EVER SINCE the Enlightenment it has been intellectually fashionable to blame the world's ills on Judaeo-Christian culture. Nietzsche blamed the West's JudaeoChristian heritage for turning men into moral slaves. Marx blamed it for blessing the oppression of the workers. Freud accused it of suppressing the powerful sexual instinct. Other, lesser minds blamed it for all manner of other perceived ills and shortcomings.
The environmental movement, although it has no single intellectual figurehead, fits neatly into the post-Enlightenment pattern. For many environmentalists, the ecological crisis we are now facing has its roots deep in the Judaeo-Christian past. The exploitation of the earth's resources, they say, can be traced back to the account of creation in Genesis. There God singles out man to exercise dominion over all the earth's plants and animals. Man is placed at the head of creation. It is his to dispose of as he wishes. Their technical phrase for this is "anthropocentrism", which the dictionary defines as "regarding man as the most important and central factor in the universe". The important thing to note here is that for environmental activists anthropocentrism is very bad. It is, in fact, the source of most of the world's ills.
The argument then leaps from Genesis to the Industrial Revolution. The industrialists, guided by the belief that man has dominion over the earth, build smoke belching factories all over it. They cut down enormous forests and dig deep into the ground to extract precious minerals. The Church, meanwhile, barely notices what is happening, preoccupied as it is with the relationship between owners and workers, just wages and reasonable living conditions. Only in the late twentieth century, with Judaeo-Christian culture retreating, as Matthew Arnold wrote, with a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar", does humankind become aware of the earth's degradation. An environmental movement springs up proclaiming that the earth is sacred and must be protected from abuse. This new movement breaks decisively with the egotistical anthropocentrism of the past, declaring that human beings are not the masters, but the scourge, of the earth. Those who suspect we may be caricaturing the environmentalists' view might like to read Nature's Web by Peter Marshall, a mainstream guide to green issues. A chapter entitled "Christianity" begins with the statement: "Many of the ills of modern civilisation may be traced to the Judaeo-Christian tradition." Christianity, it continues, "has been called with some foundation 'the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen' and "by denying that nature is sacred, Christianity implies that man has no moral obligations to it".
The Church, of course, does not recognise itself in this cartoonish account of Christian theology. In Genesis, God asks man to be the steward, not the tyrant, of creation. Correctly understood, man's place at the summit of creation carries awesome responsibilities, not untethered rights.
It is mistaken, moreover, to describe Genesis as a charter for anthropocentrism. As anyone who reads the account carefully will see, the focus of Genesis is not man, but the relationship between God and man. Unlike secular humanism, Christianity does not consider man to be alone in the universe. He has profound obligations towards God and towards the God-given earth.
This is not to say that Christians, and their fellow human beings, have always performed these obligations well. As Pope John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople stated in last week's landmark Venice Declaration: "At the beginning of history, man and woman sinned by disobeying God and rejecting His design for creation. Among the results of this first sin was the destruction of the original harmony of creation. If we examine carefully the social and environmental crisis which the world community is facing, we must conclude that we are still betraying the mandate God has given us: to be stewards called to collaborate with God in watching over creation in holiness and wisdom."
As Deborah Jones argues persuasively on the opposite page, Catholics must join the struggle to save the natural habitat as a matter of urgency. But we must do it in a recognisably Christian way. The environmental movement — polluted as it is by anti-Christian prejudice — must be "baptised". This might be done, as Miss Jones suggests, by making September 1 a day of prayer for environmental justice, by celebrating the Feast of St Francis of Assisi with renewed passion, by giving greater prominence to the environment in the bishops' conference of England and Wales and by campaigning on green issues together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters.
Only then will we rise to the challenge laid down last week by the Pope and the Patriarch. "It is not too late," they said. "God's world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the earth toward our children's future. Let that generation start now, with God's help and blessing."