Some Lessons from Rome
by Lucia A. Silecchia
Professor of Law, The Catholic University of America
While the world’s attention in December of 2009 was focused on climate talks in Copenhagen, a significant contribution to discussions of the moral implications of environmental problems went largely unreported. While leaders gathered in northern Europe, further south Pope Benedict XVI released a statement, “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation."
In this statement, Pope Benedict explores the theological significance of the relationships between God, humanity, and creation. He decries the way in which the mandate found in Genesis to “have dominion over” earth has been misread, arguing that this command “was not a simple conferral of authority, but a summons to responsibility.” He also links mistreatment of nature and mistreatment of fellow human beings, preaching that neglect of the earth is nothing less than a symptom of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
It would be a mistake to disregard his statement as merely a theological reflection tangential to today’s debates. Coming from one who is a religious leader, a theologian, and the head of state for a nation that has announced its intention to become the world’s first “carbon neutral” nation, there are at least three important lessons for secular policy makers in this papal message.
First, Pope Benedict draws attention to a broad array of environmental concerns. With the current political, legal, and rhetorical attention being paid to climate change, a myopic vision of environmental concerns may be emerging. Such a vision focuses on this single, high-profile issue to the possible exclusion of other challenges that are critically important, particularly in poor nations. Pope Benedict urges that attention continue to be paid to desertification, depletion of agricultural lands, water pollution, decline in biodiversity, deforestation, natural disasters, access to food, depletion of natural resources, waste disposal, and the environmental threats posed by armed conflict and nuclear weapons – to name but a few.
It is rare these days to hear a politician wax poetic about the lack of crop rotation that may deplete preciously limited farmland in poor nations. Popular celebrities who boast of purchasing carbon credits rarely speak of solid waste disposal in the rivers and creeks of impoverished villages. The broader vision articulated by Pope Benedict reminds environmentalists to cast a wide net when focusing their attention so that significant but less popular issues are not benignly neglected.
Second, Pope Benedict’s statement serves as a useful reminder that ecological problems are the responsibility of all. Observing the angry debates erupting in Copenhagen, one might get the impression – accurate or not – that individual responsibility is an insignificant part of mainstream environmental activism. Certainly, there are important and irreplaceable roles to be played by national governments and the international community. Pope Benedict acknowledges as much. He relies on the familiar doctrine of subsidiarity to chide developed nations for their “historical responsibility” for ecological problems, to remind developing nations that they “are not exempt from their own responsibilities,” to urge the international community to share technology and research, to advocate for “sustainable comprehensive management,” and to declare that “[a]mbitious national policies are required, together with a necessary international commitment.”
Yet, he simultaneously focuses on the personal responsibility that each individual bears in facing the ecological challenges of our time. Amidst international finger-pointing and the often unproductive temptation to assign blame, Pope Benedict’s statement asserts that there is a vital personal aspect to environmental ethics that cannot be ignored. It is sometimes necessary, but never sufficient, to urge one’s own government, or the government of other nations, to adopt protocols, impose limits, spend money, or pass regulations. Pope Benedict calls each individual to “a lifestyle marked by sobriety and solidarity,” and re-examination of “the prevailing models of consumption.” It is far easier to assign responsibility to “the other” – whoever “the other” might be. It is far harder to do the difficult work of examining personal decisions with respect to consumption, consumerism, and the simplicity, vel non, of one’s own life. There are hopeful signs that many today also yearn for a simpler, more sustainable life. Pope Benedict’s message is a timely reminder that political and legal solutions are merely one part of tackling environmental problems.
Third, and most importantly, Pope Benedict offers a passionate plea that the dignity of the human person remain at the heart of environmental debates. All too often, the human person is demonized or attacked in the pursuit of otherwise desirable goals. As worthy as species conservation is, for example, there is a cruel irony when aggressive and expensive protection of an endangered animal is advocated by those who simultaneously argue that repressive population control is essential for the welfare of the planet. As good and beautiful as nature is, a vision of the human person as a dangerous intruder ignores the fact that the natural world is not without its own violence and the human person has needs appropriately met through the gifts of the earth. As noble a quest it is to work toward a safe and sustainable natural world for future generations, that world will lack much if it is not one in which the dignity of the person – the impoverished person, the ill person, the elderly person, and the person waiting to be born – is protected with similar enthusiasm and energy.
