The Ecological Problem Today:

The Relation Between

The Human Person and the World


by Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

September 22, 1992


    To attempt to speak of the relation between the human person and the world implies having sufficient courage to enter into the mystery of the very life of God, because the binomial person-world cannot assume its full meaning without a consideration -- or better still a contemplation -- of the intimate relationships between the three divine persons and their relationship with all of creation.  The ecological problem therefore actually obliges us to look again, with fresh and concerned eyes, at what God has revealed to us about creation.

    This relation draws on the Roman  Catholic tradition, beginning with a short reflection on certain biblical texts that bring us back to the very beginning of time while turning us radically towards the end times.  Together, we will meditate -- contemplate -- for a few moments God's plan for creation and try to see the world as God saw it so that we shall be able, as men and women of today, to see our place within and in relation to creation.  Some of the fundamental principles of the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on this same subject will then be presented.  These two approaches converge, because there is an intimate link between belief and action, between a faith lived to the full and one's social behavior.


An approach from Scripture

    This brief scriptural reflection is merely an attempt to approach the topic and does not pretend to be a theology of creation and still less of ecology, because certain texts have deliberately been chosen to illustrate a particular topic.  To treat the question adequately, it would be important to scrutinize the entire word of God and to take into consideration the long tradition of the Church.  If incomplete, this reflection is, however, no less valid.


The relationship between God and creation

    It would hardly be possible to consider the relationship between the human person and the world without first reflecting briefly on the relationship between God and creation.  Not to do so would risk truncating our vision not only of the human person but also of the world, because both would be cut off from the very source of their existence.  From the rich theology of creation, developed over the centuries, I am simply going to extract three affirmations that have a direct link with our subject, without however commenting on them.

    These three affirmations are the indispensable background for any consideration of the relation of the human person and the world.  If all of creation depends radically and totally on God, God, for his part, loves creation that he finds "very good".35  When we speak of this relation, we must therefore refer it implicitly or explicitly to a relationship with God the Creator.

    Scripture reminds us of this fundamental truth again and again.  To quote just a few phrases, St. Paul reminds us that it is "in God, we have our life, movement, and being". 36   This is totally inconceivable to simple human reason.  The Psalms do not cease to rejoice in this wonder: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein".37  Or again "The heavens are telling of the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork".38  And the response of creation is quick to follow: "The Lord reigns.  Let the earth rejoice".39  It is all of creation that is called to give glory to God.


The place of the human person within creation

    The place of the human person in this creation is along two axes.  The person is part of the whole of creation and, at the same time, is clearly distinguished from all the rest of creation.  It is precisely this distinction which defines the relationship between the human person and the world.

    If we take the two accounts of creation together, each one, in its own way, describes the radical, fundamental difference between the human person and the rest of creation.  In the first account, the human person, while created on the same day as all "the cattle, creeping things and beasts of the earth",40  is not of the same nature as they are.  God said "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness".  And the author, in rapture at this creative act, interrupts the account: "God created man in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them".41  The second account chooses other words to express this same reality.  God formed man from the dust of the earth and he "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being".42 

    The human person is therefore in a special relationship with God.  Called to life by God's breath, there are, as it were, "family ties" with God.  The human person exists in exquisite tension.  On the one hand, this person is identified with the rest of creation on which each one depends for his or her very life and subsistence.  On the other, this same person is in a personal relationship with a personal God.  We cannot forget, moreover, that all persons, from the very first moment of existence, are also in relationship with other persons.  Therefore, they are not alone in living this tension.  It is the existential situation of human society per se.

    There is another fundamental distinction between human persons and the rest of creation.  At the very moment of creation, God entrusted the first persons with a special mission.  They are to "have dominion over"43 all other living beings, to "subdue" the earth,44 or according to the second creation account "to till it and keep it".45  At the same time, they are to rule over the animals by giving them a name.46

    Let us not dwell on the words "dominion over" and "till" in privileging one over the other.  They are to be taken together.  What is important to remember is that the human person, as the image of God, should act as God would in his or her relationships with the rest of creation.  Let us listen to the words of Solomon who, in his prayer for wisdom, gives a specific interpretation, as it were, to these two words:

O God of my fathers and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things by thy word, and by thy wisdom has formed man to have dominion over the creatures thou hast made, and rule the world in holiness and righteousness, and pronounce judgment in uprightness of soul, give me the wisdom that sits by thy throne.47

    This is a prayer that we could well make our own given the gravity of the ecological problem today.


