Christian Family and the Ecological Perspective.


                                                                                                   Andrew Szebenyi

                                                                                              Le Moyne College, 2009.



The parable of the jigsaw puzzle.


Imagine that we open the box of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle and pour the pieces onto the table with anticipation of a challenge, motivated by curiosity. To make it all more interesting, there is no picture on the box, so we do not know what to expect. Each piece makes sense but only together with the correct others as they reveal an ever larger section of the whole puzzle. The probability to find by chance two matching pieces out of so many is rather small, but we have a better way to deal with the task than relying on chance. First we may assemble the edges of the picture. That gives us a frame in which to work. Then we can put the pieces into groups according to some common characteristics, and then fit them together within each group. This will give us several larger parts of the puzzle. Finally, we can fit these larger parts to the frame and to each other giving us the final image. Once the work is done, we may enjoy the assembled work of art and say: This is really very nice. It was truly worth the effort.


The parable of the puzzle represents something much more than just the story of a static, lifeless picture on a table. It symbolizes the realities of life as we experience them in time within the framework of our present understanding of love and respect for life. This puzzle is alive, and as we work at it, it grows and unfolds before us and within us. We are the ones who work at it day by day, and at the same time we are also parts of the puzzle. The final completed work of art will be the total reality of all human lives. As of now, the puzzle is still a mystery and there is still a great deal of work to be done. At times we may feel discouraged, or we may seem to lose interest, but then if we happen to look at this puzzle of life anew with the eyes of faith, we realize that all this is about the Kingdom of God, and that is more worth while than anything else in the world. I attempt to present here some of the pieces of this awesome and wonderful puzzle. Let’s see what we can make of them.



Love and respect for life have many dimensions. One of them is the realism of adaptability. I find that if I were to base my present values exclusively on the way things were in the past, my understanding would be at least partially false, and my conclusions would be to the same extent dysfunctional. We live in a world that is not static but is unfolding in time in a dynamic balance of constant change. It is through adaptability that life is maintained as the many opposing and at the same time interdependent factors are moulded into the balance of mutual support. This balance maintains life through time, and is the key to the rich diversity of life on earth we see all around us. It would be foolish to think that we are not part of this natural world. It follows, therefore, that life cannot be understood properly either in static, or in singular terms, but only in terms of dynamic relationships. In the science of life we study these relationships in ecology. Without this ecological dimension our love and respect for life would be distorted and unreal.



The Second Vatican Council was truly amazing. Recognizing the ever increasing separation and hostility between two worlds, one secular, the other spiritual, and that this separation is leading us into various forms of pastoral dysfunctionality, Pope John XXIII saw the need for a new approach. He used the word, aggiornamento, or adaptability to best describe this new approach, and made it one of the fundamental guidelines for the council that soon followed. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the council declared its respect for the truth and goodness that had been brought into our world by modernization, including the many benefits achieved by the sciences, and proposed to support the need for harmony between culture and christian formation. This truth was powerfully expressed by the council as follows: Let it be recognized, that all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and  courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.

                                                                                 (Vatican II. Gaudium et Spes §62)



The global human population is at present in a heavily off balance situation representing a trend of growth that cannot be maintained on a finite earth. During the last century our population increased six fold, from over one billion to well over six billion. This extraordinary, and still ongoing increase represents something unique in human history, never experienced before. In several countries this increase reached a magnitude beyond the carrying capacity of the local areas with devastating results. Any understanding of love and respect for life would try to reverse this imbalance and so avoid such disastrous consequences as famine, diseases, dissolution of social order, ecological devastation, and loss of human lives. It is so very strange that while the demographic imbalance is the result of human activities, we seem to be rather at a loss to provide some solution to the problem. One of the culprits is the blind view, according to which if one is good, more are better. The result is a desire for unlimited growth in a limited world. The rational response to this irrationality is to regain balance in terms of zero growth at a population size that can then be maintained through time.  



For some the idea of zero growth is so negative that they expect science and technology to provide solutions, not by limiting growth, but by neutralizing the harmful effects of unlimited growth, and they do not see the contradiction in this hope. What science and technology can offer are realistic means to return to balance. To satisfy this need is not the  same as to support good economy or to achieve the even distribution of resources in the name of social justice. Such efforts may ease our situation momentarily, but none of them can achieve the ecological balance that is needed to maintain human life on earth through time. Faced with the problem of runaway population growth, love and respect for life demand our return to ecological balance according to the strict terms of the demographic equation, where population growth is measured by the difference between birthrate and death rate in a given year. Once balance is reached, the proper use of resources, and their just distribution can become hopeful realities.



The major cause of the demographic imbalance we are experiencing is the reduction of death rate due to improvements in medical care without a corresponding adjustment of birthrate. Starting with better understanding of the importance of personal hygiene, followed by the discovery of immunization against viral diseases, and then by the discovery of antibiotics against bacterial infections, and more recently by new medical technologies, death rate, especially in terms of child mortality, has been much reduced on a global scale. Since birth rate, for whatever reasons, has not been adjusted to these new conditions, a rapid population growth followed resulting in our present heavily off balance situation in a by now huge base population. The situation has become so critical, that the mindset, according to which the present population dynamics are not the problem, has become a dysfunctional mindset of denial, and an opponent to love and respect for life in the real world.



