By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Do you want a great book for our ideological times? Do you want to be challenged, no matter where you sit on the ideological spectrum between Left and Right? Well, then I’ve got a book for you: In Defense of Nature: The Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic and Moral Ecology by Benjamin Wiker.
This book embodies one of the things I love most about Catholic faith: an implacable confidence in the truth and therefore, on the one hand, the courage to challenge everyone to find a deeper way of seeing, and yet, on the other hand, the humility to listen to anyone who might shed light on the truth — no matter their ideological persuasion. Concretely, Wiker wants to challenge the Left, which seems concerned with the pollution of our physical environment and yet appears recklessly intolerant of almost any appeal to nature in the moral order. At the same time, he wants to challenge the Right, which seems concerned for morality and religion and yet appears impiously obtuse about economic and environmental justice under God.
The key to challenging — and even unifying! — both sides is to encourage them to rediscover nature — that beautiful and integrated order surrounding us in our material and moral environment and animating us from deep within our humanity.
Wiker notes the “coincidence” that our physical and moral environments have both become terribly polluted as a new attitude toward nature arose in modernity. Since sixteenth-century authors like Francis Bacon and René Descartes, a materialist worldview is dominating our culture which suggests the world is nothing more than a machine whose codes we should decipher and manipulate in order to satisfy our own desires. The world is no longer the beautiful habitat within which we ought to find our place in the great harmony of creatures under the Creator; it no longer holds a primordial meaning teaching us who we are and where our happiness resides. Instead, it is only raw material for us to extract and manipulate at will.
One way to see this worldview in action is to look at how “hyper-palatability” drives food and sex in our culture.
Wiker reports that many foods today are designed to be hyperpalatable: that is, they are loaded with salt, sugar and fat so as to become addictive. These foods divide the natural drive of the body for homeostasis from the reward-seeking mechanisms in our brains, thus setting us at war with ourselves. So, while our bodies are designed to send us cues that tell us when we are hungry and when we are full, hyperpalatable foods are designed to overstimulate those parts of the brains that seek reward so much that we ignore those natural cues and just … keep … eating. Why? Because the more we “supersize” our meals, or the more we “can’t stop” once we “pop” open our chips, the more money we make for someone else. Our addiction to food is a business strategy. As this irrational drive to consume – “consumerism” – destroys our natural health and well-being, it also happens to wreak havoc upon our environment. It is astonishing to think about how much trash is produced by our single-serving and convenience-based food economy. Those on the Right might ask themselves how much chemical manipulation and the destruction of our health and environment can be defended in the name of economic freedom.
Sex too has been “engineered” to satisfy our desire for pleasure in a way that is addictive and destructive. We keep eating although we are full, because the chemicals in our foods trigger a response in our brains approximating the addictive effects of cocaine. Similarly, our experience of sexuality is being culturally and chemically re-engineered to separate our natural desire for sex and its fruits (a loving marriage and children) from the reward of pleasure. And thus, we are able to indulge more and more in the pleasure without enjoying — and in fact often destroying — the natural goods of sex. Perhaps surprisingly, a leading cause for divorce is pornography: that’s right, sexual appetite is leading people away from conjugal union. Similarly, studies show that young adults today are significantly less promiscuous than before. And why? Because pornography (to take only one example of the libertinism in our culture) is bringing the separation of sexual pleasure from sexual goods to its logical end: our sexual drive is being re-written to lead people away from relationship and toward the loneliness of vice and self-absorption. Those on the Left might ask whether sexual libertinism can really justify the social devastation caused by denying the truth written all over our DNA and anatomy: namely, that man and woman are complementary, and that they are made to unite in lifelong friendship in order to be happy, give life and serve others.
Hyper-palatability is only one example of how destructive our attitude toward nature is today. We would do well to learn from Wiker to fall back in love with nature as the beautiful order stretching across the cosmos to order all things well, sweetly guiding everything from the cycle of seasons to our moral lives.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.