HomeCommentaryEco-Theological framework of the rights of nature

Eco-Theological framework of the rights of nature

This reflection offers an examination of Christianity’s historical anthropocentric theology vis-à-vis the paradigm shift to evolving eco-spirituality championed by Thomas Berry that calls for a new cosmology, emphasizing the need for humans to recognize their place within a larger ecological framework while embracing a holistic, interconnected relationship with the natural world.

More importantly, it explores the ecological conversion perspective both of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si as aligned with the Rights of Nature. This transformative eco-theological framework advocates and promotes the intrinsic value of all creatures, underscores their interconnectedness, and challenges the utilitarian view of nature. 

Critique of Christianity’s Anthropocentric Theology

“Especially in Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion that the world has seen… Christianity in absolute contrast to ancient paganism, and Asia’s religions, has not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends . . .”  – Lynn White, professor of history at the University of California, 1967 (in Gottlieb, 1996).

Anthropocentrism refers to human-centeredness. It is a perspective that views the non-human parts of the world as existing solely for the use or benefit of humanity. It assumes that human beings are the only species that have value whose interest is supreme.

Such theory asserts that it may be acceptable to exploit and cause harm to the environment when such action will eventually benefit the human community, which is the primary consideration for any moral act.

In his critique of Christianity’s long-standing tradition, White argued that the dominant Western religion desacralized nature. In so doing, the anthropocentric ethic made it possible for humans to exploit the earth’s resources without qualms at all because the environment was now demystified.

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The world is no longer sacred but a mere passive resource, for which human beings were given power and divine mandate to control and manipulate for their consumption.

Modern tools for exegesis and biblical interpretation would contest the assertion of White and would point out some necessary hermeneutical nuances in his argument. Some authors would also affirm the practices and writings of some Christian mystics rather than call for the outright condemnation of the Christian creation theology as the cause of the supposed anti-ecological stand of the Bible. 

But admittedly, taking an honest and serious look at history, there are theologians who are also asserting that we cannot totally deny the complicity of the Christian Church in the plunder of non-human nature. In the Christian mainstream theology, there was indeed a neglect of ecology if not an outright contempt for it  (Clifford, 1996). 

Sean McDonagh (1990), an Irish Columban missionary and author of a number of books on the environment, also agreed that” despite its great achievement in helping bring the Catholic Church into the modern world, Vatican II did not pick up on (the environmental) issue.” But instead of being stuck in prolonged remorse, he invites us to seriously admit the gap and the seeming deficiency and try to discover the reason why the issue of this magnitude was not significantly considered by the Church or by the Council, for that matter.

It might be unfair to expect that we can find all the renewal agenda fulfilled in the documents of Vatican II. We need to appreciate the limited or seminal contribution that the Council provided in crafting our environmental theology. As Joseph Cardinal Suenens would like us to believe, Vatican II is not to be considered an end, but it is a journey of “a pilgrim Church, going forward step by step along her unfinished path.”

Thus, we need to understand the route of our journey for Church renewal, especially our theological or eco-spiritual perspective on the environment.

The Catholic Church, though admittedly very slow and somehow ambivalent in responding to ecological problems, is now beginning to wake up to the threat of destruction and the challenge of pursuing a transformative ecological consciousness.

The late Pope John Paul II admitted that the prevailing situation of ecological crises and widespread incidents of destruction of the environment are occasioned by a distorted value system and a kind of spirituality that lacks understanding of the sacredness of the earth. 

In his message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 1990, the late Pope issued the document “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation,” which is considered to be the first papal document exclusively dealing with the environment. In the landmark document, the pope insisted that environmental concern must be a common concern and it has an essential moral and religious dimension

The Crucial Nexus: Ecology and Theology/Spirituality

The global ecological crises that we experience today, ironically, came side by side with grand technological and industrial advancements and market-driven global trade which threatens the survival of our only planet. We are just beginning to realize that to promote a balanced ecology, we need to consider the complex nature of our ethical relationship with the whole environment and critically assess our way of thinking about our connectedness to the Earth. And this goes beyond the mere economic and political arena, for it challenges us to look into the realm of the human spirit. 

