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Bernhard Sutor


New Social Principle or Future-oriented Dimension of Human Welfare?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 9/2012, P. 617-625
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    For some time past, the concept of sustainability has been declared to be a new principle of Catholic social teaching. Bernhard Sutor, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, argues for an understanding of public welfare that sees sustainability as its future-oriented dimension.


The talk about sustainability is in vogue. In the last 10 to 15 years, the term has made an amazing career, and by some representatives of the Catholic social teaching it is meanwhile declared to be a new social principle. The urgency of the tasks to be designated by it, can not be denied at all. Our current way of life is not fit for the future, inasmuch as it destroys its natural and humane foundations; unless it is possible to bring about the change that is meant by sustainability: namely towards a long-term sustainable management of our resources, towards a human ecology in the broadest sense. But just because, as far as sustainability is concerned, it is actually about human values, there are serious doubts about its stylization to a new social principle in addition to the principles of personality, public welfare, solidarity and subsidiarity, which are now regarded as classic in the Catholic social teaching. My thesis for this is: Sustainability is part of the understanding of public welfare; the latter's future-oriented dimension is thus put in contemporary terms.


About the Origin of the Concept of Sustainability

The need to operate sustainably is long-known in some areas of the economy, as e.g. in forestry, viticulture, agriculture etc. It was well-known here that the regeneration and regrowth takes time; and that we must therefore focus on coming generations. Here it is necessary "by nature" to operate sustainably and in cycles. But also in the capital-based industrial mode of production and even in the money economy such a focus on the future is not unknown. A good entrepreneur knows that the "capital stock" has to be preserved and replaced; and with regard to a foundation, the legal norm is the safeguarding of the endowment capital.

In the context of the global environment, ecology and development discussion, the general public was made aware in a new, comprehensive way of the urgency of sustainable development. In 1987, the United Nations presented the so-called Brundtland Report, "Our Common Future". The previous development concept of self-sustained growth was there superseded by "sustainable growth".



This meant a development that meets the needs of the present generation without neglecting those of future ones. Under the title of Agenda 21, in 1992 the Rio Conference, the so-called Earth Summit of the UN, has then integrated this approach into an overall concept of economic and environmental development and applied to areas of activity such as water resources, agriculture, forests, biodiversity, combating desertification, greenhouse gases, energy generation, etc. for all participating States. This is based on a turn in economic thinking.

Since the industrial revolution, the industrial-technical production was, consciously or unconsciously, dominated by a linear thinking, whereas the realization of this program replaces the linear by a circular thinking: by taking into account natural cycles and developing technical cycles. Renewable resources need time, limited resources must be replaced in the long term; recycling materials have to be returned into new production, pollutants can only be emitted in accordance with the carrying capacity of ecosystems. These are tasks that are solved only in the long term, but they have to be tackled purposefully in all areas of production, consumption and lifestyle. The tasks are complex. They concern science and technology, economy, economic and social systems, law and politics, but also the ethical values and behaviors of people. The requirement of sustainability is thus well founded. At the same time, however, the complexity of the problems raises doubts as to whether this term adequately covers all problems.


The Ecological Problems in the Social Teaching of the Church

A systematic discussion of the ecological problems was for a long time missing in the official social teaching of the church. But in comparison to the discussion in the secular public, you find that the problems of thinking in the line of linear progress are relatively early and with increasing emphasis addressed, and thus the overall problem is brought into focus.

In his Christmas address of 1955, already Pope Pius XII criticized in passing an unreasonable use of reserves and natural resources, and noted the imbalance between consumption and conservation of productive opportunities for the future (UG 6353). In 1971, Paul VI said in "Octogesima Adveniens" that "by an ill-considered exploitation of nature man risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation (OA 21). In 1974, Cardinal Julius Döpfner opened the Conference of German Bishops with a speech "On the Future of Humanity". Based on the statements of the Club of Rome, he unfolded there the task of a comprehensive life protection.



