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Catholic statements about ecology, including from Pope Francis.
"Our earth speaks to us, and we must listen if we want to survive"
-Pope Benedict XVI, July 24, 2007
Edited by Bill Jacobs, founder and president of the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center
In 1990, Blessed John Paul II issued his World Day of Peace Message, Peace with God - Peace with all of Creation, in which the Holy Father announced, "There is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts, and continued injustice among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature.... 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."
Some people believe that the Catholic Church has only recently jumped into the fields of environmental justice and conservation. Nothing could be farther from the truth! According to one of the world's leading champions of the environment, Sister Marjorie Keenan, "To commit oneself to the promotion of a sound and healthy environment for all is to follow God’s plan for creation, a plan entrusted to us from the beginning."7
Since its inception, the Church has instructed us on the proper dominion and stewardship of Creation. This wisdom is made known to us through sacred Scripture, the living Tradition of the Church, the message of Creation, and the voice of conscience enlightened by God’s law.
The Catholic approach to environmental justice is based on the two commandments of Jesus Christ: to love God above all things and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love of God requires respect for God's gifts and for God's will for Creation. Love of neighbor requires justice, which prohibits the selfish destruction of the environment without regard for those in need today or for the needs of future generations.1
The Catholic attitude toward nature, in a word, is stewardship. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care. From the first pages of the Bible, we are instructed to "cultivate and care for" God's Creation (Genesis 2:15). Created in the image and likeness of God, we are granted dominion over the rest of Creation (Genesis 1:26-28). Dominion means that we have sovereignty over and responsibility for the well-being of God's Creation. We resemble God primarily because of this dominion; hence, our dominion must also resemble God's dominion. We must cultivate and care for the Earth as God does, with love and wisdom. We are called to exercise dominion in ways that allow God's original Creative Act to be further unfolded.
Dominion does not mean that God does not care how we use the material world. From the beginning, God insists that humans are not “little gods” with limitless authority. Not only does Genesis describe the creation of humankind as “very good,” it describes the creation of non-human creation as “good.” In other words, nature has its own value, and that value is given by God. God enables people to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of Creation and to perfect its harmony.
In the year 97 A.D., Pope St. Clement described the peace and harmony of the Universe, "The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command. The fruitful Earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and animal and all the living beings upon it. The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, peacefully give place to one another. The very smallest of living beings meet together in peace and concord. All these the great Creator and Lord of all has appointed to exist in peace and harmony." Such statements of a harmonious Universe endowed by God with its own integrity and internal dynamic balance are common throughout the living Tradition of the Church.
50 years ago, in 1961, Pope John XXIII reminded us of the need to care for Creation when he explained, "Genesis relates how God gave two commandments to our first parents: to transmit human life -- 'Increase and multiply' -- and to bring nature into their service -- 'Fill the Earth, and subdue it.' These two commandments are complementary. Nothing is said in the second of these commandments about destroying nature. On the contrary, it must be brought into the service of human life."
In 1971, Pope Paul VI warned, "Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace -- pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity -- but the human framework is no longer under man's control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family." He added, "Everything is inter-related. [We must be attentive] to the large-scale consequences that every intervention of man brings about in the balance of nature which has been put at man's disposition in all its harmonious richness, according to the loving designs of the Creator".5
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI released a statement, If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation. In this statement, Pope Benedict continues to explore the theological significance of the relationships between God, humanity, and creation.
Since the beginning, God and His Church have called us to be co-workers and stewards of Creation in wisdom and love. Today this call remains as urgent as ever.
Defending Human Ecology
"The first step towards a correct relationship with the
world around us is the recognition by humans of their status as created beings.
Man is not God; he is His image. For this reason he must seek to be more
sensitive to the presence of God in his surroundings. In all creatures, and
especially in human beings, there is an epiphany, or manifestation, of God.
The human being will be capable of respecting other creatures only if he keeps the full meaning of life in his own heart. Otherwise he will come to despise himself and his surroundings, and to disrespect the environment, the creation, in which he lives. For this reason, the first ecology to be defended is 'human ecology.' This is to say that, without a clear defense of human life from conception until natural death; without a defense of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman; without an authentic defense of those excluded and marginalized by society ... we will never be able to speak of authentic protection of the environment."
~ Pope Benedict XVI, March 9, 2011
Based in part on the 1991 statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth. Please refer to that document for the complete text.
1. A sacramental view of the Universe. In a sacramental view, nature's beauty and diversity reveal something about God. God is present and active in Creation, while also transcendent. "Faced with the glory of the Trinity in Creation, we must contemplate, sing, and rediscover awe," said Blessed Pope John Paul II.