It is no less than former United States Vice President Al Gore (1992, 12) who categorically expresses the pressing need for this approach:

The more deeply I search for the roots of the global environmental crisis, the more I am convinced that it is an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for lack of a better word, spiritual. As a politician, I know full well the special hazards of using “spiritual” to describe a problem like this one . . . But what other word describes the collection of values and assumptions that determine our basic understanding of how we fit into the universe? 

For Gore, what underlies the ecological crisis and distorted development paradigm is an inner spiritual crisis.  This spiritual dimension determines the way we look and relate to the world the way we frame our values and our relationship with the cosmos. It follows that if our basic values and ethical principles governing our relationship with the earth are flawed or distorted, then we cannot effect a creative and life-sustaining transformation.

The statement reflects a growing recognition that the environmental crisis is not just a matter of policy, technology, or economics, but is fundamentally a spiritual and moral crisis. The environmental problems we face are not just the result of technical failures or market distortions but are rooted in deeper cultural and spiritual attitudes that shape our relationship with the natural world. 

Thus, to remedy the growing malady of earth imbalances, we need to situate the issues and challenges of global environmental threats vis-à-vis our understanding of people’s respective ecological spirituality or the evident lack of it in the way we formulate our respective positions, economic or political, at the local or global level.

Ecological spirituality involves the dynamics of living our fundamental relationship not only to the transcendent being (or to our personal God in the Christian sense) but also to the whole life-giving systems of which we are part.

This is to re-live the primordial experience of non-dualistic existence that we once had when we find ourselves deeply connected to the sacred realities all around us. Eco-spirituality affirms our fundamental oneness with the entire Earth community.

This framework runs counter to the mainstream medieval spirituality of fuga mundi (flight from the world), which somehow persisted even until today. This kind of spirituality considered heaven as our true home and it has nothing but contempt for the world, condemned as inherently evil and defiled.

As a result, an escapist attitude was perpetuated – that one needs to withdraw from the world and concentrate on putting his/her energies into pursuing personal sanctification in order to save one’s soul.

In ecological spirituality, the richness of the Christian tradition as the privileged locus of divine revelation is not to be denied. However, it needs to be complemented by a certain kind of spirituality that also considers the primordial experience of the sacredness of the earth, the kind of spirituality that acknowledges God’s enduring presence in the whole of creation. 

Eco-spirituality evolves as part of this trend of ecological consciousness. It has found its staunch promoters from the ranks of contemporary theologians, environmentalists, and eco-philosophers.

They are the ones who are advocating for a shift in paradigm from the prevailing anthropocentric orientation to a more inclusive recognition of our place in our common home, with us sharing a common destiny and existence with all other creatures of the earth. One of the most prominent advocates of this perspective is Thomas Berry.

Thomas Berry: Anthropocentrism vs. Rights of Nature

Thomas Berry (1914-2009) was a cultural historian, theologian, and philosopher who is widely known for his work in eco-theology and environmental ethics. He was one of the leading thinkers in the movement to develop a new ecological consciousness, and his work has had a profound influence on contemporary environmental thought.

Berry was deeply critical of anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are the most important and valuable beings in the world and that the natural world exists primarily to serve human needs and desires. Berry argued that this worldview was at the root of many of the environmental problems facing the world today and that it needed to be replaced by a new paradigm that recognized the inherent value and dignity of all living beings.

Berry’s proposal to counter anthropocentrism was to develop a new cosmology, or understanding of the universe, that placed humans within a larger ecological context. This new cosmology would require a shift in human consciousness, a transformation of the way that people saw themselves and their relationship to the world around them. He believed that this transformation would require a deep spiritual awakening and that it would involve a new understanding of the sacredness of all life, a new ecological consciousness that recognized the interconnectedness of all living beings, and that placed humans within a larger ecological context.

