Human ecology, a concept developed by sociologists early last century and appropriated by Pope John Paul II in his heralded Centesimus Annus, provides an illuminating lens through which to understand the multifaceted cultural crisis in which we find ourselves today.

Using the term as a cultural analogue to growing concerns over natural ecology, John Paul II wrote in 1991:

Although people are rightly worried . . . about preserving the natural habitats . . . too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic “human ecology.” Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God’s gift to man. A person must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.

More recently, in Laudato Si, Pope Francis reiterated John Paul II’s broadly framed ecological concern that had been handed on, we might say, through Pope Benedict. Francis writes:

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Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.”

For these recent popes, “the ecology of man” seems to approximate what would have been described classically as natural law: the idea that the human person possesses a nature that must be understood and nurtured for his full flourishing (eudaimonia, for the Greeks; beatitude, for the Christians). But the modern connotations of both nature and law are, without a great unlearning, too fixed or static to represent the dynamism of the human person in an authentic way. Consequently, natural law as a concept today is greatly misunderstood. For most, it is almost unintelligible.

Human ecology, by contrast, allows one to reflect with fewer intellectual stumbling blocks upon the design and dynamism of the human person and his life experience. That is, human ecology more readily calls to mind the reality that the human person is created and yet, by his choices, creates himself; that he is deeply influenced by and, in turn, influences others; that he is conditioned by the environment in which he finds himself and yet is capable of transcending it. The analogy to natural ecology is helpful in today’s philosophical climate, because it implies an interdependence of influences and actors, a complexity of causes and effects, while calling for empirical and scientific validation. Just as we can measure toxins in our waterways, we can use social science to empirically corroborate the destructive “downstream effects” of the pill, pornography, and fatherlessness on real women, men, and children. Contrary to the prevailing libertarian view, the ecological analogy also reveals that the putatively “harmless” acts of solitary individuals, when adopted by a large proportion of the population, can have deeply harmful effects.

Protecting Our Natural and Social Ecosystems

Both our natural ecosystems and our social ecosystems are fragile: they need protection and cultivation to thrive. As Pope Francis said in November 2014:

The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection. And although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well.

As with Laudato Si’s striking claim that the decadent consumer habits of the first world are disproportionately harming the world’s poor, sociological data confirm quite clearly that it is the most vulnerable, fragile human beings who are most threatened by, and least equipped to protect themselves from, a deteriorating moral environment. We see this most clearly with the sharp decline in marriage among the poor, disproportionately harming those very communities most in need of the myriad personal, social, and economic benefits life-long marriage provides.

Human ecology, then, implicitly assumes the existence of the natural law, but it may be better able to capture the dynamic social influences that either support or undermine respect for that law—and it is, helpfully, susceptible to empirical measurement in a way that natural law simpliciter is not obviously. From Centisimus Annus:

Man receives from God his essential dignity and with it the capacity to transcend every social order so as to move towards truth and goodness. But he is also conditioned by the social structure in which he lives, by the education he has received and by his environment. These elements can either help or hinder his living in accordance with the truth.

In that foundational document of Catholic social teaching, then, John Paul II was urging the creation of a more dignified social environment, a social ecology worthy of the dignity of the human person.

Social Ecology

When John Paul II used the term “human ecology” in Centesimus Annus, he was entering a robust conversation that was already taking place among social thinkers. Since the beginning of the last century, social scientists had been making use of the term to describe the idea of society as a complex organism and to study the myriad ways in which surroundings influence the human person. The Russian-American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner notably wrote in 1977 of an “ecology of human development” in which one seeks to understand the human subject from within his “nested,” varied, and ever-changing arrangement of environmental structures. An ecological approach is one that is by nature interdisciplinary, that seeks to integrate diverse perspectives to achieve a wider angle.

By the 1990s, social theorists from across the political spectrum were thinking ecologically about the dynamic interaction among familial, political, economic, and social influences and about how these “mutually conditioning systems” affected children, families, and communities across America. The ecological analogy helped a diverse group of thinkers to diagnose (even without agreeing on causes) the growing deterioration of once stable families and communities, the deleterious impact that was having on the nation’s children and the nation’s poor, and the consequences of this cultural, or ecological, disintegration on American institutions. In particular, communitarians such as Mary Ann Glendon, Michael Sandel, and Amitai Etzioni worried that America’s celebrated free economic and political institutions were at great risk of undermining their own foundations due to an erosion of the “moral ecology” or, in Robert Putnam’s term, “social capital” that these free institutions needed to thrive.

