People are surprised to learn that the Catholic Church has been speaking on “Caring for Creation” for over 800 years. In recent times the terms “Environmental Movement” or “Environmentalism” are identified with caring for the earth and they evoke varied emotions in people. Some identify these terms with “tree huggers” and an extreme left wing agenda. Others view these terms as the scourge that will undermine Capitalism. The Catholic Church subscribes to neither extreme; instead, She views it as part of our being God’s Stewards.
We will start by looking at key teachings and insights from Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and our United States Bishops. From there, we will conclude with reflections upon key themes concerning this important topic. A rich bibliography may be found on the USCCB website (www.usccb.org) regarding both Vatican and United States Bishops’ statements.
Pope John Paul II was instrumental in alerting Catholics to our duty regarding our care for the environment, as in 1979 he named St. Francis of Assisi, who is already Patron Saint of Animals, as the Patron Saint of Ecology. The Holy Father’s World Day of Peace message on January 1, 1990, was entitled “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.” The Pontiff began his address with the words: “In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life…. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives (n.1).”
Throughout his pontificate, he talked about our care for the environment, including his encyclicals Sollicutudo Rei Socialis (1987), where he became the first Pope to formally address the challenges of ecology, and Evangelium Vitae (1995). In addition, at his Wednesday Audience on January 17, 2001, he talked about how God made man the steward of creation: “Man’s lordship (over creation), however, is not …the mission of an absolute and unquestionable master, but of a steward of God’s Kingdom who is called to continue the Creator’s work, a work of life and peace. His task, described in the Book of Wisdom, is to rule “the world in holiness and righteousness” (Wis 9: 3). (n.3).” “We must therefore encourage and support the “ecological conversion” which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading. (n. 4)”
Our own United States Bishops released two important statements during Blessed John Paul’s Pontificate as well. On November 14, 1991, they released “Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching.” In it, they stated that: “Today, humanity is at a crossroads. Having read the signs of the times, we can either ignore the harm we see and witness further damage, or we can take up our responsibilities to the Creator and creation with renewed courage and commitment. The task set before us is unprecedented, intricate, complex. No single solution will be adequate to the task. To live in balance with the finite resources of the planet, we need an unfamiliar blend of restraint and innovation. We shall be required to be genuine stewards of nature and thereby co-creators of a new human world. This will require both new attitudes and new actions. (n. V)”
On June 15, 2001, they released “Global Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good.” Here the Bishops remind us that “At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both “the human environment” and the natural environment. 1 It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us. (Introduction)”
Environmental concerns have also been a hallmark of Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontificate as he has made it both a recurring theme of his writings and teachings as well as in his actions as, under his leadership, 2400 solar panels were installed on the roof of Pope Paul VI Audience Hall which went into service on November 26, 2008. Pope Benedict has been called the “Green Pope” by some writers because of his concern for and statements regarding the world’s environment. In his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, issued June 29, 2009, Pope Benedict devoted five paragraphs to care for the environment. He noted: “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole…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… Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. Nature speaks to us of the Creator (cf. Rom 1:20) and his love for humanity. (n.48)”
“Human beings legitimately exercise a responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways, with the assistance of advanced technologies, so that it can worthily accommodate and feed the world’s population… At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it.” This means being committed to making joint decisions “after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying. …the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith. (n. 50)” “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. (n. 51)” “The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. (n. 52)”
For Pope Benedict, care for the environment and stewardship are intertwined. As he reminds us: “Christians in particular, conforming their lives to the Gospel, recognize that all people are brothers and sisters; that life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other, and whoever is rich must be as it were an “executor of the orders of God the Benefactor” (Hom 6 de avaritia: PG 32, 1181-1196). We must all help one another and cooperate as members of one body (Ep 203, 3). (General Audience, August 1, 2007)” It is important for us to assume this mantle of responsibility and leave the world a better place for others.
On November 8-10, 2012 the USCCB co-hosted a symposium entitled: “A Catholic Consultation on Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States.” The statements from this are awaiting publication, yet one can see that care for our environment is an ongoing concern for Pope Benedict and all members of the Church. In addition, Our Sunday Visitor has published a book titled The Environment that contains all of Pope Benedict’s statements prior to its 2012 publication date concerning this important theme and I invite the reader to explore this treasure-trove of Our Holy Father’s theology and thoughts.
On November 7, 2005 Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, then Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave an address on ten principles of environmental ethics drawn from the book Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church at a congress on “Ethics and the Environment” at European University of Rome. I would like to conclude this article with brief reflections on two of these principles.
First, “Lifestyles should be oriented according to the principles of sobriety, temperance and self-discipline, both at the personal and social levels. People need to escape from the consumer mentality and promote methods of production that respect the created order, as well as satisfying the basic needs of all. This change of lifestyle would be helped by a greater awareness of the interdependence between all the inhabitants of the earth.” As Our Holy Father said to the priests of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone: “…none of this (new technology) will suffice unless we ourselves find a new way of living, a discipline of making sacrifices, a discipline of the recognition of others to whom creation belongs as much as it belongs to us who may more easily make use of it; a discipline of responsibility with regard to the future of others and to our own future, …To be heard, we must at the same time demonstrate by our own example, by our own way of life, that we are speaking of a message in which we ourselves believe and according to which it is possible to live. And let us ask the Lord to help us all to live out the faith and the responsibility of faith in such a way that our lifestyle becomes a testimony; and then to speak in such a way that our works may credibly convey faith as an orientation in our time.” (August 6, 2008). The Church invites us to embrace a lifestyle that respects creation and is a witness to others.
Second, “A spiritual response must be given to environmental questions, inspired by the conviction that creation is a gift that God has placed in the hands of mankind, to be used responsibly and with loving care. People’s fundamental orientation toward the created world should be one of gratitude and thankfulness. The world, in fact, leads people back to the mystery of God who has created it and continues to sustain it. If God is forgotten, nature is emptied of its deepest meaning and left impoverished.” All of us, as stewards of the earth that God has entrusted to us, have a responsibility to maintain it and see it as God’s gift to us. We need to pray that humanity will embrace the teachings of the Church and each of us do our part to live it in our own lives. With that in mind, we can all pray and reflect upon the prayer of Azariah and his companions as found in the Book of Daniel:
“Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever.
Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord;
You heavens, bless the Lord;
All you waters above the heavens;
Sun and moon, bless the Lord;
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord;
Every shower and dew, bless the Lord;
All you winds, bless the Lord;
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord;
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and chill, bless the Lord;
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord;
Light and darkness, bless the Lord;
Lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord;
Let the earth bless the Lord;
Mountains and hills, bless the Lord;
Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord;
You springs, bless the Lord;
Seas and rivers, bless the Lord;
You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord;
All you birds of the air, bless the Lord;
All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord;
You children of humanity, bless the Lord;
Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord;
Holy ones of humble heart, bless the Lord;
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.” (Dn. 3:52-90)
Father David L. Danneker, PhD. He is pastor of St. Peter Parish in Elizabethtown and a member of the Diocese’s Commission on Catholic Social Doctrine.