Visiting professor connects ethics and environment
Stephanie Snyder | Thursday, March 2, 2017
Saint Mary’s hosted Willis Jenkins, associate professor of religion, ethics and environment from the University of Virginia, to present on current environmental concerns. The lecture, titled “After ‘Laudato si’’: Revisiting the Ecological Legacy of Thomas Aquinas,” focused on the relation between Thomas Aquinas’ theology on creation and salvation and Pope Francis’ second encyclical, “Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home.”
Jenkins said in his talk he is approaching the topic as a non-Catholic.
“I have long been a reader of Thomas, but I’m not a specialist,” Jenkins said. “I work primarily on religious dimensions of environmental ethics where indeed I’ve written about Thomas Aquinas in contemporary and environmental thought.”
His goal of the lecture was to see how “Laudato si’” and Aquinas to work together to establish how humans should be living in society in order to better sustain the earth.
“My point here is really not, especially a non-Catholic, to attempt to criticize St. Thomas or the current pope, but rather to sharpen the potential of something that they share which is a moral anthropology that is quite different from the prevailing way of being human in our society,” he said.
“Laudato si’” calls for humans to live authentically. Jenkins defines this as resisting norms of exclusion and exploitation.
“The contemporary views of humanity represented by encyclical tradition rooted as they are in medieval Christian theology area actually culpable for the environmental destruction,” he said. “I want to trace this idea of dominion from Thomas through the modern encyclicals in order to then consider how ‘Laudato si’’ tends to receive and transform that tradition.”
Jenkins says environmentalists claim that Aquinas’ theology on creation is in line with the Catholic exploitation of dominion.
“For many contemporary environmental thinkers, Thomas Aquinas represents exactly the traits responsible for an ecological crisis which is anthropocentrism and dominion,” he said.
According to Jenkins, Aquinas wholly supports preserving both the dignity of humans and the dignity of other earthly creatures.
“Creatures can’t be used in any what way,” Jenkins said. “Whatever kind of uses there are, they have to take place in this broader ecology of virtues.”
According to Aquinas, humans could not know God without creatures because each creature reveals a certain perfection of God.
“In so far as human dignity is realized through ecological relations, it is vulnerable to those relations and it is vulnerable to political violence,” he said. “Thomas would say humans need experiential knowledge of creatures to know God it might mean they have a right to have a right to have access to meaningful biodiversity.”
However, Jenkins pointed out that past encyclicals have used the anthropocentric point of view that humans have ultimate domino over creatures.
“The encyclicals are using dominion to establish universality of human dignity and that helps explain why members of this tradition do not get along well with politics that seem to privilege the humanity of some over others,” he said.
Establishing human dignity in this way is dangerous, according to Jenkins, because it seems to show how separate humans are from their world.
“By the light of some environmental criticism it appears that a consequence in this way of establishing human dignity is a view of human persons as utterly separate of their world,” he said. “That’s actually worse than anthropocentrism. It’s cultivating a moral anthropology in which humans experience themselves as radically different from other creatures.”
Jenkins said that according to Pope John Paul II, we need equality in the dominion as well.
“If everyone has an equal share in dominion, and earth really is for everyone, then it’s a violation of human dignity if lifestyle of the affluent exposes the vulnerable to great harm,” he said.
People can avoid this inequality by living authentically as the encyclical suggests, Jenkins said.
“Authentic humanity is in learning to use the world rightly, which entails refusing to regard it as an object to be used,” he said. “Environmental injustice is a central point to the encyclical and I think that in itself secures its status as groundbreaking. It establishes that the Church and humanity must generally hear the cry of the poor in climate change.”