Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, issued that warning Sunday at a colloquium on "Church and Ecology," organized by the Franciscans of Narbonne on the 25th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Francis of Assisi as patron of ecology.
The bishop reminded his audience that the Church "always looks at nature in relation to God and man. It does not see it only as an ensemble of things, but also of meanings."
"When the Church is concerned with 'nature,' she does not understand it only 'naturalistically,'" he said.
In the Judeo-Christian message, "man" is placed "above the other things as an eminent reality," the prelate added. "Man is created in the image and likeness of God and, in Jesus of Nazareth, God himself has made himself man.
"Since that moment, the foundation of the order of nature went beyond the cosmic realm and based itself on an absolute and transcendent principle and, for the same reason, man was raised above creation."
Bishop Crepaldi continued: "Nature finds its meaning in a dialogue between man and God, and things themselves found their place in a relationship of love and intelligence."
In this context, the magisterium of the Church "does not endorse either the absolutization of nature or its reduction to a mere instrument," he said. Rather, it makes it "a cultural and moral setting in which man carries out his own responsibility before other men, including future generations, and before God."
From this derives the fact that nature not only is "a richness put into the responsible and prudent hands of man," the Vatican official said. Rather, the latter "has an undisputed superiority over creation" and, as a "person gifted with an immortal soul, cannot be compared to other living beings, and even less so as an element of disturbance of the ecological balance."
Yet, man does not have "an absolute right" over nature, the bishop said. Instead, man has "a mandate to conserve and develop it in the logic of the universal destiny of the goods of the earth which is, as is known, one of the principles of the social doctrine of the Church."
He warned: "There are today many forms of idolatry of nature in the naturalistic sense of the term, which come together in a 'radical ecology' that loses sight of man" and that arises "frequently in the debate on demographic problems and on the relationship between population, environment and development."
For example, in the 1994 U.N. International Conference on Population and Development, "the Holy See had to oppose, together with many Third World countries, the idea tinged by a radical environmentalism according to which the increase of population in the forthcoming decades would be such as to lead to the collapse of the planet's natural balances and hinder development."
These are theses "that have already been refuted" and are "in regression," Bishop Crepaldi said. Yet, "the very ones who proposed this Malthusian view, animated by a radical environmentalism, proposed, as a means to halt births and impede the alleged environmental disaster, instruments of all kinds except natural, such as recourse to abortion and massive sterilization in poor countries with a high birthrate."
Instead, "the Church proposes a realist view of things" and is confident of "man and his ever new capacity to seek solutions to the problems that history poses to him," he said. The Church also knows that "human action in nature must be ethically oriented."
In fact, if "food production has increased in respect to the forecasts and thus allows for the feeding of many more people than foreseen, it is equally true that the distribution of food is unequal and leaves a considerable portion of the planet in hunger."
It follows that the ecological problem must be perceived "as an ethical problem," which is what the "Church requests, given that there is constant interaction between the human person and nature," the Vatican official said.
"There are before our eyes many proofs of this complementary relationship between nature and man, between material and immaterial aspects of treating the environment," as is the case of the "relationship between poverty and environmental degradation and, on the contrary, between super-development and destruction of the environmental balances," the secretary of the Council for Justice and Peace said.
In fact, according to Bishop Crepaldi, "the environmental problem is an anthropological problem."
"At the origin of the senseless destruction of the natural environment there is, in our time, a widespread lamentable anthropological error," according to which man "thinks that he can dispose arbitrarily of the earth and, instead of carrying out his role as God's collaborator in the work of creation," he puts himself in God's place, the bishop said.
For this reason, "in the perspective of the social doctrine of the Church, ecology is not only a natural but also an anthropological emergency" which leads in turn to a theological error, he added: "When man wishes to put himself in God's place" he "loses sight of himself and also of his responsibility to govern nature."