Nancy M. Rourke - Ecological Moral Character: A Catholic Model

May 17, 2024 / 5 mins read

Ecological Moral Character by Nancy M. Rourke integrates ecology with Aquinas’ vision of moral character. Read on for a Q&A with the author on how this book addresses the threat of climate change along with Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato si’ and what the role of virtue theory and moral theology are in her book.

This book engages with the threat of climate change. Can you describe how the reality of climate change impacted the writing of this book?

When I woke up to the reality of our climate’s increasing instability, I recognized the urgency of our need to change how we were living. In the theological ethics work that was attuned our environmental situation, I heard exhortations that were based on humanity’s duties as stewards of creation. Those calls were essential for helping my neighboring Christian practitioners to recognize in our tradition the resources and traditions that would help us to turn, to convert, in the necessary ways. But I did not feel as motivated by these kinds of reminders. When I began to discover ecotheological theologians’ work, that did resonate with me. I felt as though these kinds of reflections could inspire more lasting change. This is good because some kinds of swift or sudden conversions can fade quickly. I wanted to find a way to restructure Christian moral thought to sustain a new way of thinking about our human moral selves. That meant getting creative with virtue ethics. To me, a virtue approach to the climate crisis offers resources that support deeper, more ingrained change. That’s what an ecological conversion means to me.

How does your book respond to Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato si’ which calls for greater care towards the environment?

This book is my response to Pope Francis’ call for an integral ecology. When I hear that phrase—“integral ecology”—I imagine a way of thinking about ecosystems as the primary frame within which we live. It is the locus of all of humanity’s worlds: our social worlds but also our biological, chemical, and spiritual worlds. The 2015 encyclical asks us to reconceptualize our very selves (as individuals and as members of a species) with an ecological awareness. It can aid a more thickly contextualized self-recognition. The integral ecology is not merely a new way to approach problems, as Laudato si’ notes. It is the foundation of a renewed theological anthropology.

What is the importance of virtue theory throughout this book?

The book is all about virtue theory! I think ecological virtues cannot be universalized too much. Therefore, my book is not trying to direct attention at one specific topic area of morality. Instead, the book wants us to take up the opportunity to reshape how we imagine our moral selves, with a clearer and brighter sense of responsibility. That is: we are responsible for shaping our moral selves. In Catholic virtue ethics, the fundamental tool that can help us with that is the frame we use to imagine our own moral development. Integrating more specifics into that frame helps us to be more aware of all life, in our own moral work. So, for example, an ecological virtue frame helps us attend to our economic spheres, to our families’ structures, and to our ecological systems. I think this can help us understand life more broadly. An ecological frame of moral character helps us think to value life as a system of many processes, in the middle of which we are breathing, walking, creating, acting, living, and growing.

How do you use virtue ethics to approach moral theology in your book?

I start with a structure of a moral character drawn from Thomas Aquinas and suggest additional details or alternative view of virtues’ interactions. I take those details from work in systems ecology. So instead of a mechanistic pyramid as a model of the ideal moral character, I imagine a dynamic balancing act of dozens or hundreds of participating “parts” of a moral character (like virtues and vices, and also the will and the intellect, etc.). If you drew a blueprint or diagram of how a moral character’s components interact, it would look like the carbon cycle of an ecosystem. A moral character can be modeled as a diagram of energy flows. I reimagined what virtue ethics would look like if it were working from that kind of a model of a human moral character.

How do you hope that ecological problems will be assessed in connection with other social justice issues and within a broader social context?

Ecological ethics always happens in places. This is a condition of our created embodiment. Therefore all violations of justice take place in specific places. The conditions of places define what exactly justice means. They determine what injustice means, in those places. The creation and the effects of injustice are local.

Social injustices are always also ecological injustices, and ecological injustices are always also social injustices. We need practice in acknowledging how these dimensions of justice and injustice collaborate. When we do not recognize our past and current justice failures, we are drawn to ecological and social “solutions” that are ineffective or harmful. We miss the opportunity to become better people, in favor of aiming for poorly-chosen, overly specific targets. That’s a great loss.

Your book presents an “ecological model of human moral character.” Can you briefly explain what this idea is and how it can help people understand and care for the environment in which they live?

In a way, this model is an action diagram of Pope Francis’ reminder that “everything is connected,” with a lens zooming in on our moral characters. It offers an integral ecology that goes right down to our guts.

This book describes a model of how to imagine your moral character as an ecosystem which is itself embedded within all the ecosystems you live in. The model gives us a way to see how the many “participants” of our inner moral worlds are embedded within the ecosystem of our apartment building, for example. The model illuminates how the traits that are active and influential within our moral character are also at work in our building’s external ecosystems.