Why such resistance and denial? One reason is historical. All through our demographic history the global human population has been rather small. Under such circumstances the Earth’ capacity to provide resources and to support human life may have seemed to be unlimited. Century after century the balance between birthrate and death rate were close to zero with a slight edge in favor of a rather slow increase in numbers. As a general rule, death rate was high, and to maintain balance we had to reproduce at our full biological potential rendering our sexuality to be as much procreative as possible. Since this has been going on for thousands of years, it is easy to see that as a proper measure such maximization of reproductive success may have appeared to be an essential part of human nature. Karl Rahner in the Sesquicentennial issue of Theology Digest, under the title: Experiment: Man, cautioned us about such hasty conclusion. He wrote that Very often moral discussions have approached certain de facto conditions of human life as if they were essential. Although not intrinsic elements of human nature, they have been historically stable up to the present. Now this stability is threatened  by certain changes. Too often, continues Rahner, we have said that this or that is contrary to the nature of “women”, or of the family, or is against the natural function of a biological organ. In many cases, what we described as “nature” was only some relatively fixed condition which was actually a changeable element.

(School of Divinity. St. Louis University. Theology Digest. February 1968.)



The crucial question is, how to regain the balance in the demographic equation at a safe population level, that can be maintained through time? Of course, safe means below the carrying capacity of the earth. Unfortunately, the concept of carrying capacity opens Pandora’s box, since it depends not just on the availability of resources, but also on the way we use these resources. It depends on the standard of living, that varies considerably from place to place. The moment such cultural determinants enter the equation, we are in the shadowy world of quality of life. After all, what is enough? Shouldn’t we want more? In other words, we are back where we started, we are back in the irrational world of wanting unlimited growth in a limited world.



There are, however, some quantitative terms that shed light on necessary limits. Provided that we base our decisions on love and respect for life and regard it as unacceptable to reestablish balance by those means which increase death rate, including abortion, one such quantitative term is the number of children per family necessary for a global population balance in terms of zero population growth. The number is two children per family for most families. Of course, this kind of quantitative statement may provide a general guide for the needed reproductive restraint, but tells us nothing about the ways to achieve it, and it is also silent about the many problems such restraint may imply in terms of cultural diversity we all should be aware of and respect, and cultural biases which are in need of healing.



As to practical solutions, what are the choices? In terms of love and respect for life, no control measures favoring an increase in death rate are acceptable. Such control measures are abortion, euthanasia, and those “contraceptive” methods which prevent the implantation of an already fertilized ovum, that is human life at its very beginning. Responsible control of fertility simply means the prevention of conception in a family with already two children. There are several ways to prevent conception. These are abstinence from intercourse, having intercourse when no ovum is present, and preventing the sperm to reach the ovum when ovum is present. In all these, it should be clear that the method used is contraceptive and not abortive.



In the documents of the second Vatican Council, the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), under the subtitle, Harmonizing conjugal love with respect for human life, in § 51 the following has been stated: “This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased. As a result, the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives are hard to maintain. But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, it is not rare for its faithfulness to be imperilled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined.” As indicated in the quote, the council realized, abstinence from intercourse is not the right method for married couples to control the size of their families. What is then being recommended by the council? It becomes clear in the text that follows that there is still a great deal of aggiornamento to be made to provide truly functional advise in these matters. Especially three areas should be considered. The first area of concern is the need for pastoral realism paying respect to present knowledge, and considering the practical meaning of any advise or directive in terms of the diverse cultural circumstances people actually live in. Secondly, as it has become very clear since the time of the council, we need to add the ecological perspective to all that we do, particularly to matters of reproductive restraint for the sake of ecological balance. This balance is a fundamental condition of survival, and it is demanded by our love and respect for life in the modern world. Finally, there is the need to recognize the primary role women play in matters of procreation and there is the need to heal a many centuries old cultural injustice of male bias in such matters. One way to heal this injustice is being inclusive in all aspects of human life. Such inclusiveness is still absent in statements of the council. For instance, § 51 makes these matters a concern of the “sons of God” and not of God’s daughters.



As a general rule one should consider the health and comfort of the user of any method, as well as their actual reliability. A method that is not reliable, or has serious physical or psychological side effects in a particular case, cannot be recommended in that particular case. In individual situations, the spouses should be the well informed judges of what is acceptable and best suited to them, to their marriage relationship, to their children, and to humanity.



To follow one’s well formed conscience is a good advise. But remember, “well formed” means well informed, that is knowledgeable, and, therefore, any directive to form one’s conscience needs satisfactory explanation. It is unfortunate that the weight of the past is quite heavy in matters of human sexuality, and many of the cultural biases we inherited are not helpful to provide functional answers to present needs. Under such circumstances, it may be helpful to consider as a general guideline that all created given and their use are good as we read in the book of Genesis (1:31): “And God saw all that God made, and indeed it was very good”.  Their abuse, however, that is a way of use that would cause harm to oneself or to others, is sinful.  And finally any effort to sanctify the created given by prayer and sacrament renders it even better.



As we look at the pieces of the puzzle of life and try to fit them together into a sensible and meaningful world, certain insights, and experiences suddenly make sense, showing us those paths which are hopeful and worth to follow. Keep an open mind and heart. All created given is good. Use them well with joyful gratitude. Do not let any form of abuse enslave you and weigh you down. Meanwhile, here is a prayer for all of us to our loving Creator God: Make us your servants in your kingdom, and help us to renew the face of the earth.

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