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Sustainability: A principle of Christian ethics?

18 April 2011

River in South Cotabato, Mindanao, Philippines. Photo credit: Jose Andres Ignacio, ESSC

Markus Vogt

The globalization of environmental and social questions cannot adequately be responded to by setting up individual standards; it also calls us to question the principles by which politics and economy are organized. The task is to develop normative guidelines for the regulation of social conflicts, and for the design of social structures in the light of broad and general ethical values.

This is precisely the level of what, in Christian ethics, we call social principles. Social principles are the ethical grammar for the structural design of the social order. From a theological point of view, such principles have their place at the fundamental level where biblical imperatives are translated into ethical categories which reflect the dynamics of modern societies and economies.

When the principles of personhood and solidarity were taken up by Catholic Social Teaching, the Church accepted ethical impulses from outside (e.g. Immanuel Kant and his idea of human dignity). Early “secular” terms were linked to the Church’s own traditions, and so received a new ethical and theological interpretation. In response to new social phenomena, new ethical concepts and reflections have similarly to be integrated into the church’s teachings. It is therefore a conceptual mark of social principles that they are expanded as soon as new social challenges appear. This is what I propose for the concept of ‘sustainable development.’ It should be added as a fourth principle of Christian social ethics, in addition to personhood, subsidiarity and solidarity.

‘Sustainability’ combines and updates the traditional three principles in the context of the current ecological challenge:

  • Without the ethical linkage to the principle of personhood, i.e. the absolute dignity of man and his ethical and systematically central position as the subject of action and responsibility, the far-reaching demands of the sustainability principle would inevitably lead into merely naturalistic concepts.
  • Without the principle of solidarity, and without the many institutions that ensure solidarity in our fight against poverty, the sustainability principle would remain politically and socially isolated, without the necessary basis of its socio-political component.
  • Without a connection to the principle of subsidiarity, the concept of sustainable development would lack any organisational core. Ecological imperatives could be misused to claim “more” government, “more” regulation and “more” centralisation – instead of promoting balanced structures of freedom and of adaptation to specific socio-cultural and natural habitats.

‘Sustainability,’ therefore, is a synthesis of the social-ethical diagnosis of a given historical time: on this basis it is also an indicator for our future, in almost all policy areas.

‘Sustainability’ reveals gaps in our usual understanding of justice. It brings together central topics as cross-cutting challenges. It often reveals surprising connections and “ patterns of similarity” of problems in very different contexts. In addition, ‘sustainability’ illustrates the temporal factor as well as the natural factor in all socio-political issues. It opens up new strategies, gives space for analysis and offers solutions for the complex interaction between local and global phenomena.

However, the sustainability discourse can retain such a central function only if it is repeatedly re-examined at its limits. Particularly in this regard, theology can contribute substantially to the idea of sustainability: by enlarging the perspective also to all those hopes and imaginations that reach beyond man’s social and technical capacities – thus by opening the horizon towards God and to a reality that we cannot manage or control, or save the planet on our own. Such a critical extension is urgently required, given the risk that the sustainability discourse remains isolated in itself. ‘Sustainability,’ in fact, requires an accompanying critique of ideology, to which theology can make an essential contribution.

A mutually complementary relationship thus exists between the vision of sustainable development and Christian responsibility for creation. On the one hand, our responsibility for creation needs to follow the path of sustainable development in order to become socially effective. On the other hand, the Christian understanding and tradition can enrich the concept of sustainability and improve its guidance. Faith offers decisive impetus to deepen the vision of sustainable development in its cultural and ethical dimension.

The integration of ‘sustainability’ into the context of social principles does not indicate any intention of claiming the term as ‘Christian’. Rather, it links it to the Christian content and thereby illuminates new dimensions. In this way, ‘sustainability’ becomes a term that contextualises the Christian message and explains its meaning in modern society. Indeed, the discourse of sustainability can serve inherently as a promising bridge for communication between the Church and modern society.

Markus Vogt, Chair of Christian ethics at Munich University

The author is professor of Christian social ethics at the Theological Faculty of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich (Germany) and advisor to the German Bishops’ Conference on issues of sustainability. He is also one of the framers of the position paper of the German bishops on “Climate change: A Focal Point of Global, Intergenerational and Ecological Justice (pdf)“.

Further reading: Markus Vogt, Sustainability and Climate Justice from a theological perspective (pdf).

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2 Responses to Sustainability: A principle of Christian ethics?

  1. Sandie Cornish on 19 April 2011 at 5:09 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful and timely piece. I am curious about the omission of the common good from your list of social principles. I have treated sustainability as a dimension of the common good but perhaps this bears further reflection.

    • paul on 26 March 2012 at 7:37 pm

      Please, can you send a comprehensive view about social implication of christian ethics (disadvantages and advantages)?

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