“Guests” on Planet Earth?
At a gathering of like-minded scribes and media commentators shortly after Synod-2019 began, one of our members flagged what seemed to him an ominous shift in the language some Catholics use to describe humanity’s relationship to the natural world. That shift is worth pondering, because it illustrates some of the deep ideological currents that have thus far shaped the conversation at the Special Synod on Amazonia.
To begin at the beginning: In the Book of Genesis, God the Creator makes humanity in the divine image “to rule over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the wild cattle, and over all creeping things that crawl along the ground,” and then instructs his human creation to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the world and subdue it” (Genesis 1:26–28). This divine command to “rule” over the natural order is confirmed a few verses later, in Genesis 2:19–20, where God instructs Adam to name every living creature. Humanity, in the biblical view, is to bring order into the natural world and exercise dominion over it, and thereby fulfill our common human destiny as creatures made in the divine image and likeness.
In a genuine development of doctrine (which is always the deepening of an original, revelation-based truth), the Catholic Church’s social doctrine under Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis has moved beyond the language of “dominion” and spoken of humanity’s “stewardship” of creation. In this image, our stance toward the natural world is that of a steward toward an estate or a patrimony, which we are called upon to develop but never to abuse. Humanity still retains its priority in the created order, for we alone are made in the divine image and likeness. But as “stewards” of creation, we must resist the temptation to despoil the natural order for selfish purposes; our responsibilities extend to the future, not just to the present, and our development and use of the goods of the natural world must be ordered accordingly. This “stewardship” imagery has been a useful corrective to Enlightenment views of nature as mere material to be manipulated according to human willfulness and is thus another important contribution of Catholic social doctrine to putting the modern aspirations to freedom and solidarity on a firmer foundation.
Now, however, something else is afoot. For at Synod-2019 (and certainly in the Off-Broadway parallel synod being orchestrated here in Rome by well-funded European non-governmental organizations) another set of images has come to the fore. No longer does humanity hold dominion over the natural world as that part of the divine creation charged with bringing order out of primordial chaos; nor do human beings stand toward creation as stewards of a planetary patrimony. Rather, we are “guests” on Earth, which some commentators (prominent in currently powerful Catholic circles) are referring to as “Sister/Mother Earth”—a locution drawn less from Francis of Assisi than from that crossroads where the extreme elements of global environmentalism intersect with radical feminism.
More than one observer of Synod-2019 has noticed that a lot of the conversation in Rome this month drinks more deeply from the wells of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Margaret Mead than from the living waters of biblical revelation. The notion of human beings as “guests” on the earth would seem to ratchet this unbiblical notion of benign nature way up, and the equally unbiblical notion of a benign humanity way down, however. For if we are “guests” on the Earth, and our “host” has a certain moral (dare I say “metaphysical”?) priority over us, precisely as “host,” then perhaps some of us—even most of us—are unwelcome guests. And before too many more conceptual moves are made, we are into the fever swamps of those radical environmentalists who seem to think of us less as guests than as a pestilence, and certainly one that should be limited and controlled by governmental fiat.
Those of this cast of mind not infrequently argue for draconian measures of population control that will bring today’s world population of some 7.7 billion down to a bit over 1 billion. How this could be achieved without tyranny of a sort that would make the world of Orwell’s 1984 seem like the world of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh is not easy to imagine. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine, for it could not be achieved otherwise. Yet this population-control mania continues to infect national governments, international organizations, and many of the great philanthropies, despite the fact that the direst predictions of population controllers like Paul Ehrlich (who fifty years ago confidently forecast billions of deaths-by-starvation on an “overpopulated” planet) have been empirically disproven time and again.
As the parallel language of “Sister/Mother Earth” suggests, this imagery of humanity as guests on Earth also lends itself to pantheism, and to a virtual worship of the natural world that is incompatible with biblical religion. Rather a lot of this—or at least simulacra of it with a vague Christian overlay—has been on display before and throughout Synod-2019, in venues ranging from the Vatican gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica to the venerable Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, a few hundred yards down the Via della Conciliazione from St. Peter’s Square. Its relevance in a Catholic context is not self-evidently clear.
