Ethical implications of applying Aquinas' notions of the unity and diversity of creation to human functioning in ecosystems

Jame Ehegartner Schaefer, Marquette University


The extensive damage that human activities are causing to the natural environment requires a meaningful response from Catholic theologians. This dissertation explores one promising path toward that goal by critically retrieving and building upon notions of one of the Church's most revered scholars--Thomas Aquinas (13th Century). The nuances of his thinking about the unity and diversity of creation are retrieved from his major and minor works. His notions about the need for diversity among creatures and how they interact to form a unity are shown to have affinity with some ecologists' perception of the makeup and functioning of an ecosystem--the land, water, air and myriad forms of biological life, including the human being, which interact to form an orderly and hierarchically structured dynamic whole. This broad similarity in thinking suggests a paradigm for exploring how the human creature ought to function as an integral part of an ecosystem. This explication of Aquinas' notions demonstrates his understanding that all creatures are interconnected because they are related to God as their creator, sustainer and ultimate end. Significant ethical implications surface when his teachings are applied to human functioning within the planet's ecosystems: (1) Human beings are integral parts of the ecosystem who should function with other parts in mutually beneficial ways for the good of the whole; (2) the water, land, air and diverse forms of biological life which constitute ecosystems are good and ought to be valued for the roles they play in the integral whole; (3) ecosystems and all their parts are sacramental signs of God's goodness, gratuitousness and presence in our midst and should be perceived with awe, admiration and gratitude to God; (4) human beings should use parts of the ecosystem virtuously--prudently, moderately, justly, courageously and lovingly--as means through which temporal and eternal happiness can be achieved; and, (5) the misuse of ecosystems and their parts is sinful, and redemption should be sought through Christ. Aquinas' teachings provide a profound theological response to the ecological crisis which could enable Catholics to think about and act in ways which are compatible with the integrity of the planet's ecosystems. When his notions are modified and applied to our contemporary understanding of the evolving universe, his contribution becomes even more meaningful.

Recommended Citation

Schaefer, Jame Ehegartner, "Ethical implications of applying Aquinas' notions of the unity and diversity of creation to human functioning in ecosystems" (1994). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9517937.