Admittedly, the anthropocentric worldview had long prevailed in the past and this resulted in our failure to appreciate the interdependence of the various components of the universe as existing for each. And the human beings depend upon the larger universe for its existence. The false supremacy of humans over all creatures simply can no longer be absolutely imposed for it is now clear that we are but part of the bigger earth community.

Berry argues that traditionally, only human beings have been granted rights, while other forms of life have been considered as having no rights. This perspective reduces the value of these non-human forms of life to their usefulness to humans, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Essentially, this paradigm views the natural world as existing solely for human use, rather than as having inherent value in and of itself. This leads to a dangerous power dynamic where humans have the ability to exploit and dominate the natural world without regard for its intrinsic worth or rights.

Berry was critical of the dominant legal system, which he believed was based on an outdated and narrow conception of property rights. He argued that the legal system needed to be reformed to recognize the rights of ecosystems and other entities in nature and that this would require a new jurisprudence based on the principles of the earth community. 

Thomas Berry (1990) argues that there is a deadlock in the current anthropocentric ethical framework. Despite the recognition that we, human beings, are part of the network of life communities, we have failed or we are just not willing to acknowledge this in law, economics, morality, education, and other areas of social systems.

The current human jurisprudence systems are reductionist, meaning they only address the needs of individuals, including corporations, and are based on individual ownership of property. In order to establish an Earth justice system, a new jurisprudence is needed that recognizes the rights of all species and their interdependence. This holistic approach must be able to address entire ecosystems without reducing them to individual components. Essentially, we need a new Earth jurisprudence that acknowledges the inherent value and interconnectedness of all forms of life.

However, Berry identifies the environmental crisis as a cultural crisis and recognizes that it cannot be solved solely through legal measures or amendments. While these actions are necessary, they are not sufficient to address the underlying issues. Instead, he suggests that a fundamental shift in culture and worldview is needed to truly address the crisis. In other words, the changes must be rooted in a deeper understanding and respect for the natural world, rather than simply addressing the symptoms of the problem through policy reforms.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, and the Rights of Nature

At the root of the senseless destruction of our environment is the anthropological distortion which claims that human beings are the absolute masters of the earth. This justifies the reckless exploitation of resources in the name of progress and development. Thus, “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.” (cf. CENTESIMUS ANNUS, No. 37; see also, EVANGELIUM VITAE, No. 42,)

In the encyclical, Laudato Si Pope Francis is advocating for a “cultural revolution” that entails a fundamental transformation in our perspectives and principles regarding the environment. He writes that “an ecological conversion is needed to bring about lasting change… it demands that we recognize our responsibility to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us” (Laudato Si, no. 5). 

This call for ecological conversion is aligned with the Rights of Nature framework, which calls for a fundamental shift in human society’s relationship with the natural world. Rights of Nature is a concept and advocacy framework that recognizes and honors the environment and ecosystem as right just as human beings.

The concept of the Rights of Nature entails the acknowledgment that ecosystems and natural communities should not be regarded as mere possessions that can be controlled or owned. Instead, they are entities endowed with an inherent and unassailable entitlement to their existence and prosperity. It fundamentally challenges the prevailing perspective that nature is a commodity to be exploited for human gain. Instead, it posits that the Earth and its various ecosystems possess intrinsic value and should be afforded legal recognition and protection. In essence, this perspective recognizes nature as having its own rights, akin to the rights conferred upon individuals.

This paradigm shift in environmental ethics underscores the importance of coexisting with nature rather than dominating it. It calls for a reevaluation of our relationship with the environment, emphasizing our responsibility to safeguard and nurture the natural world. By granting ecosystems and natural communities the right to exist and thrive independently, we promote a more harmonious and sustainable cohabitation between humanity and the Earth. 

