Humankind has unique place in God's plan

By  John Moore, Catholic Register Special
  • May 22, 2008

{mosimage}In April, after four Canadian seal hunters were killed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when their ship capsized while being towed, the animal rights activist Paul Watson provided a provocative quote. Speaking for his organization, which engages in direct action to protest abuse of marine wildlife, he said: “The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society recognizes that the deaths of four sealers is a tragedy but Sea Shepherd also recognizes that the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seal pups is an even greater tragedy.”

While most Canadians undoubtedly found this statement in poor taste — to say the least — the sentiment expressed can no longer be dismissed as the view of a radical fringe. As the environmental and animal rights movements have gained mainstream acceptance, the long-accepted distinction between humans and the rest of Creation has been blurred. More and more, those who advocate greater protection of the natural world fail to distinguish between the human and the non-human (except to condemn the former for the destruction of the latter).

This tendency to de-emphasize the distinction between human and non-human is reflected also in some newer Christian theology. There has been a growing critique of the “stewardship” model as an explanation of the appropriate relationship between humans and nature. The stewardship model represents an advance upon the view — sometimes attributed to the verse in Genesis where God gives humans “dominion” over the fish and birds — that we are free to exploit nature for our benefit. As “stewards” of the natural world we are commissioned to protect and nurture the rest of Creation both because it is intrinsically good (as God declares in Genesis) and so that this goodness can be of use to future generations of people.

In our era science has demonstrated the intricate web of connections among all of the Earth’s residents, the human and the non-human, the animate and the inanimate, and has illustrated how humankind’s degradation of nature ultimately results in a myriad of human ills. We have been led by environmental and animal rights activists to imagine humankind as merely one of many sorts of beings who call the Earth home. In this context the stewardship model has been described as a distortion of the true relationship between humans and others, and as leading to the mistaken view that the natural world is something separate and apart from us — the very view, it is said, that has caused the environmental crisis.

A new model that has been proposed is that of an “Earth community.” In this model humans are members of a community that includes also everything else that calls the Earth home — the tigers and the toads and the turnips, the air we breathe and the soil and stones we walk upon, and the water. We — human and non-human — share the Earth and form a web of interdependency.

There is some support for this model within the Christian tradition. St. Paul emphasized what we have in common with the rest of the created world when he wrote that “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains” as it awaited the coming of Christ. And St. Francis of Assisi posited what the Catechism of the Catholic Church terms a “solidarity among all creatures.”

Yet I believe that the “Earth community” model may be problematic for Christians. It is no doubt this perspective that Paul Watson was invoking when he made the statement quoted above. He would likely argue that each member of the Earth community has similar value; the death of one seal is equivalent to the death of one human being. It follows — in a grim calculation of the moral magnitude of carnage — that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seals are “a greater tragedy” than the deaths of four human beings.

Clearly this contradicts what our faith tells us about the centrality of humanity in God’s plan. The Catechism affirms that humans are the “summit of the Creator’s work.” The human alone was made in the “image and likeness” of God. It was Abraham and his descendants — humans all — with whom God made the first covenant. When those descendants strayed, Jesus was sent to initiate a new covenant with humanity. Therefore, any model that does not accord particular dignity to human beings is not consistent with the faith we proclaim.

Finding our proper place within creation is no small matter. Perhaps the “stewardship” model has been rendered inadequate by the growth in environmental awareness. However, the “Earth community” model is also inadequate if it cannot account for the special dignity and unique place in God’s plan of the human being. Before Christians embrace any new model, they should reflect carefully upon its theological implications. While listening attentively to the voices of those who claim to speak for the environment and its creatures, we must also be attentive to the enduring themes of our Christian faith.

(Moore is a freelance writer living in Ottawa.)

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