Inserting “guests of the Earth” ideology into Synod-2019 is thus another example of the real “colonialism” at work in Rome this month: the neo-colonialism of decadent Western preoccupations and passions being imposed on the developing world in the name of the people of the Amazon. One expects nothing better from the United Nations these days, just as one sadly expects nonsense from the U.N. on human rights. But for senior Catholic churchmen to adopt this “guest” imagery bespeaks either a sorry lack of biblical literacy or the triumph of progressivist ideology over revelation.
It must be hoped that, in the last week of Synod-2019, voices in defense of the biblical view of the natural order and humanity’s responsibility to care for and develop the natural world so that it serves human flourishing come to the fore: for the sake of the impoverished people of Amazonia, and for the integrity of Catholic faith.
The World Youth Alliance is an international network of young men and women dedicated to promoting human dignity and building a global culture of life. WYA founder and leader Anna Halpine is a native of Canada, who took up her current vocation after confronting pro-“choice” non-governmental organizations at the United Nations while she was doing graduate studies in music in New York. The United Nations and similar international organizations are constantly lobbied by non-governmental organizations whose agendas have little to do with the culture of life, and a lot to do with its antithesis. One day, more than two decades ago, Ms. Halpine decided that these NGOs “aren’t speaking for me”—and with some xeroxed flyers, started her work as a pro-life lobbyist in international forums. Since that modest beginning, WYA has expanded to become a potent, global educational organization with striking success in a wide variety of cultural and economic settings.
WYA has been remarkably creative and successful in “translating” a Catholic vision of the human person and Catholic social doctrine into a grammar and vocabulary that can be engaged by those of other religious traditions, not least in the developing world. Yet WYA’s leadership was not invited to participate in the 2018 Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, nor was WYA invited to participate in this year’s synodal special assembly.
So in the spirit of “free discussion” applauded by the synod general secretariat, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2019 asked Anna Halpine what WYA would say to the Special Synod on Amazonia, had she and her colleagues been invited to do so. [XR II]
WHAT THE WORLD YOUTH ALLIANCE WOULD SAY TO THE SPECIAL SYNOD ON AMAZONIA
When the World Youth Alliance (WYA) was founded twenty years ago, no one could have predicted that it would grow to become a global coalition of young people, linked by a common goal to defend the dignity of the person. Today, WYA members located in 135 countries defend the dignity of each human person from conception to natural death. While some members maintain WYA’s advocacy presence at the United Nations and the European Union, most members study together in order to have the philosophical and policy tools with which to propose a robust defense of the human person at home. In local chapters and contexts, universal principles are studied and applied to local situations.
Violations of the dignity of the person abound in the twenty-first century: human trafficking, forced migration, abortion, pornography, violence. WYA’s trained members enable local responses that recognize and respect the principle of subsidiarity and allow those involved to engage topics and debates in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. This approach generates a powerful network of young people, who speak with one voice in defending the human person and decry abuses as they emerge at both the local and international level.
Distortions and false ideas of the human person lead inevitably to cultural and ideological colonization. Women, children, and other marginalized and vulnerable groups are often further exploited for political ends. In particular, gender and sexual education can be powerful tools for the promotion of ideology, since they shape the moral imagination and provide a clear vision of what it is to be a human person. Instead of gender ideology, formation rooted in a true anthropology is needed today throughout the world.
Women, too, can be victims of ideological manipulation when false narratives or the priorities of Big Pharma and Western drug companies override concerns for education about a woman’s own body and health. This is all too often the situation in many communities today—from the Amazon to the most developed regions—since less than 3 percent of the world’s women understand and know how their own bodies and their fertility works. Educating women empowers them to understand their dignity and worth and allows them to choose to manage their health and fertility in ecologically sound and humanly ennobling ways.
World Youth Alliance has developed the Human Dignity Curriculum (HDC) to provide a strong formation in human anthropology and values that educates young people about their dignity and worth. Our partnership with the women’s health program FEMM (Fertility Education and Medical Management) links our young people to the latest in science and evidence-based knowledge, which women and couples can access directly through the free FEMM app, and a global network of health educators and medical providers who provide support, diagnosis, and treatment when needed.
The HDC begins at age four and continues through age fourteen. Each year, the curriculum engages the following questions: Who am I? What am I made for? To whom, or what, will I give my life? To help children think about these questions, they first learn about the objective value of each person (human dignity), and that the purpose of freedom is to act in ways that respect their own dignity and that of others. Participants explore the hierarchy of being and come to know the similarities and differences between human beings, plants, and animals. Learning that human beings have the unique ability to think and choose, they learn that they can engage their moral responsibility wisely so that they develop the habits that make for human excellence.