At that time, few would have denied that America’s systems of free market capitalism and constitutional democracy had shown themselves to be the best in the world at guaranteeing individual liberty, creating wealth and opportunity, and providing the space needed for full human flourishing. This is why John Paul II, for the first time in the Catholic Church’s history, expressly endorses such systems in Centesimus Annus­—at least when they are duly constrained by a robust moral culture. Our free economic and political institutions, after all, say nothing of how we are to use our freedom and wealth or how to transmit the habits of mind and heart that are necessary for self-government and a just and humane economy.

And so, as Centesimus Annus strongly proclaimed, without countervailing cultural values that teach individuals to use their freedom and their wealth for the common good, the capitalist quest for material gain will inform and ultimately erode the culture, giving rise to hedonism, individualism, and consumerism. Similarly, without a strong cultural edifice promoting the true, the good, and the beautiful, our liberal democracy’s tendency to give equal hearing to all ideas will corrode the culture, leading to a relativization of all lifestyles, the tyranny of popular opinion, an equality that demands erasure of all differences (including biological ones), and an undermining of religion, the most vital force in culture.

How close to home all of this sounds to us today.

Freedom, Virtue, and Human Dependency

Free institutions do provide an important precondition for a robust moral environment or social ecology: freedom. But freedom—whether it be political or economic, personal, or even religious—can never be its own end. Without discounting the importance of freedom to human ecology, we must say that freedom is merely instrumental. Freedom is at the service of human ecology and human flourishing. But this instrument, this servant—freedom—also has its own preconditions that it cannot provide for of itself. The proper end and the necessary precondition of freedom are the same: virtue.

As Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has argued throughout her influential and deeply prescient work, the American founders designed a remarkable system of free institutions, but they didn’t assure the conditions for that freedom. That is, though they guarded against rampant self-interest through a system of checks and balances, and well understood that self-government needs particularly virtuous men to sustain it, Glendon suggests that they seemed to take for granted that Americans would continue to be formed in the sorts of social environments that would produce this sort of virtue—environments like the deeply religious, tightly knit, self-governing colonies that stood as the backdrop of, and provided some of the impetus for, the Constitutional Convention. Glendon writes:

If history teaches us anything, it is that a liberal democracy is not just a given; that there seem to be conditions that are more, or less, favorable to its maintenance, and that these conditions importantly involve character . . . Character, too, has conditions—residing in no small degree in nurture and education. Thus one can hardly escape from acknowledging the political importance of the family.

Without a virtuous citizenry, John Adams memorably warns us, democracy always commits suicide. Freedom, without virtue, seems bent on its own self-destruction, as we witness all too well in our country these days. But, of course, virtue cannot be taken for granted. It must be taught, inculcated, practiced, and esteemed in every generation, every family, and every human heart. This is a tall order—and a real struggle for anyone who takes it seriously—but it is this interior struggle that was passed from one generation to the next until quite recently.

Indeed, over the last several decades, we have witnessed the Supreme Court in particular use arguments from personal autonomy (or freedom misunderstood as its own end) to weaken precisely those institutions—motherhood, fatherhood, marriage, other mediating structures—that are best suited to sustain the social ecology, to shape persons to use their freedom well. America’s long tradition of self-determination has morphed over the years into a constitutionalized sort of no-holds-barred self-invention, the freedom to define myself just as I wish, free from any claims or constraints upon me.

And herein lies the problem, a problem perhaps brought into clearer focus by the ecological lens. The self-defining, self-sufficient, radically autonomous individual at the heart of this modern paradigm simply does not exist. From the very moment each of us comes into being, we are embodied, fragile, and embedded in relationships, nested in our social environment. We are social, or political, animals, as Aristotle put it. And as such, our freedom is constrained by our dependence on others and, as we mature, others’ dependence on us. Human vulnerability and dependence are the most basic and enduring facts of human existence, of human identity, before even sin. We human beings flourish or fail to within the context of this interdependence, never in isolation. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntryre reminds us, the responsible adult independence for which we properly strive requires the prior care and sacrifice of others, of mothers and fathers, of families, of communities; we do not acquire the virtues necessary for independence, for the good use of our freedom, for flourishing on our own. We depend on others to teach us these virtues—and to model them for us.

And so, if we are to safeguard (or these days we may need to say, recreate) the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology, a culture worthy of the dignity of the person, one that encourages rather than discourages the duties we have toward God and one another, we must take far more seriously—far more seriously—the care, nurture, and cultivation of the young in virtue, and also of the social organisms that support such cultivation. We must focus, as John Paul II tells us in Centesimus Annus, on that “first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology,’ the family,” and all that supports its critical work.

Tomorrow, I will offer three suggestions for where we might start.

This essay was adapted from the luncheon presentation she gave at the Human Ecology Conference at the Busch School of Business and Economics at CUA last spring. Her remarks recently aired on EWTN.