Winter 2010

Working With the Grammar of Creation: Benedict XVI, Wendell Berry, and the Unity of the Catholic Moral Vision

David Cloutier

“It is exactly this logic—the gift comes first, before us—that Benedict insists is true about the environment, about technology, about sexuality, and about life itself. Indeed, it is a feature at the heart of Benedict’s entire theological trajectory.”

Many have commented that one of the most innovative features of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Caritas in veritate, is making explicit the connection between the Church’s social ethics and the Church’s teaching on sexual and “life” issues. This can be seen especially in the connection drawn between environmental and sexual teachings, which in one place the encyclical calls the “grammar of creation.” However, the encyclical does not go into much detail about how to construe these connections, ones which have been controversial in the recent history of Catholic ethics.2 In this paper, I seek to demonstrate two things: one, how these connections rely on Benedict’s overall theological vision of creation and eschatology, and two, how essayist Wendell Berry’s work fleshes out three ways in which this connection needs to be understood and practiced in contemporary American society: a humility in coming to recognize the complex pattern of creation, the importance of good work as a discipline for revealing and participating in this pattern, and the necessary mediating role of local communities and cultures in forming and reforming us according to this pattern.

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* This paper was originally delivered at the conference, “Family, Common Good and the Economic Order: A Symposium on Caritas in veritate,” held at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. on 4 December 2010.

2. The classic essay contending that, especially after Vatican II, the two “areas” of ethics proceeded on different and ultimately conflicting bases is Charles Curran, “Official Catholic Social and Sexual Teachings: A Methodological Comparison,” in Readings in Moral Theology, no. 8: Dialogue About Catholic Sexual Teaching, ed. Charles Curran and Richard McCormick, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 536–58. My argument here is not a direct response to Curran’s essay; it is reflective of what appears to be a genuine development beyond both the “classicist” and the “historically conscious” approaches, beyond both the “naturalism” and “personalism” of earlier papal writings.