Concern for Creation Is Profoundly Catholic

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment has been 50 years in the making. While the document is being championed as new ground for the Vatican, concern for the depletion of God’s creation has long been a part of Catholic social teaching. Yet papal teaching has highlighted that, ultimately, concern for nature and all created things can’t be separated from concern for man, his right relationship with God, marriage, family and a just society.

Pope St. John XXIII first mentioned the environment in the context of population control in his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress). He emphasized the dominion of man over nature and that “the resources which God in his goodness and wisdom has implanted in nature” are nearly inexhaustible. In his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), Blessed Pope Paul VI also wrote of man’s ability to use nature for the betterment of all. But by his 1971 apostolic letter Octagesima Adveniens (The 80th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum), Pope Paul warned of man’s “ill-considered exploitation of nature.” Without some care, he said, the environment of tomorrow may become “intolerable,” making this issue a “wide-ranging social problem.”

Pope St. John Paul II began to lay out a more systematic approach to the question in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The 20th Anniversary of Populorum Progressio, 1987). Three considerations must inform our consciences when it comes to the environment.

First, mankind must respect the nature of things as they are. That is, everything in nature must be considered in the context of its “connection in an ordered system.” Second, man must understand that “natural resources are limited.” Using them “as if they were inexhaustible, with absolute dominion, seriously endangers their availability” for today and for the future. Third, industrialization results in direct or indirect pollution of the environment, which becomes a health hazard for all.

Pope John Paul II consciously introduced stewardship of the environment as a moral issue, and in so doing, he placed it within the purview of the magisterium, which competently teaches on issues related to faith and morals.

In Centesimus Annus (The 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 1991), St. John Paul II first linked the ecology of nature to what he called a “human ecology” or a “social ecology.” In Paragraph 37, he warned that man must submit his use of nature to “a prior God-given purpose.” Man ought not place himself before nature as a new god, capable of doing with the world whatever he wishes.

Later, the Holy Father discussed the importance of renewable energies and solidarity with poorer nations that do not have access to energy. He also connected consumerism with the attitude that the environment exists simply for our use and disposal. In Paragraph 40, however, John Paul II stated that more serious than the destruction of the environment is the “destruction of the human environment, something which is by no means receiving the attention it deserves.”

He said the habitats of animals are rightly defended because of the important contribution each creature offers to nature’s balance. However, “too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic ‘human ecology.’” This human ecology is the balance achieved not in nature, but in culture, the balance that provides persons with the moral environment necessary to flourish in true freedom. The most important factor in developing this adequate human ecology is the family.

For Pope St. John Paul II, talk about the environment cannot fail to lead us to talk about humanity and the needs of human nature. The tendency of some to view humanity as a kind of disease on this earth is in opposition to an authentic concern for the environment. John Paul II reminded us that we are, after all, part of the environment.

Pope Benedict XVI developed the teaching further. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), we read:

“In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation.”

Without this understanding, we lose sight of the Christian vision for the environment. And, as a result, nature becomes either more important than man or nature is abused.

Benedict addressed the issues of energy and solidarity with developing nations. And in one of the more ground-breaking parts of the encyclical, he encouraged the creation of a global authority by which the global distribution of energy and food assistance can be accomplished, as well as the preservation of natural habitats for future generations.

Additionally, Pope Benedict XVI provided a theological reflection on the relationship between man and creation. He spoke of creating a “covenant between human beings and the environment,” for the way we treat the environment influences the way we treat ourselves “and vice versa.”

We need, therefore, a fundamental “shift in mentality” about the environment. The Church has a role in helping us make that shift by calling our attention to the link between human ecology and environmental ecology.

Developing St. John Paul II’s point, Pope Benedict argued, “When ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits.” Those who wish to create a true and authentic Christian environmentalism, then, must see that fostering the moral culture for a human ecology is necessary if we hope for a healthy environmental ecology.

While economic incentives and laws for protecting nature are good, Benedict underscored in Caritas in Veritate:

“The decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology.”

“The book of nature,” said the Holy Father, “is one and indivisible.” A true environmentalism cannot ignore “life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations.”

We learn from Pope Benedict XVI, therefore, that authentic Christian environmentalism must address the whole culture, not just the climate. We learn, too, that climate policies cannot be authentically environment-friendly if they are coupled with increased funding for population control. Environmental laws are incomplete, moreover, so long as the consumerism that breeds every abuse of nature, from pollution to embryonic destructive research, continues unabated.

For that reason, then, the answer to the environmental question is ultimately not a matter of enacting more laws, but a return to Christ Jesus. For Pope Benedict, the Christian with arms raised to heaven in prayer is the beginning to an authentic response to climate change and to the moral pollution that lies at the heart of it. The moral life rooted in Christ and which enlightens the intellect is the answer to our global challenges. To help with this move towards virtue, Pope Benedict pointed many times in the encyclical to the attitude of “gratuitousness,” to the “logic of gift,” which can, in the case of the environment, help us to understand that creation is indeed a gift from the Creator and, as such, ought to be treated with respect and care.

In his upcoming encyclical, Pope Francis will no doubt express his teaching in his own style. The Vatican, however, has indicated that he hopes to address the link between the environmental and human ecologies. He may address the consumerism of the West, which endorses a “throwaway culture,” as he has previously discussed. And in light of Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), his previous apostolic exhortation where he implores every Christian to be open to Jesus’ movement towards us in a personal encounter, Pope Francis will certainly also point us back to Christ Jesus as the beginning and the end of any discussion on the environment.

Omar Gutiérrez is the manager of the Office of Missions

and Justice for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska,

and the author of The Urging of Christ’s Love: The Saints and the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church.