Sin and the relationship between the human person and the world

    God never gave the human person absolute power over the rest of creation.  From the very beginning, God imposed a limit that could not but remind Adam and Eve of their total dependence on God in their use of the goods of the earth.  "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat."48

    When Adam sinned, precisely by not respecting this limit, he not only upset the balance of the harmonious relationships between God and the human person but also between this person and the world.  Following upon this sin, the world actually became a hostile environment for the human person.  Henceforth, the earth would produce thorns and thistles, and man would be obliged to till the earth by the sweat of his brow.49  The human person's revolt against God led also to the revolt of the earth.

    To take another scriptural passage -- In the time of Noah, when God saw the wickedness of the human person, he decided to destroy not only the human race but, together with them, also the beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air.50  It is almost as if a world without its human inhabitants were inconceivable.  In this light, it is interesting to note that in saving Noah, God also saved the plants and animals from destruction.  More striking still, when the waters of the deluge receded, God established a covenant, not only with Noah and his descendants but also with all other living beings.51  Once more, however, God placed limits on the use of the goods of the earth.  "I give you everything.  Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood".52  Once again we find the same relations and limitations between God and creation, between human actions and the rest of creation as we did at the very time of creation.

    In Hosea, God established a covenant with his people but later rejected it because "there is no faithfulness or kindness and no knowledge of God in the land".53  What is the result?  Not only will the inhabitants suffer and languish, all the other living beings will also be taken away from the face of the earth.54

    From these three brief texts, we can see how intimate the relation between human action and the rest of the world is.  When the human person refuses to recognize his or her dependence on God, all of creation suffers in a mysterious way, because creation forms an inter-relational whole: God, the human person, the world.


The redemption of the human person and of the world

    God so loved the world -- his creation -- that he sent into this world his own Son, "the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creatures" in order to "reconcile everything through him and for him both on the earth and in the heavens".55  All of creation is somehow associated with this reconciling act of Jesus.  Such is God's plan who "has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth".56  We find the same thought expressed still more explicitly in the well-known passage of Romans: "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God ... because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God".57  This liberation of all of creation is closely related to the reconciliation of the human person with God.58


The new creation

    In this rapid overview of the relation of the human person and the world as we find it in Sacred Scripture, it is significant to look towards the end times that are both already here and yet to come: those of the "new creation".59

    In Isaiah we find described in rich images the new harmony that will exist between the human person and nature when the messianic times have come.60  There will be a "new heavens and a new earth".61  The account in Revelation adds an interesting detail.  A new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God.62  Could there be a more gripping image for our subject?  The new Jerusalem!  The city is the image par excellence of human activity.  It is also at present the locus of almost the sum total of the disastrous results of the human person's uncontrolled use of the goods of the rest of creation.


An approach from the social teaching of the Catholic Church

    Let us continue to deepen our reflection on the relationship between the human person and the world but this time in the light of the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church which, in the words of John Paul II, "focuses especially on man as he is involved in a complex network of relationships within modern societies".63  This doctrine "is born of the encounter of the gospel message ... with the problems emanating from the life of society".64  In other words, it is directly concerned with the relationship between the human person and the world.65


The ecological crisis is a moral crisis

    In his Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, Peace with God, Peace with All of Creation, John Paul II affirms that the ecological crisis is actually "a profound moral crisis of which the destruction of the environment is only one troubling aspect".66  In his encyclical Centesimus Annus of the following year, he identifies more in detail the roots of this crisis.  It is the fruit of an anthropological error that unfortunately is widespread today:  

Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God's prior and original gift of the things that are.  Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop by must not betray.  Instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in the place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.67

    This text clearly echoes Scripture.   In summary, the human person has forgotten the truth of his own being and the world is suffering as a result.