John Paul II addressed this topic in many of his official statements. Attention is drawn here only to "Centesimus Annus" (1991), where he outlined the concept of human ecology on the basis of Christian anthropology and ethics of creation. He made thus clear that it is not just about the natural but also about the human environment (CA 37/38). In "Caritas in Veritate" (2009), Benedict XVI takes this and other statements of his predecessor up (No. 48 ff.). Here, he puts the mentioned issues (protection of nature, energy issues, global problems of distribution, life protection) also in the context of a human ecology, which is determined theologically by creationism, socio-ethically by solidarity and justice.

Thus, it seems that the theological and social-ethical foundations of the traditional social teaching definitely suffice, in order to grasp perfectly the new ecological issues in their breadth and depth, and to describe the resulting tasks and the problems linked with the respective actions. A new social principle it therefore not necessary to this end.

If I am not mistaken, sustainability becomes for the first time a key concept in an official church document (1997) in the "Joint Statement" of the two churches in Germany on the economic and social situation. As is well known, the text was the result of a broad debate of several years in many church groups and committees. The parallel discussion of the study "Zukunftsfähiges Deutschland" [Germany fit for the Future], published in 1996 by BUND and Misereor with the aim to promote the Agenda 21 process in Germany {1} was here of great importance. It is the merit of both discussion processes that they made broad sections of society aware of the urgency of re-orientation and searching for new ways in our own socio-economic issues and in the global issue of human development. Against this background it is not surprising that in the "Joint Statement" of the churches the issue of sustainability was given a place in the introductory chapter. The relevant section was there the conclusion of the "basic ethical perspectives", after love of God and one's neighbor, option for the poor, justice, solidarity and subsidiarity. The concept is presented as an ethical and political guiding principle, which is intended to "express a permanent sustainable development". As reasons are given the responsibility for the creation and the insight into the interconnectedness of social, economic and environmental problems (No. 125).

A year later, this was the main topic of the extensive paper of the German bishops "Handeln für die Zukunft der Schöpfung". In the chapter on the theological and ethical basis for actions, sustainable development has been unfolded there as "ethical-political guiding principle". The text also speaks of the "model of sustainability". It is supposed to guide the combining of economics and ecology in a circular thinking and acting.



In addition to sustainability, however, in this text then also "retinity" (interconnectedness) turns up as a guiding principle of sustainable development, namely the demand that we consistently see ourselves as a part of creation, the network that encompasses us. Subsequently, it attracts attention that not sustainability is integrated into the principles of Christian social ethics but retinity, namely by reasoning from the universal common good, solidarity and subsidiarity. In this text, the bishops do thus not create a new social principle in addition to the "classic" ones. They rather introduce simultaneously sustainability and retinity as guiding principles of ecological actions and justify them via empirical facts by the traditional principles {2}.


The Ecological Problems in the Scientifical Catholic Social Teaching

A review of relevant studies on Catholic social teaching or social ethics comes to comparable findings. Up to the end of the 90s, the ecology issues are discussed by means of the traditional theory elements; it seems to me that this was entirely appropriate. Then also the category of sustainability emerged, and is declared by some authors to be a new social principle.

In the 7th edition of "Staatslexikon" (1985 ff) sustainability has no own article and is also not mentioned in the index. But there is a professional article 'ecology'. From the 80s and 90s, several analyses of known social ethicists are available {3}. They differ in accentuations but concur in their basic statements. The modern concept of progress is analyzed in pros and cons by these authors in the light of Christian anthropology. Science and technology are part of man as cultural being. Today, however, the potential on which progress is based proves insistently to be finite. The problems resulting from it, man must overcome by virtue of his reason. Man as imago dei is entitled to rule the world, but he must exercise it with reason and responsibility for himself and for others within the limits of the earthly things. God's Creation Commandment to man (Gen 1:28) is no carte blanche, on the contrary, it obliges to use earthly goods with care, and to cultivate creation. The solution of the problems and conflicting goals, resulting from the unavoidable dilemma structure of our existence, is dependent on the balancing of interests and the search for compromise with the help of ethical criteria. As such ones, the authors especially designate justice and solidarity in their universal importance, also for future generations.

In an article in this journal, Wilhelm Korff has as the first introduced the term "retinity" (interconnectedness) as guiding principle for action {4}. It demands circular, cross-linked thinking and action in view of the mutual dependence of economic, ecological, socio-cultural and political factors.



In the late 90s one finds the concept of sustainability in articles of younger social ethicists. However, it is initially not introduced as a social principle in the strict sense but as a guiding norm and practical rule of action. In their article in an interdisciplinary anthology on environmental ethics and development (1997), Achim Lerch and Hans G. Nutzinger, for instance, explain introductorily the concept of sustainability as a requirement of practical reason: it results from the "enlightened anthropocentrism", as it is advocated by Wilhelm Korff {5}. In the same anthology, in the subtle contribution of Michael Schramm on the methodology of dialogue between environmental economics and Christian social ethics, sustainability is not found. As a last point, Schramm locates theologically the contribution of Christian ethics to the environmental question rather in the doctrine of creation, and ethically in its classic normative inventory {6}. In the same year, Hans-Joachim Höhn writes in his own anthology on interdisciplinary Christian social ethics an article on perspectives of an ecological social ethics. Sustainability is found there among other "criteria and principles" of ethical and ecological rationality, as e.g. interconnectedness, human and social acceptability, and terminableness. They all are norms of action, in order to tie human culture back to the network of nature, by which it is supported {7}.

If I am right, Markus Vogt has for the first time given sustainability as a social principle an equal rank beside the traditional principles, namely in the in 1999 published Handbuch der Wirtschaftsethik [Handbook of Business Ethics]. His article "The new social sustainability principle" there follows in the section "Social Principles" the three articles about personality, solidarity and subsidiarity; an article about public welfare is not found there {8}. In the same way, the textbook by Marianne Heimbach-Steins (2004) has a section by Werner Veith on sustainability in addition to the other principles, including the principle of public welfare {9}.

Vogt gives first empirical reasons for the importance of the principle of sustainability, due to the new problem situation. He gives three reasons for the systematic correlation to the other principles: dignity and responsibility of the human person, the universal validity of solidarity, subsidiarity as principle of a liberal order against notions of an eco-dictatorship. According to Vogt, sustainability connects and actualizes the traditional principles of social ethics within the horizon of the problems of ecology, and out of this "network of cross-references" he obtains contents and motivational power. In his contribution, Werner Veith notices that this systematic correlation was controversial, and gives as reason the connection of three "normative basic elements": the discovery of nature as socio-ethically relevant entity, the cross-linkage between economic, environmental and social problem areas, and the intergenerational justice.

Markus Vogt definitely sees that the "network of cross-references" of the other principles is insufficient in order to establish sustainability as a new equal-ranking principle.



He therefore argues further that a separate subject area corresponds to the fundamental relationship of man to nature - beyond economic and social relations. The principle of sustainability represents man's relation to nature. It emerged as a new field of ethical responsibility, in consequence to the expansion dynamism of economy. This relation to nature cannot be derived from the social reality. The encompassing reality is not society but "in many respects nature." However, sustainability is nevertheless a social principle: the point is that we understand the social conditions and survival issues "from the dynamism of man's relation both to nature and society" {10}. Vogt therefore wants explicitly to adhere to the anthropocentric-personal retrospective dependence of environmental ethics, and he strengthens this relationship also by referring to the Christian belief in creation. But the question remains as to whether it is sufficient to locate these problems within the traditional theory of principles, in order to prove the urgency of norms of behavior, such as sustainability and retinity. My thesis is that the (by Vogt neglected) category of public welfare in connection with the idea of creation does this in an excellent way.


Sustainability as Requirement of Public Welfare

The social principles standardize the social basic relationships in their ethical quality for human existence in society. Here, our dependence on nature is inescapable, but to nature as such we have no social relationship. Today the ecological problems admittedly gain new urgency - not for the sake of nature but for our sake. Since our human existence in its social-cultural development is dependent on natural basic conditions, their preservation is a social obligation and task. Nature as such provides us with no ethical standards; it is ethically mute. Plants do not develop any protection of nature, animals no animal protection. And if we would destroy the natural conditions of our human existence, nature as such would continue to exist and evolve according to its laws. In its documents and in its scientific development, Catholic social teaching expressly rejects physio- and biocentric reasons for environmental ethics, and gives, by contrast, its anthropocentric reasons {11}.

Our ethical obligation to preserve, foster and cultivate nature is a commitment to ourselves, our fellow human beings and our descendants. It is a personal-social obligation and therefore it can easily be substantiated by the traditional social principles. Due to considerations in the field of philosophy of nature, you may perhaps attribute intrinsic value and thus a purpose to the pre-personal nature. But it is hardly possible to substantiate how ethical criteria for us should result from it - without recourse to ourselves as cultural beings in social responsibility and to the belief in creation.



Our often for other reasons invoked closer relationship with animals is also not convincing here. The duty to avoid unnecessary suffering of animals is of anthropogenic origin: as human beings we develop the ability to empathize with animals, and we are then also obliged to do so.

For the Catholic social teaching, the anthropocentric concept of social ethics is at the same time theocentric. That's why also an ethical obligation towards nature as such ensues, because we believe and interpret it as God's creation. In it, nature gains an intrinsic value even in comparison to man and obliges him to cultivate creation. This means incidentally more than what the trivializing and at the same time arrogant formula of the "preservation of creation" expresses. Preservation of Creation is static; the cultivation of creation, however, is dynamic: it implies evolution, also progress, but with it also grappling with the inevitable dilemmas. To overcome them, guiding principles such as sustainability and retinity are today useful and necessary criteria. Their substantiation, however, makes always recourse to the belief in creation. This applies even to authors who want to refer to them as new social principles.

The connection of belief in creation and social principles impressively demonstrates that such guiding principles for tackling ecological problems belong to the context of thought about public welfare. For this includes the old and central principle: the goods of the earth are, prior to all special purposes, the common goods of the entire humankind. Thomas Aquinas saw the bonum commune as pivot of social ethics, because the human person is socially constituted, and needs common goods for its development in society. Their protection is the central task of the political system, because the bonum commune is not given but set as a task. Its respective realization requires prudence which as prudentia always also means providentia, foresight, good balancing of opportunities and threats in the future. Wilhelm Korff quotes Thomas: Man is "sibi ipsi et aliis providens" {12}.

The abuse of the concept of public welfare in the authoritarian state and in dictatorships has brought it into disrepute. Due to the scholastic tradition, in Catholic social teaching it has admittedly still been advocated, but in a very static way of thinking it has been constricted unhistorically to an apolitical doctrine of principles. Its future-oriented dimension was largely lost sight of. Consideration was most likely given to it by John Messner (1891-1984). In addition to a static dimension, he expressly attributed also a dynamic dimension to public welfare. By extending the social reality to all areas of culture, a characteristic of his thought, he developed a rich theory of the various cultural goods as goods of public welfare {13}.

This takes account of the reality of a modern, socially differentiated society, where a comprehensive public welfare within state responsibility is no longer conceivable.



On the contrary, a wealth of common goods must be distinguished. They have to be created in social interaction in the various areas of existence and by different social groups. The political system is responsible for the bonum commune in the narrow sense, namely for the public legal and political order: as a prerequisite it makes it possible that the societal forces live together harmoniously and are able to create the various common goods {14}.

Against this background, it becomes clear that, on the one hand, it is only possible to grapple with the ecological problems in a liberally organized interaction of many societal groups, social systems and levels of activity - i.e. in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. And that they, on the other hand, are a political task of society as a whole, and today a global task of solidary international cooperation.

The natural foundations of our life and coexistence, water, air, soil and minerals, food sources, climate, but also the cultural and technical achievements of human development as e.g. efficient mode of production, forms of economizing, education and training opportunities for generations to come - all these are common goods of the different societal groups and of mankind as a whole. The obligation for each individual, for society and for politics to protect and develop them, is a central part of our commitment to public welfare. For Christians, it is deeper substantiated and becomes thus all the more urgent from the biblical faith in the Creator and His creation, together with the commandment given us there to cultivate the earth [Kulturauftrag]. This is the strongest substantiation also for norms of action such as sustainability, networked thinking, risk and impact assessment: they mark the future-oriented dimension of public welfare. In not a few church documents this is impressively demonstrated. Quoting from the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church formulates for instance:

Care for the environment represents a challenge for all of humanity. It is a matter of a common and universal duty, that of respecting a common good, destined for all, by preventing anyone from using "with impunity the different categories of beings, whether living or inanimate animals, plants, the natural elements simply as one wishes, according to one's own economic needs". It is a responsibility that must mature on the basis of the global dimension of the present ecological crisis and the consequent necessity to meet it on a worldwide level, since all beings are interdependent in the universal order established by the Creator. "One must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the 'cosmos'" (Compendium No. 466).



Conclusion: The urgency of sustainability as norm of behavior is undisputed in view of the ecological problems. However, you needn't therefore make it a new social principle. Rather, it must be located well in the traditional principles of Catholic social teaching, when we reflect on the importance of the common goods in all social spheres of action, and on the from there resulting principle of commitment to public welfare by political actions at all levels. Also from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, the Brundtland Report has therefore been aptly titled "Our Common Future".



{1} Zukunftsfähiges Deutschland. Ein Beitrag zu einer global nachhaltigen Entwicklung, edited by BUND/Misereor (Basel 1996).

{2} Handeln für die Zukunft der Schöpfung, edited by the Secretariat of the German Bishops' Conference (Bonn 1998).

{3} See W. Korff, Verstörter Fortschrittsglaube; the same, Kriterien: Natur oder Vernunft; both in: the same, Wie kann der Mensch glücken. Perspektiven der Ethik (München 1985) 239-259, 260-271; W. Kluxen, Moralische Aspekte der Energie- u. Umweltfrage, in: Handbuch der Christlichen Ethik, volume 3 (Freiburg 1993) 379-424; W. Ockenfels, Ökologie u. Technik in sozialethischer Perspektive; in: Zukunftsfähige Gesellschaft, edited by A. Rauscher (Berlin 1998) 179-197.

{4} W. Korff, Leitideen verantworteter Technik, in this journal 207 (1989) 253-266.

{5} A. Lerch and H. G. Nutzinger, Die Ökologieproblematik in ökonomischer u. ethischer Perspektive, in: Umweltethik u. Entwicklungsprobleme, edited by A. Habisch and others (Münster 1997) 31-68, 35.

{6} M. Schramm, Umweltökonomik u. Christliche Sozialethik, in: in the same place 105-150.

{7} H.-J. Höhn, Technik u. Natur: Perspektiven einer Ökologischen Sozialethik, in: Christliche Ethik interdisziplinär, edited by the same (Paderborn 1997) 263-289.

{8} M. Vogt, Das neue Sozialprinzip "Nachhaltigkeit" als Antwort auf die ökologische Herausforderung; in: Handbuch der Wirtschaftsethik, volume 1, edited by W. Korff (Gütersloh 1999) 237-257; the same, Was ist "Nachhaltigkeit"? Reihe "Kirche u. Gesellschaft" (Köln 2007).

{9} W. Veith, Nachhaltigkeit, in: Christliche Sozialethik. Ein Lehrbuch, volume 1, edited by M. Heimbach-Steins (Regensburg 2004) 302-314.

{10} Vogt (note 8) 251.

{11} See the in note 2 mentioned text of the German bishops (45 f.) and the in note 3 mentioned authors. W. Korff, "Sittliche Normen sind keine Eigenschaften der Natur, sondern Auslegungsresultate der Vernunft", in: the same (note 3) 268.

{12} Korff (note 3) 245.

{13} J. Messner, Das Gemeinwohl. Idee, Wirklichkeit, Aufgaben (Osnabrück 1962); the same, Die Soziale Frage (Innsbruck 61956).

{14} 0. v. Nell-Breuning, Wörterbuch der Politik I: Zur Christlichen Gesellschaftslehre (Freiburg 1954) col. 51 ff.


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