get behind the renaissance of classical education that is now taking place across our country. By steeping children in the very best Western civilization has to offer and by intentionally inculcating in them the moral and intellectual virtues children need to flourish, classical schools are, one by one, recreating the ecosystem of moral support parents need for their children and for themselves.
These schools (like, for instance, St. Benedict’s in Natick, Massachusetts) are self-conscious in their awareness that self-government requires self-government. In an age increasingly bound to the idea that man can enjoy technological control over nature, over even his own body, these schools instead teach children that it is they who must be the masters of their own passions, and that they need God’s grace to achieve such mastery. These communities strive together for the common good and encourage each other to think more about their social duties and less about their rights. They rekindle the habits of mind and heart needed for good citizenship both in our country and in the hereafter. Classical schools have eager students and parents, they provide an unrivaled curriculum, and the best of them teach character education that instructs children in both the language and the practice of virtue. They often even possess buildings left abandoned by failed parochial schools. But they need more funding—and they need an entree into poorer communities.
This leads to my final—and most difficult—challenge. If the work of social theorists such as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam and the ascendancy of political leaders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have taught us anything about what ails our country today, it is that the turmoil wrought by the deterioration of social ecology is so deep in some communities that it threatens the very fiber of our republic. The causes of this ecological deterioration are complex (and we will be debating them for decades), yet they clearly include eruptions that are both economic (think: globalization) and cultural (think: the sexual revolution). Though I lack the space to catalogue the harms of either, it is now indisputable that the poor and working classes have been the hardest hit by both.
But I do want to offer one final thought about what we can do on a local level to revitalize social ecology in our most devastated communities. Local churches and other places of worship have long been the social organisms to which people turn in times of need and that once served as anchoring institutions, integrating individuals from diverse backgrounds. It is high time to rediscover in our churches the unique capacity they have to create, in Glendon’s phrase, communities of “mutual aid and memory,” upon which our republic depends for its liberty and vitality, and upon which we all may well depend for our eternal salvation.
Of course, churches must always and primarily be vehicles of spiritual and moral formation and sacramental grace; as such, churches have the capacity to restore communities through revitalizing the persons within them. But even beyond this, churches could serve as centers of ecological revitalization through more effectively matching those in need with those who need to give, from the parishes themselves and wealthier sister parishes, but also through a more effective and intentional engagement with private, public, and business resources throughout the broader community. And to be quite clear: this is not just to assist and accompany the poor and marginalized. It is also for the good of the souls of the rich, tempted as we may be to resign ourselves to the decadence of our age.
It is the Christian’s duty, in these times as in all times, to cultivate and sustain the social conditions favorable to living the Christian life. We all know how much those conditions are ailing right now. If we are to revitalize these social conditions—the social ecology—it will take each of us setting about the interior struggle, day by day, intentionally teaching our children how to live lives of generosity and virtue, and eschewing our own comfort to help the less fortunate. And then, we might become that which was intended from the beginning—vital cells enlivening the Mystical Body of Christ.

Erika Bachiochi is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) and a legal scholar specializing in Equal Protection jurisprudence, feminist legal theory, Catholic social teaching, and sexual ethics. She will be a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School beginning in February 2018. Ms. Bachiochi speaks widely on abortion, sexual economics, the impact of the new sexual norms on women and the poor, care ethics, and authentic reproductive justice. Other interests include the American renaissance of classical education, the vitality of civil society with a focus on how religious institutions can help the poor and marginalized, virtue ethics, and the American founding.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the Portsmouth Institute’s 2017 Summer Conference, “Being Human: Christian Perspectives on the Human Person.” Lead sponsors for the conference and this publication include the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, Drs. Timothy and Luba Flanigan, Mr.  Peter Ferry, Mr. Javier Valeunzuela and Dr. Mary Beth Klee, Mr. and Mrs. James V. Kearney, the Healey Family Foundation, Mr. William H. Rooney, Portsmouth Abbey, and Saint Louis Abbey. 

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