Pope Francis Laudato Si and the Rights of Nature are linked by common eco-theological principles:

1. The intrinsic value of all creatures: 

Pope Francis recognizes that the wider earth community is not recognized as having intrinsic value in itself (Laudato SI, no. 33). But he made it clear in his encyclical that ecosystems have, “intrinsic value in themselves independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system” (Laudato Si, no. 140, also, Laudato Si, no. 84). We are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes… (Laudato Si, no. 69)

The idea that every species has intrinsic value, as expressed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si, is a relatively new concept within Christian teaching. Our theology has been predominantly anthropocentric, unfortunately. Humans have often approached the environment in a disconnected and self-centered way, with humanity as the master of the earth and all of nature being of value only extrinsically, as long as it can be utilized for humanity’s gain.

In many theological traditions, humans have often been seen as the pinnacle of creation, and the natural world has been viewed as existing primarily to serve human needs and desires. This anthropocentric mindset has frequently led to a utilitarian approach to the environment, where the value of nature was determined solely by its instrumental utility to humanity.

Pope Francis emphasizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and the importance of protecting the natural world. This line of eco-theology is closely related to the Rights of Nature framework, which recognizes the inherent rights of ecosystems, species, and natural communities to exist, thrive, and evolve. 

Both perspectives (Laudato Si and Rights of Nature) challenge the traditional view of nature as property or a resource for human use and emphasize the need for a more holistic and sustainable approach to our relationship with the natural world. This means adopting practices that promote biodiversity and protect ecosystems, as well as rethinking our economic and social systems to prioritize the well-being of the environment and all living beings.

The UN Convention on Biodiversity, referenced in Laudato Si, No. 167, has issued a pressing appeal for concerted action to combat the threats of biodiversity loss exacerbated by global warming. The Convention’s message underscores that if we permit the rate of destruction to persist, we will inevitably approach a critical juncture marked by irreversible and irreparable harm to the Earth’s ability to support life.  Given the Catholic Church’s firm commitment to the sanctity of life, if we proudly proclaim ourselves to be PRO-LIFE,  we should be deeply concerned and prioritize this call to preserve the threatened biodiversity (McDonagh, 1990).

2. The interconnectedness of all living beings:

Pope Francis tells us that ecological conversion “also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid communion” (Laudato Si no. 220).  “Everything is interconnected . . . all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect (Laudato Si, 89). Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it, and thus in constant interaction with it (Laudato Si, 139)

Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of ecological conversion, which involves a fundamental shift in our attitudes and behaviors toward the natural world. He argues that this conversion requires a “loving awareness” that we are not separate from the rest of creation, but rather are connected to and interdependent with all living beings. It implies that our relationship with the natural world should be characterized by love and care for creation rather than exploitation and domination. This approach to the environment is rooted in the Catholic tradition, which recognizes that all creation is a gift from God and should be treated with respect and gratitude.

We are not disconnected from the rest of the creatures but are part of a larger community of life. This community of life, which he calls a “splendid communion,” encompasses all living beings, from the smallest microbe to the largest mammal. It is an interconnected web of relationships, where each species plays a vital role in the health and well-being of the whole.

The idea of interconnectedness is a powerful and inspiring theme in Laudato Si, one that invites us to see ourselves and the natural world in a new light and to embrace a more holistic and compassionate vision of the world. By recognizing our place in the universal family of living beings, we can begin to build a more harmonious and sustainable future for ourselves and for the planet.

Pope Francis argues that humans are not separate from the natural world, but rather are an integral part of it, and that everything in the universe is connected by unseen bonds. He sees this interconnectedness as evidence of a sublime communion that exists between all living beings, and that fills us with a sense of sacredness, affection, and humility. This communion is a fundamental part of our identity as human beings, and it connects us to the natural world in a way that is both profound and essential.

This understanding of ecological conversion challenges the dominant anthropocentric paradigm of modern society, which often treats the environment as a resource to be exploited for human use. Instead, it invites us to re-imagine our relationship with the natural world as one of partnership and collaboration. It calls us to recognize that our well-being is intimately connected to the health of the environment and that our actions have a direct impact on the rest of creation.