    There are several basic principles of the social teaching of the Church that could well be explored in light of the above, among which centrality of the human person, the universal destination of created goods, and solidarity.68


The place of the human person within the world

    It is in the light of the truth about the human person that the Catholic Church insists on the centrality of the person in relation to the world.  The human person is, in fact, ontologically different from the rest of creation.  This is not an abstract affirmation but rather a principle of action, and any transformation or modification of the world -- and that is actually what human activity does -- must take it very carefully into account.  "Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial, or scientific progress."69  Profit, the production of goods or their accumulation of goods, as well as scientific progress, are not ends in themselves.  The ultimate criterion of all true progress is the human person and his or her good, human persons and their common good.

    A development which is conceived of in terms of the human person -- and above all the poorest among them, the beloved of God70 -- must obviously be concerned about the environment in which this person lives.  To destroy it is precisely to harm the human person and to harm at the same time a created world that has its own autonomy.


The use of the goods of the earth

    The human person cannot use the goods of the earth as he or she wills.  Once more, it is the truth of the human person that is at stake, because there is an order in the universe that must be respected.  God endowed his creation with an integrity and an interior dynamic equilibrium that is proper to it.  While human persons are endowed with both intelligence and free will and are called to transform the world, they cannot act as if they had total power over its use.  They are rather God's "fellow workers",71 "working together with him".72  Their vocation is that of scrutinizing the universe -- from the very smallest part of it to the very greatest, from the nearest to the most distant -- in order to discover in it the plan of God, written moreover in the very nature of each being.  When this order willed by God is consciously or unconsciously ignored, its delicate balance is destroyed with inevitable and often far-reaching consequences for the earth.


Limits to human action

    There are therefore limits to the right of the human person to act on and within the world.  We cannot dispose of the goods of the earth at will, and this includes natural resources, as if we had absolute power over them.  John Paul II explained this principle as follows:

It is a requirement of our human dignity and therefore a serious responsibility, to exercise dominion over creation in such a way that it truly serves the human family.  Exploitation of the riches of nature must take place according to criteria that take into account not only the immediate needs of people but also the needs of future generations.  In this way, the stewardship over nature, entrusted by God to man, will not be guided by shortsightedness or selfish pursuit; rather, it will take into account the fact that all created goods are directed to the good of all humanity.  The use of natural resources must aim at serving the integral development of present and future generations.73

    "Everything is inter-related",  said Paul VI, and how attentive we must be "to the large-scale consequences that every intervention of man brings about in the balance of nature which has been put at man's disposition in all its harmonious richness, according to the loving designs of the Creator".74


The human person who takes the place of God

    In the final analysis, the anthropological error of which John Paul II speaks and which negates the truth of the human person is a type of unavowed idolatry.  The human person decides to do without God and takes God's place, as it were, making self the center of a universe built according to his or her own image.  Everything is in relation to this person who must satisfy all his or her needs, which are often self-created.  And in meeting these desires, this person uses and abuses the goods of the world without thinking of others, still less of future generations and remains isolated, as it were, closed in on self.  The name of this person is unfortunately legion.

    Actually certain societies or parts of society, above all but by no means exclusively in the West, have adopted models of consumption that actually generate waste.  The uncontrolled seeking of profit can serve as the motor of such lifestyles.  The words of John Paul II are extremely severe in this regard.

It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence.  Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness -- both individual and collective -- are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence.75

    While we address the symptoms of the ecological crisis by the means at our disposal -- education, legal measures, international cooperation -- we must not forget that the root of the problem is elsewhere:  on the level of faith, on the level of ethics.  The Church is therefore fully within its right when it addresses the ecological problem and when it participates in the search for adequate solutions.


In guise of a conclusion

    In closing, let us rapidly reflect on the human person in the light of all of creation as giving praise to the glory of God.  In our highly complex and frenetic society of today, contemplation of the world as God's creation is an important, even crucial, element in care for the environment.  This contemplation helps us to raise our thoughts to God, or better still, actually brings us into direct contact with the Creator.  Such a contemplation re-creates and renews the person.  Following on this living contact with God, the human person cannot but treat with care and respect a world so loved by God, a world that knows how to sing the glory of God.76  How can we not burn with the desire to make this world, darkened by human disorder, shine in all its glory until we are able to see in all things, as in a mirror, the love of the Creator for all of his creation.

