Environment: The Church’s Teachings Are the Best Antidote to the Planet’s Ills

Cornell University professor Christopher Barrett, a participant at a recent Vatican conference on environmental issues, discusses with the Register the role the Church can play.

Christopher Barrett, an agricultural and development economist at Cornell University
Christopher Barrett, an agricultural and development economist at Cornell University (photo: Provided by subject)

ROME — The 2019 international Convention of the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice (CAPP) Foundation, which took place in the Vatican June 6-8, presented as its theme “Catholic Social Teaching From Inception to the Digital Age: How to Live Laudato Si.

Dozens of prominent economists, businessmen and representatives of international institutions exchanged views with clergymen on concrete ways of taking care of the Earth, our common home, four years after the publication of Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Laudato Si.

According to the foundation’s president, Anna Maria Tarantola, the event sought to promote the idea that “solidarity and economic, environmental and social sustainability are possible in a market economy” and that the pursuit of such values are compatible with efficiency.

At the end of two days of intense debates and discussions, the participants were received June 8 by Pope Francis, who urged them to create a new model of global development able to “open a renewed dialogue on the future of our planet” and transform contemporary societies at every level.

During the event, Christopher Barrett, an agricultural and development economist at Cornell University, spoke about “Global Food Security in the Light of the Teachings of Laudato Si: On Science, Solidarity and Subsidiarity.”

In this interview with the Register, Barrett discusses the implications of his Catholic faith in his work and the key role that the Church can play in global environmental issues.


Your talk at the CAPP convention focused on global food security in light of the teachings of Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home). What are the core teachings of this encyclical, according to you?

The crucial thing the Holy Father teaches in Laudato Si regarding food-security problems is, first, the integral nature of the world. You, me and the rest of nonhuman order are all part of God’s creation. Moreover, we depend upon the rest of God’s created order. If we don’t care for the nonhuman creation, we inevitably hurt ourselves. Not necessarily us directly, but the next generation. Today, those of us who are well-off can exercise caution and limit our exposure to environmental degradation, while the less-well-off populations are the most vulnerable to damage to the environment.

This concept of the integral nature of creation is perhaps the most fundamental point the Holy Father makes in Laudato Si. It is closely coupled to the preferential option for the poor that has its roots in the Gospel message and has long been a core of Catholic social teaching. The preferential option for the poor is linked to the care of the natural environment because the poor will be hurt first and worse if we don’t take care of nature.


To what extent are Catholic social teachings relevant to addressing today’s environment issues?

The Church has an indirect influence over more than a billion members of the Church, and this Pope also enjoys a huge audience throughout the world. So the opportunities to change human behavior through the teachings of the Church are maybe unparalleled. And at a time when we most need human behavior to change, when we most need to begin to put right our relationship with the natural order, to take seriously the threats posed by the damage we do to the environment, to waters, to forests, to soils, our natural inclination as humans still is to think about ourselves first, because of our fallen nature, our intrinsic sinfulness. The Church always reminds us that we have to think of the others, that Jesus directs us to do that. But in doing so, we also have to be thinking of the planet because we can’t really take care of others, in particular future generations, if we don’t take care of the planet.

The Church plays a central role in this because the Church has an opportunity to influence decision-makers, and a group like the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation has an opportunity to influence governments, business and civil society leaders. The influence the Church can exercise shouldn’t be underestimated.


Environmental initiatives are often criticized as lacking in a solid economic grounding. In your opinion, how is it possible to protect the planet in a concrete way?

Economics tell us we respond to incentives. The core problem of environmental damage is that markets typically don’t internalize externalities, the consequences of our actions on others. Therefore, we need to structure incentives to people through rules, taxes, subsidies and through teaching, by encouraging people to behave responsibly.

If I have a moral or an economic incentive to behave appropriately, I will care for the environment much better. The economics are fairly clear in saying the problem is getting the incentive systems right. It is largely a matter of political will and moral compulsion.


Many of the environmental movements are still inspired by anti-human ideologies like Malthusianism, which holds that so-called human overpopulation is a viable threat to human existence. How can we promote environmental policies that avoid such harmful ideologies?

The Church does not teach an anti-science message and remains a sound defense against these ideologies. Pope Francis makes it very clear in Laudato Si that science and technologies are allies in our quest to take care of our common home. We have to work to advance science. The Church historically played an essential role in it. The Church was the repository of scholarship, of intellectual advances for centuries.

The Church remains a leader in scientific thought and has prestigious schools and universities all around the world. But the Church needs to embrace a more encompassing view of science and needs to promote more actively scientific and technological solutions that go hand in hand with a solidarity with the poor, with the care for our common home. Science and technology are our allies, and they are part of what God created in our brains so that we can be creative and discover new things. And we need to honor God by doing that.


How does your Catholic faith inspire you in your work?

If you go to my website, you’ll see the core mission statement of my research group is all about ending unnecessary suffering in the world. There is a great deal on unnecessary human suffering. I am very aware that I am exceedingly fortunate to have been born to healthy parents in a high-income country that was at peace during my childhood so I had every opportunity to develop my God-given talents. And I am very aware that my five children are healthy and now educated adults, but many people don’t get the same opportunity to take care of their children. They and their children suffer tremendous misfortune due to no fault of theirs.

As soon as one recognizes that we’ve not earned the many blessings we enjoy, that they were given to us by God, not because God favors us over those who suffer more misfortune, but just because we are lucky and the world is a mysterious creation, then it becomes very hard to not feel kinship with the poor. We should feel [motivated by] “To whom much is given, much is required.” That verse from Luke 12:48 has always been a central motivation for me. 


Various criticisms were raised against international humanitarian assistance institutions over the past decade, including within the Church, especially against the fact that international food-assistance policies often have very negative consequences on local economies. Do you agree with that?

As an economist who has dedicated his career to studying those issues at a high level, I disagree. Those criticisms address an old-fashioned form of food assistance that indeed did sometimes cause damage because it was poorly conceptualized and executed. Thankfully, the way in which the international community undertakes international food assistance has changed dramatically. In the last 20 years, we’ve had a complete reversal of the system in all donor countries except for the U.S. And even in the U.S., there has been a dramatic transformation.

So the real shortcoming in international food assistance today is not that we send food to poor people, because the vast majority of food assistance is cash provided to people on their cellphones so that they can go to a local market and buy food. Rather, the real tragedy of the international food-assistance system is that we provide less than 50%  of what is needed to address the pressing humanitarian needs faced by people suffering.

We know how to reach them in ways that don’t distort or disrupt local economies, and yet we don’t provide the money that is needed. 

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.