In essence, both “Laudato Si” and the Rights of Nature campaign call for a shift in our relationship with the environment, emphasizing a deeper sense of responsibility, respect, and stewardship. They challenge the anthropocentric view that places humans at the center of all considerations and instead promote a worldview that recognizes the interconnectedness of all living beings and the importance of preserving the integrity of ecosystems for the well-being of the planet and future generations.

3. Overcoming the utilitarian concept of nature 

Pope Francis’ thoughts on the connection between humans and other species serve as a reminder that: “the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the God of human beings as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish” (Laudato Si, no. 65). 

Laudato Si admitted that the Genesis account of granting man “dominion” over the earth (Genesis 1: 28) has been interpreted incorrectly resulting in unbridled exploitation of nature. The encyclical categorically states: “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.”

Pope Francis stresses that heedlessly exploiting the Earth’s resources without regard for the consequences is a betrayal of our sacred duty to “till and keep” the land (Laudato Si, no. 67)

“Tilling” the land refers to the responsible cultivation of the Earth’s resources for sustenance and well-being. It implies a duty to work the land in harmony with its natural rhythms, respecting its delicate ecosystems, and ensuring the sustainable use of its resources. In essence, it represents responsible stewardship of the environment, recognizing that humans are entrusted with the care of God’s creation.

The command to “keep” the land underscores the importance of conservation and protection. It signifies our obligation to safeguard the Earth’s integrity, preventing its wanton destruction and degradation. Pope Francis emphasizes that this biblical call is not a license for exploitation but a moral imperative to care for the Earth as a sacred gift from God. 

The prevailing anthropocentric ethic and the presumed subordination of the earth to exploitation, control, and unrestrained consumption are causing irreversible ecological destruction. We need to have a paradigm shift, or in Pope Francis’ terms, we need to undergo ecological conversion.

This conversion process goes beyond the mere formulation of the legal framework, but it must involve a basic transformation of consciousness. To liberate ourselves from this alienating experience in order to see our existence as an integral component of Earth’s community, we need a new form of spirituality that is deeply appreciative of the sacred relationship of human beings and the rest of the created universe, being together in a single journey, with us not positioning ourselves over and above all of creation, but intimately and interdependently bonded to the earth. 

Both Laudato Si and Rights of Nature call for embracing an ecological ethic that respects and honors the intrinsic value of all living beings and the planet itself. To achieve this transformation, we need to create a new mindset that is grounded in this ecological ethic. Such a mindset would require a fundamental shift in our values, attitudes, and behavior. We need to reject the old paradigm of human dominion and exploitation and embrace a new way of relating to the natural world. This involves transforming the economic, social, and political systems that perpetuate the current environmental crisis. It requires a collective effort to build a more sustainable and just world, where development is achieved NOT at the expense of the environment and future generations.

This transformative framework guided my advocacy for the environment. When I received the Goldman Award in 2012, I shared this ecological principle: “Protecting the rights of the poor must take precedence over corporate greed. Genuine development must prioritize the need to ensure ecological sustainability over market profitability.  We should never sacrifice people and the environment for the short-term benefit of the few.”

To end, I would like to quote from Sixto K. Roxas, former Chairman of the Maximo T. Kalaw Institute for Sustainable Development, in calling for a paradigm shift (or ecological conversion in the word of Pope Francis), as a way to address the socio-economic and environmental crisis in the country: “The approach to the Philippine problem requires a fresh ideology. We must find a way – and find it quickly . . .  those that give communities sustainable and adequate livelihood, and those that restore and preserve the natural resources. This will require: A new view of nature as having laws of its own which dictate the poise and balance of self-sustenance, and which man must respect if his use of nature for his own needs is to be sustainable as well.

Fr. Edwin “Edu” Gariguez was the former executive secretary of Caritas Philippines. In 2012, he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for leading a grassroots movement against an illegal nickel mine to protect Mindoro Island’s biodiversity and its indigenous people. He is currently the social action director of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan.

Fr. Edu will deliver this piece during the general assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors in the Philippines in Palawan on September 13 (men) and September 27 (women).

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