Pope Benedict asks for a fundamental reorientation of environmental priorities., urging decision-makers to recall that “[o]ur duties toward the environment flow from our duties toward the person.” By putting the human person front and center in the environmental movement, Pope Benedict seeks to avoid a false dichotomy between the human person and the natural world. He rejects those aspects of environmentalism that propose “a supposedly egalitarian vision of the ‘dignity’ of all living creatures” that can negate “the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings.” This re-orientation may not be popular in all circles of the environmental movement and may be misread by some as license for humans to act as irresponsible lords of creation.
This misses the point. This vision of the human person that Pope Benedict proposes is one that should remind policy-makers of several things. It serves as a negative reminder that if the human person is not respected in ecological decision-making, those decisions may have short-term benefits but will leave a harmful long-term legacy. It also serves as a positive reminder that if the well-being of the human person is respected, solidarity toward those separated from us by geography or time should lead to decisions that will often – albeit, not always – benefit the environment.
As is typical of most papal messages, there are few concrete recommendations in this document. Such decisions are left to the expertise of those entrusted to make these vital decision for our generation and for the generations that will follow. Amidst this sober responsibility, however, there is one other aspect of Pope Benedict’s message worth noting. The word “opportunity” is sprinkled throughout the document – a word of both challenge and hope. He speaks of our time as “a providential opportunity to hand down to coming generations the prospect of a better future for all.”
It would be a mistake to hold on to a naive hope based on ignorant idealism – but a mistake, as well, to doubt what people of good will and sober responsibility may accomplish in facing one of the great challenges of our time.
Lucia Ann Silecchia
Professor Silecchia is a native of Queens, New York. She received her B.A. degree summa cum laude from Queens College (C.U.N.Y.) in 1987 and her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1990, where she was a senior editor of the Yale Law Review, a current topics editor of the Yale Law & Policy Review, and a Francis Coker teaching fellow. Following her graduation from law school, she practiced law in the litigation department of Rogers & Wells (now Clifford, Chance) in New York City.
In 1991, Professor Silecchia joined the Columbus
School of Law and served as the assistant director of the Lawyering Skills
Program. After two years with the Lawyering Skills Program, she became an
assistant professor in 1993 and an associate professor in 1997. She has been an
ordinary professor since 2004, and served as the law school's Associate Dean for
Academic Affairs in 2004 and 2005. She teaches or has taught Environmental Law,
Property, Trusts and Estates, Corporations, Advanced Legal Research and Writing,
Comparative Property, Environmental Crimes, Lawyering Skills, and Law Journal
Writing. During her 2000-2001 sabbatical, she spent the fall semester as a
Visiting Scholar at Yale Law School and the spring term in Rome conducting
research on environmental ethics issues from the perspective of Catholic social
thought. Her 2007-2008 sabbatical saw travel to Poland, Belgium, the
Netherlands, Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Portugal, Spain, and
Law Review Articles:
Lucia A. Silecchia, "The Preferential Option for the Poor:" An Opportunity and a Challenge for Environmental Decision-Making, 5 U. ST. THOMAS L. J. 87-142 (2008).
Lucia A. Silecchia, Discerning the Environmental Perspective of Pope Benedict XVI, 4 VILLANOVA J. OF CATHOLIC SOCIAL THOUGHT 227-269 (2007).
Lucia A. Silecchia, Faith in the Public Square: Some Reflections on Its Role and Limitations From the Perspective of Catholic Social Teaching, 6 U. MD. L. J. RACE, RELIGION, GENDER & CLASS 69-80 (2006).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Catholic Social Teaching and Its Impact on American Law: Observations on the Past and Reflections on the Future, 1VILLANOVA J. OF CATHOLIC SOCIAL THOUGHT 277-312 (2004).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Environmental Ethics from the Perspective of NEPA and Catholic Social Teaching: Ecological Guidance for the 21st Century, 28 WILLIAM & MARY ENVTL. L. & POL'Y REV. 659-798 (2004).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, The Catalyst Calamity: Post-Buckhannon Fee-Shifting in Environmental Litigation and a Proposal for Congressional Action, 29 COLUMBIA J. ENVTL. L. 1-87 (2003) (lead article).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Things Are Seldom What They Seem: Lawyers and Judges in the Tales of Mark Twain, 35 CONN. L. REV. 559-646 (2002).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Reflections on the Future of Social Justice, 23 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 1121-1154 (2000).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Integrating Spiritual Perspectives With the Law School Experience: An Essay and an Invitation, 37 SAN DIEGO L. REV. 167-209 (2000).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Pinning the Blame & Piercing the Veil in the Mists of Metaphor: The Supreme Court's New Standards for the CERCLA Liability of Parent Companies and A Proposal for Legislative Reform, 67 FORDHAM L. REV. 115-202 (1998).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Of Painters, Sculptors, Quill Pens and Microchips: Teaching Legal Writers in the Electronic Age, 75 NEBRASKA L. REV. 801-846 (1997).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, On Doing Justice and Walking
Humbly With God: Catholic Social Thought on Law as a Tool For Achieving Justice,
46 CATHOLIC U. L. REV. 1163-1187 (1997) (Text of the "Mirror of Justice" Lecture
delivered at Catholic University on November 18, 1996).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Judicial Review of CERCLA Cleanup Procedures: Striking a Balance to Prevent Irreparable Harm, 20 HARVARD ENVTL. L. REV. 339-395 (1996) (lead article).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Legal Skills Training in the First Year of Law School: Research? Writing? Analysis? or More?, 100 DICKINSON L. REV. 245-301 (1996).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, New York Attorney Malpractice Liability to Third Parties: Toward a Rule of Reason and Predictability, 15 PACE L. REV. 391-457 (1995).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Designing and Teaching Advanced Legal Research and Writing Courses, 33 DUQUENSE L. REV. 203-248 (1995).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, When Do Claims Challenging a Statute's Effect on Pre-Existing Contracts Accrue?, PREVIEW OF UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT CASES, April 2002.