Children love the curriculum because they love being entrusted with “big ideas.” One ten-year-old girl was astonished: Did adults really think she could be excellent? When this was affirmed, a huge smile lit up her face. A young Muslim girl (age eight) was able to compare and contrast the HDC with her previous “values” curriculum: “In the old curriculum we were told to be nice. In the HDC, we first learn about who we are as a human person, and this makes us want to change the way we act.” An eight-year-old boy in the Caribbean told us that knowing he had the power to think and choose made him feel like he “could fly.” The expansion of the human heart when encountering the truth about the human person is transformative.
The HDC aims to deepen and ennoble the human personality by providing answers to questions of human identity and meaning. A strong personal identity is critical to human formation and a strong predictor of healthy long-term friendships, accomplishments, and human development. The integration of local culture and tradition enhances the transmission of objective realities of the human person, such as our built-in dignity and value. For this reason, local partnerships and inculturation in the delivery of the content and program elements has been and will remain critical to HDC’s development.
FEMM teaches women to understand the signs of hormonal changes in their bodies and to understand the health and fertility information that this indicates. FEMM teaches women the importance of hormonal health for the functioning of every system in her body, from brain and healthy bone development to mood, energy, and quality of life.
For too many women, genetic or externally caused hormonal imbalances are simply suppressed through the provision of hormonal birth control. Underlying causes and symptoms are not treated, and usually get worse over time. Teaching women to understand their bodies, and the signs of healthy hormonal activity (along with where and how to get help when imbalances are identified) is critical to their own health and fertility outcomes, and to a proper personal and community ecology.
FEMM responds to many of the challenges facing women and local communities throughout the world. By instructing women and teenagers online, and by providing additional support via email and free phone apps, vulnerable populations that have traditionally been under-served are reached. Similarly, FEMM is able to train trainers online or in person, which also expands the possibility of reaching local leaders and equipping and supporting them to work with women in their local and regional contexts.
Many women are not provided with the information essential to understanding the biological changes taking place in their bodies. As a result, they do not know how to identify signs of health or abnormalities; nor do they understand their fertility. Empowering women to know how their bodies work, and teaching men to understand the essential differences between the male and female bodies, has led, in our experience, to increased respect between men and women.
Young men provided with education through a related program, “teenMEN,” have told us that it has led them to greater respect for women and a deeper understanding of ways in which they can better support them. Young women report that “teenFEMM” helps them to make better health and relationship decisions, which in turn assists them in seeking health education and medical support when needed.
FEMM teaches women and families to respect the ecology of their bodies. It helps individuals to make informed decisions about their own health care, without relying on Big Pharma or invasive and harmful drug interventions. Empowering and supporting individuals and couples to understand their health integrates human ecology with environmental ecology.
The HDC has been tested with street children in Mexico, in the slums of Manila, and in the Caribbean islands. In Africa, FEMM is currently being provided to urban university students as well as to women who have been traumatized by Boko Haram. Within the United States, program results for both HDC and FEMM are similar in the poorest sections of the Bronx and among the wealthy in Manhattan.
Similar outcomes have been identified at many diverse implementation sites. This confirms the universality of the anthropological truth about each human person, as well as the science that informs both the HDC and FEMM. Translation of content and approach is critical; but essential questions about who we are and how we should live are universal.
FEMM and the HDC are exciting new programs that can provide important support to women, children, and families in Amazonia. There, as in other places around the world, individuals, families, and communities struggle to understand how to live in ways that respect both the human person and the surrounding environment. Tools to explore foundational questions of identity and meaning can assist young people and families to deepen their understanding of themselves, as well as their local cultures and environments. Empowering men and women to understand and manage their bodies without ideologically-based medical interventions preserves essential interpersonal communication, and promotes a deepening of individual and environmental-ecological awareness.
The FEMM app and program are already available for free in Spanish and Portuguese; they can also be translated into other local languages. The HDC is being translated into Spanish and can also be translated into Portuguese and local Amazonian languages. This translation process includes the inculturation of local traditions, history, and content, ensuring that the exploration of what it is to be a person, respecting the dignity of each and every person, can be communicated as clearly as possible to each one.
Anna Halpine is the Founder of World Youth Alliance and the Chief Executive Officer of FEMM.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?