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Created Things Have a Legitimate Autonomy

1986, April 2

General Audience

In the previous catechesis we dwelt on the finality of creation from the viewpoint of the transcendent dimension. Creation also demands reflection from the point of view of the immanent dimension. Today this is particularly necessary because of the progress of science and technology, which has introduced important changes in the mentality of many people of our time. We read in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council: "Now many of our contemporaries seem to fear that a closer bond between human activity and religion will work against the independence of men, of societies, or of the sciences" (GS 36).

The Council faced this problem, which is closely connected with the truth of faith concerning creation and its finality, by giving a clear and convincing explanation of it. Let us listen to what the Council said.

"If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws, and order. Man must respect these he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore, if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith. For earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God.

"Indeed, whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, is, even though he is unaware of the fact, nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science, and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.

"But if the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear. For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear his revealing voice in the discourse of creatures. When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible" (GS 36).

These words of the Council constitute a development of the teaching offered by faith on the subject of creation. They provide an illuminating comparison between this truth of faith and the mentality of our contemporaries, strongly influenced by the development of the natural sciences and by technological progress.

Let us endeavor to bring together in an organic synthesis the principal thoughts contained in paragraph 36 of the Constitution Gaudium et Spes.

a) In the light of the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council, the truth about creation is not merely a truth of faith based on the revelation of the Old and New Testaments. It is also a truth common to all believers "no matter what their religion," that is to say, all those "who recognize the voice and the revelation of the Creator in the language of creatures."

b) This truth is fully manifested in revelation. But it is per se accessible to human reason. We can deduce this from the overall reasoning of the Council text and in particular from the phrase: "Without the Creator the creature would disappear.... When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible." These expressions (at least indirectly) indicate that the created world postulates an Ultimate Reason, a First Cause. By virtue of their very nature, contingent beings, in order to exist, require the support of the Absolute (of Necessary Being), which is Existence per se (Subsisting Being). The fleeting and contingent world "cannot exist without the Creator."

c) In relation to the truth about creation, understood in this way, the Council makes a fundamental distinction between the "legitimate" and "illegitimate" autonomy of earthly things. That autonomy would be illegitimate (that is, not in conformity with the truth of revelation) which proclaims the independence of created things from God the Creator, and which maintains "that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator." Such a way of understanding and behaving denies and rejects the truth about creation. In most cases, if not indeed in principle, this position is maintained precisely in the name of the "autonomy" of the world, and of man in the world, and of human knowledge and action.

However, one should add immediately that in the context of an "autonomy" understood in this way, man is deprived of his autonomy in regard to the world. In the end he finds himself subjected to it. We shall return to this subject.

d) The "autonomy of earthly things" understood in this way is not only illegitimate but also useless, according to the text quoted from the Constitution Gaudium et Spes. Indeed, created things enjoy an autonomy proper to them "by will of the Creator." It is rooted in their nature, and pertains to the finality of creation (in its immanent dimension). "For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order." If this statement refers to all creatures of the visible world, it refers eminently to man. To the extent that he seeks to "discover, exploit and order" in a consistent way the laws and values of the cosmos, man not only participates creatively in the legitimate autonomy of created things, but fulfills correctly the autonomy proper to them. Thus one meets with the immanent finality of creation, and also indirectly with the Creator: "He is being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity" (GS 36).

One must add that the problem of the "legitimate autonomy of earthly things" is also linked with today's deeply felt problem of "ecology," that is, the concern for the protection and preservation of the natural environment.

Ecological destruction always presupposes a form of selfishness opposed to the well-being of the community. It arises from an arbitrary-and in the last analysis harmful-use of creatures, whose laws and natural order are violated by ignoring or disregarding the finality immanent in the work of creation. This mode of behavior derives from a false interpretation of the autonomy of earthly things. When man uses these things "without reference to the Creator," to quote once again the words of the Council, he also does incalculable harm to himself. The solution of the problem of the ecological threat is strictly related to the principles of the "legitimate autonomy of earthly things"-in the final analysis, with the truth about creation and about the Creator of the world.