By Christopher J. Thompson
Green Thomism asserts that divine wisdom speaks through things. The coherence of living organisms as well as the community toward which they naturally tend are objectively given in reality and express “a design of love and truth” of the Creator Himself. Such an order “is prior to us and has been given to us by God as the setting of our life.” It is not contrived from a set of clear and distinct ideas of some disembodied cogito; it is not the projection of a transcendental ego; nor is it the remnant of some human habit or social custom. Wisdom is intrinsic to things and its apprehension by reason is an exercise in objective knowing.
The entire hierarchy of being, from the lowliest creature up to God, is permeated by a provident intelligence that supplies the necessary connections between lower creation and its grace-filled care. Every creature participates in this eternal law of God’s creative action, and the rational creature’s participation is held in special esteem. Thomas calls human participation in this universe of meaning in motion the natural law.
Integral ecology, in this context, is an ars cooperativa, a “co-operative art,” because its demands are ineluctably aligned with the intelligible forces of nature itself. In that manner, it is not unlike the teacher who guides the natural desire to know on the part of the student, or the doctor who capitalizes on the natural desire to live. The ecologically minded farmer, too, labors with nature’s creative forces and coaxes from the earth the fruits she is destined by providence to yield. The art of agriculture was distinct from that of the sculptor, for example, who works to create what is first only in the mind of the artist. Instead one speaks of crop “yield” and animal “husbandry,” pointing to the fundamentally collaborative status of the farmer before the earth. The prudent steward enacts the natural law, not as some despot over an untamed wilderness, nor as a demagogue over an otherwise meaningless order of things. The prudent human being inhabits a provident order, as an imago amidst the vestigia, as a steward in the temple of creation.
In such a setting, the human person is not taken to be the exception to an otherwise purely materialist order of things; rather, the human person is set amidst a radically intelligible order of creation already permeated with organic creatures, specifically, the plant and animal kingdoms of lower creation. At the heart of a sound integral ecology, then, lies a confidence in a natural philosophy of creation, an order utterly dependent upon a provident First Cause, whose causality extends to the operations of individual creatures. Against the vast and undifferentiated res extensa of modernist materialist philosophy, a distinctly Catholic approach to creation includes the distinctive and ordered aspects of each creature.
In its secular mode, one can understand the increasing emergence of environmental awareness as the unthematic revolt of conscience among those descendants of the Enlightenment who intuit that something is deeply flawed in the habit of treating nature as a mere raw datum of purposeless matter. Green Thomism can contribute to the renewal of an eco-realism by supplying not only a richer notion of the person as the subject who stewards, but also a richer notion of created things as objects to be stewarded.
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.