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Raising the Bar in Law School,
LEGAL TIMES, Sept. 6, 1999 at S29. (reprinted as
Joseph DiMento & Lucia Ann Silecchia, A Time to Put Things Together and ... A Time to Question Strategies of Environmental Law in the Mid '90's in RAPPORTO MONDIALE SUL DIRITTO DELL'AMBIENTE 659 (Stefano Nespor, ed., 1996) (American contribution to "A World Survey of Environmental Law" published by the Italian environmental law journal, RIVISTA GIURDICA DELL' AMBIENTE).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Challenges for Environmental Professionals in a Climate of Increased Criminal Enforcement of Environmental Violations in PRACTICAL ENVIRONMENTAL DIRECTIONS: A CHANGING AGENDA 55 (1996 Conference Proceedings of the National Association of Environmental Professionals).
Lucia Ann Silecchia & Michael J. Malinowski, Square Pegs and Round Holes: Does the Sentencing of Corporate Citizens for Environmental Crimes Fit Within Guidelines?, 8 FED. SENT. RPTR. 230 (1996).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Regulation and Certification of Environmental Professionals, J. ENVTL. L. & PRAC. 38 (Nov./Dec. 1994).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, The Environmental Professionals Training and Certification Act: A Critique, NAEP NEWS 5 (May/June 1994) (reprinted as Lucia Ann Silecchia, Congress Seeks to Certify Environmental Professionals, ENVIRONMENTAL UPDATE 3 (Oct. 1994).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Skill Development, in J.P. OGILVY ET AL., LEARNING FROM PRACTICE: A PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT TEXT FOR LEGAL EXTERNS (2nd ed., Thompson West, 2007).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Management Skills, in J.P. OGILVY ET AL., LEARNING FROM PRACTICE: A PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT TEXT FOR LEGAL EXTERNS (2nd ed., Thompson West, 2007).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Skill Development, in J.P. OGILVY ET AL., LEARNING FROM PRACTICE: A PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT TEXT FOR LEGAL EXTERNS (West 1998).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, Management Skills, in J.P. OGILVY ET AL., LEARNING FROM PRACTICE: A PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT TEXT FOR LEGAL EXTERNS (West 1998).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, COMMENTS SUBMITTED TO THE
PONTIFICAL COUNCIL ON JUSTICE AND
Lucia Ann Silecchia, THE ENVIRONMENTAL AGENDA OF THE 104TH CONGRESS: A LEGISLATIVE ANALYSIS SUBMITTED TO THE UNITED STATES CATHOLIC CONFERENCE (February 20, 1996).
Lucia Ann Silecchia, COMMENTS: DRAFT FORMS OF BUSINESS ENTERPRISES LAW FOR ESTONIA (March 25, 1995).
Main Menu Introduction Peace with God and all Creation Ecological Conversion Declaration on Environment Hebrew Scripture Christian Scripture Catechism Pope John Paul II Bishops Saints Lay/Religious St. Francis Kateri Tekakwitha St.Thérèse Population Get Involved Prayers Resources Links About Us The Earth Charter Revolution of Mary
Copyright © 2000-2013 by Bill Jacobs and the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center.
All Rights Reserved.