    St. Francis of Assisi fully understood this mysterious relationship between the world and the person seized by God's love.  At times, Francis could perhaps seem to us to be too simple, too naive, to content our complicated modern minds.  We pass far too quickly over his suffering, his hard and penitential life, his long hours of contemplation, his courage in face of the challenges of his time.  What was the fruit of this life entirely given to God?  A man that the animals considered their friend; a man who considered the sun and the moon as members of his family; a mendicant monk who gave all to the poor and who called death his sister.  Francis dared to plumb the depths of the mystery of creation: everything was created for the glory of God; everything should render God this glory.

    At the end of this simple presentation of some elements of the tradition of the Catholic Church concerning care for the environment, let us also join in the song of glory to all of creation: "for from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him glory forever.  Amen".77

Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.   2000.  Care for Creation: Human Activity and the Environment.  Vatican City.


Copyright © 2000 Libreria Editrice Vaticana.


Sister Marjorie Keenan , RSHM, has had a long-standing relationship with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  In 1976, Pope Paul VI named her a Member of the Council while Pope John Paul II renewed her mandate twice.  From 1986 to 2000, Sister Marjorie served on staff of the Council in Rome.



Photo at top of page: Earth at Night. Credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/ NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive


35 Gen 1, 31

36 Acts 17, 28

37 Ps 24, 1-2

38 Ps 19, 2

39 Ps 97, 1

40 Gen 1, 24

41 Gen 1, 26-27. Cf. Gen 9,6

42 Gen 2, 7

43 Gen 1, 26

44 Gen 1, 28

45 Gen 2, 15

46 Gen 2, 19-20

47 Wis 9, 1-3

48 Gen 2, 16-17. Cf. also Gen 3, 3

49 Gen 3, 18-19

50 Gen 6, 7

51 Gen 9, 1-17

52 Cf. Gen 9, 1-8

53 Hos 4, 1

54 Hos 4, 3

55 Col 1, 15 and 20

56 Eph 1, 10

57 Rm 8, 19-21

58 The role of the Holy Spirit in creation offers a rich field for reflection which remains to be developed

59 Rev 21, 5

60 Cf. Is 11, 6-9

61 Is 65, 17-25. 2 Peter 3, 13 repeats these same words

62 Rev 21, 1-5

63 CA, No. 54

64 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 22 March 1988, No. 72

65 This formal social doctrine is over one hundred years old, dating from the time when Pope Leo XIII was faced with the assaults on human dignity caused by an uncontrolled capitalism and rising socialism.  In the first papal encyclical devoted to social questions, Rerum Novarum, he raised his voice to protect workers, precisely the victims of an industrialization divorced form all concern for the good of the human person.

66 No. 5. Cf. also No. 7 and No. 15

67 Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 1 May 1991, No. 37.

68 Three recent documents of the Holy See develop several of these principles: 1990 WDP; the document of the Holy See submitted to the third session of the Preparatory Committee of the UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), A/Conf./151/PC/WG.III/L. 16); Position and action of the Holy See on the Environment and Development published on the occasion of UNCED (Cf. L'Osservatore Romano, French edition, N. 21, 9 June 1992, p. 7)

69 1990 WDP, No. 7

70 Cf. among numerous biblical texts, Ex 3, 7-8; Ps 68, 10; Ps 69, 33; Ps 72, 2; Ps 102, 17; Ps 147, 2-6; Mt 25, 31-47

71 Cor 3, 9

72 Cor 6, 1

73 Address to the UN Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, 18 August 1985, N. 2; Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, VIII, 2 (1985), p 477-484

74 Address to FAO, 16 November 1970, N. 3; Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, VIII, p. 1147

75 1990 WDP, No. 8

76 Cf. inter alia; Ps 19, 1-4; Ps 96, 1-3; Ps 98, 4-9; Ps 148

77 Rm 11, 36



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