Catholic Ecology: Living According to One’s Dignity

 By Christopher J. Thompson

Green Thomism, Catholic ecology, Christopher Thompson
Photo Credit: Daniel Ferrandiz Mont

Contra mundum, secundum naturam, ad maiorem dei gloriam!  

That is the mantra of integral ecology: to live one’s life resisting worldliness, according to one’s nature (and dignity), for the greater glory of God.  

“Worldliness,” in this instance, is that realm of relationships impacted by sin. It is that order of relationships about which the First Letter of John speaks so starkly: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 Jn 2:15–16). Here “the world” is the sum total of wicked ways and their implications beyond us: the inordinate lust of the flesh seen in the effects of excessive consumption; the lust of the eyes in the salacious conquest of nature; the pride of life which constantly puts one’s own needs before the needs of other creatures and neighbors; the lack of regard for the circumstances of others; the contempt for the environment and its inhabitants; a nonchalance of indifference for God and His creatures. It is a kind of systemic corruption of living experience and as such is “a world” that we are to make every effort to resist. Like ripples on the water’s surface shattered by a stone, the effect of original sin spreads in concentric circles outward from the darkened recesses of the wounded soul to “the world,” setting in motion the most dramatic of climate changes.  

But the more remote one gets from the heart of the disturbance, the closer one can discern the original wisdom in things. “Nature” is the norm in a theonomic universe, and familiarity with its ways is an apprenticeship in the Wisdom of God. Indeed, the very definition of sin handed on through the centuries was the notion of a deliberate act which is “contra naturam,” or contrary to the nature of the human person as created. St. Thomas states it plainly: “Wherefore in sins contrary to nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God, the author of nature.”  

Living a life “secundum naturam” means living in accordance with the dignity of one’s nature and acknowledging the divine order written in the structure of things, things of the simplest magnitude, things of dramatic significance. While one can never forget that human nature and animal natures differ in kind in matters of spiritual and moral significance, these radical differences do not ignore the common ordering each creature participates in as a creature created by God, for “there is a solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator and are all ordered to his glory.”  

The Catechism articulates the Thomistic principle forcefully: “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection,” and that, “By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws.” The world that surrounds us discloses a facet of the Divine. Nature is norm in this ethical milieu, because it frames the basis for the ethical evaluation of the treatment of creatures, including each other. Because each of us participates in the Divine presence, “Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.” 


Christopher J. Thompson teaches moral theology at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His books and essays focus on issues in moral theology, ecology, and Thomas Aquinas. If you’re interested in learning more about the Catholic environmental ethic, pick up a copy of his book The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism.