I’ve received a few emails lately expressing concern about how Catholic teaching impacts the environment. As the thinking goes, orthodox Catholicism is bad for the planet because it encourages people to have too many kids, and there are already enough people on the earth. As a religion, its carbon footprint is too big.
Are you as Catholics not concerned about this?, people want to know. I think the right answer is: yes and no.
The “yes” part…
First of all, let’s clear up some common misconceptions. I’m surprised at how often people perceive that the Catholic stance is that every married couple must aim to have as many children as possible. This is not the case; the Church does not teach that everyone must have a large family. It’s also worth noting that lack of contraception does not automatically lead to uncontrollably mushrooming populations, even without the use of modern natural family planning methods (DarwinCatholic has an informative post about that here).
Also, though Catholics may not always be as vocal as some people who heavily identify with environmentalism as a social movement, my experience has been that serious Catholics are quite mindful of their impact on the world around them. It makes sense: Respecting the environment is all about not taking more than you need and thinking about how your actions impact the greater good, and these are actually quite “Catholic” ideals. This is the religion of the crucifix; joyful self-sacrifice is at the core of the true Catholic lifestyle.
As Simcha Fisher has pointed out, even big families do not typically have the impact on the environment that people might imagine. Tight budgets mean that they’re naturally incentivized to consume less and re-use more, and the logistical difficulties of leaving the house with so many people means they do a lot less gas-consuming running around. On top of that, the option of celibate religious life means that not every child will necessarily go on to have children of his or her own.
So I think it’s safe to say that not only are Catholics concerned about the environment, but the self-sacrificial principles at the core of environmentalism are a part of our lives at an even more fundamental level than with most of society.
The “no” part…
“But you’re still having more kids than most people!” is usually the answer I get when I say all of the above. On average, faithful Catholics do tend to have larger families than the general population. And no matter how careful we are about our consumption, fewer people means fewer resources used. If the Church truly cared about the environment, wouldn’t it start telling people to stop having kids?
This, I believe, is where Catholics and secular environmentalists diverge.
The Church sees people as more than just resource-consuming machines. It recognizes the limitless potential that comes with each life, the fact that a person’s worth has nothing to do with his or her carbon footprint. It sees the truth that population growth and resource consumption do not play out along perfectly predictable lines (e.g. who’s to say that that big family’s seventh child won’t be the one to revolutionize solar power?) It understands that as long as people are having sex, you have to accept that there will be babies, and you can’t always perfectly control when they arrive.
I think it’s a natural human reaction to be concerned about the specter of “too many people” drinking all our water and filling up our landfills. But to take that thinking too far, as some modern environmentalists do, is to adopt a loveless, hopeless worldview that dehumanizes our fellow human beings. It’s worth noting that people never put themselves, their friends, or their family members in the “overpopulation” category. When you actually know someone, you see that this person is valuable and full of potential, that the world would not be better off without her, no matter what the carbon footprint calculators say—in other words, you see what the Catholic Church has seen all along.
As usual, God’s Church gets it right. It was preaching environmentalism before the term existed, and continues to call people to transform their lives in a way that would naturally lead to less consumption and less waste. In fact, the only big difference between Catholicism and secular environmentalism is that the Church’s teachings are founded on love, and therefore it says to each and every person, those born and those yet to be born: You are welcomed. You are loved. And you are worth the resources you use.