Man as dominator.
Man as animal.
Man as parasite.
Man as steward.
Four visions of humanity’s relationship to nature. Which one you subscribe to has a lot to do with what you think God said to Adam in the Garden of Eden. In Chapter One of the Book of Genesis, God says to Adam, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
If you don’t subscribe to the Judeo-Christian creation legend (I myself am a practicing Roman Catholic but don’t go in for a literal reading of the Bible), just hang in here for a moment. Ultimately, this is about economic development, not religion.
How you read that first chapter dictates how you view man and his place in the natural environment. An overlord using and disposing of the world as he sees fit. A fellow animal in a vast menagerie with no special rights or responsibilities. A parasite wreaking havoc on an otherwise peaceful and coexisting environment. A servant-leader and caretaker with special rights and responsibilities.
However you feel about the Roman Catholic Church, you have to give it this: consistency. Some say rigid. Others dogmatic. I myself had started to think moribund. But the doctrine is very consistent. And proving that what was old can be young again there is a newfound relevance to that doctrine. It provides a defining philosophy for sustainable development with humanity as a steward at the center of creation. Human economic development must both be balanced with and not alienated from the natural environment. As the deprivations of Lent give way to the rejuvenation of Easter, perhaps the deprivations of the Great Recession can lead to the rejuvenation of how we think about economic development.
In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas explains what it means that, "God created man in his own image." First, God gave man "dominion" over creation. Aquinas explains man is not an overlord, a parasite, or just another part of creation. Humanity is the defining reason for creation; its end. Second, God gave humanity dominion. Not dominance. Stewardship.
We have an obligation as servant leaders. In the Old Testament, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden and has him name the animals: an act of a parent to a child. A calling to stewardship. In the New Testament Jesus brings a message of care for those who can’t. A calling to development balanced by justice and the common good.
Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XIII’s encyclical letter, explains the Church’s view on humanity’s role as a steward:
“Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole… In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs… while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.”
This week – Holy Week – I attended a luncheon at Georgetown University launching their Social Enterprise Initiative. I was struck by the straight-line running through Roman Catholic doctrine. As a younger man I studied los comunidades eclesiales de base, the base ecclesial communities. These communities, inspired in part by the Jesuits and Liberation Theology, embodied a self-reliant form of development, divorced from the paternalism of the past. Poor people lifting themselves up in spirit, in body, and in wealth.
A consistent thread runs from Aquinas to Pope Benedict’s Encyclical to Jesuit Georgetown’s Social Enterprise Initiative. This train of logic, spanning centuries, lights a path that any student of economic development — Christian, non-Christian, believer, non-believer — can follow and reconcile the needs of economic development and the call to dominion. The servant-leadership that puts wealth-building at the service of all humanity and sees our natural wealth as a calling to stewardship.
"The risk for our time is that the de facto interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development." (Source: Caritas in veritate). As many of us head off to Easter services this weekend, we should hear and heed the call to stewardship, to a more sustainable and truly human development. Like to Lazarus in the tomb, God calls us to awaken and to lead humanity and creation.
 Note: I’m told some these thoughts on “dominion” are also explored in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, & the Call to Mercy. I haven’t read the book but lest I be accused of plagiarism, I thought you should know.