"Reverence for the Creator present and active in nature may serve as ground for environmental responsibility," wrote the U.S. Catholic Bishops. "For the very plants and animals, mountains and oceans, which in their loveliness and sublimity lift our minds to God, by their fragility and perishing likewise cry out, 'We have not made ourselves.' God brings them into being and sustains them in existence. It is to the Creator of the universe, then, that we are accountable for what we do or fail to do to preserve and care for the Earth and all its creatures.... Dwelling in the presence of God, we begin to experience ourselves as part of Creation, as stewards within it, not separate from it."
"Jesus set before me the book of nature." ~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux
"Accustom yourself to seeing God in everything, because nature is a reflection of God. Oh! How He sparkles, shines, dazzles and is radiant in the invisible and the visible." ~ Padre Benedetto Nardella
"The whole world is asleep, and God so full of goodness, so great, so worthy of all praise, no one is thinking of Him! See, nature praises Him, and man, who ought to praise Him, sleeps! Let us go, let us go and wake up the universe and sing His praises!" ~ Blessed Mariam Baouardy
2. A consistent respect for human life, which extends to respect for all Creation. The Church approaches the care and protection of the environment from the point of view of the human person. Men and women are created in the image and likeness of God. Fostering and protecting human life and dignity, from conception to natural death, lies at the heart of the Church's social teachings. We now realize that respect for human life and respect for nature are inextricably linked. According to Blessed Pope John Paul II, "Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of Creation, which is called to join man in praising God." Shamefully, the reverse is also true: Our lack of respect for life extends to the rest of Creation and is an underlying cause of social injustice and environmental destruction.
The womb is the most endangered human environment in the world today. The right to life precedes and underlies every other social and environmental issue.
3. A world view affirming the ethical significance of global interdependence and the global common good. Recent ecological concerns have heightened our awareness of just how interdependent our world is. According to Blessed Pope John Paul II, "Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone.... Its various aspects demonstrate the need for concerted efforts aimed at establishing duties and obligations that belong to individuals, peoples, states, and the international community."
4. An ethics of solidarity promoting cooperation and a just structure of sharing in the world community. We are all part of one human family -- whatever our national, racial, religious, economic, or ideological differences. Solidarity is a firm and preserving determination to commit oneself to the common good, and a willingness to lose oneself for the sake of others, including future generations. "The ecological crisis," Blessed Pope John Paul II has written, "reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized." Solidarity must take into consideration not only the needs of all peoples but also the protection of the environment in view of the good of all.
"We are all part of God's Creation -- we live as a human family. The whole of Creation is everyone's heritage. All equally created by God, called to share the goods and the beauty of the one world, human beings are called to enter into a solidarity of universal dimensions, 'a cosmic fraternity' animated by the very love that flows from God.... We must learn again to live in harmony, not only with God and with one another, but with Creation itself," said Archbishop Renato Martino at a 1992 UN conference in Rio.
All persons are called to a solidarity of universal dimensions that embraces all of Creation, entrusted to the care of all.
5. An understanding of the universal purpose of created things, which requires equitable use of the Earth's resources. God has given the fruit of the earth to sustain the entire human family, including future generations. "The world is given to all, not only to the rich," said Pope Paul VI. The goods of the earth should be shared in a just and charitable manner.
In the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II:
It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess good, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness -- both individual and collective -- are contrary to the order of Creation, an order that is characterized by mutual interdependence.6
6. A special concern for the poor and vulnerable, which gives passion to the quest for an equitable and sustainable world. While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable, and most in need deserve preferential concern. The ecological problem is intimately connected to justice for the poor. "The goods of the Earth, which in the divine plan should be a common patrimony," said Blessed Pope John Paul II, "often risk becoming the monopoly of a few who often spoil it and, sometimes, destroy it, thereby creating a loss for all humanity." According to the U.S. Bishops, "The option for the poor embedded in the Gospel and the Church's teachings makes us aware that the poor suffer most directly from environmental decline and have the least access to relief from their suffering."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: "Those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere" (no. 2448).
"Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick, and the poor" (no. 2405).
Blessed Mother Teresa expressed the option for the poor well when she said, "Suffering today is because people are hoarding, not giving, not sharing. Jesus made it very clear. Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me. Give a glass of water, you give it to me. Receive a little child, you receive me. Clear."
Our duty is not only to share our wealth, but also to promote the values, institutions, and rights that properly generate wealth, including respect for life, liberty, free market economies, private property rights, the just rule of law, and the right to a safe and healthful environment.
7. A conception of authentic development, which offers a direction for progress that respects human dignity and the limits of material growth. Much of the destruction of Creation is caused by sin, including the sins of arrogance, greed, and disrespect for life. Add to that human ignorance and error. These lead to rampant consumerism, haphazard development, social injustice, the indiscriminant application of technology, and ultimately, environmental destruction and violence.
Blessed Pope John Paul II had said, "In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the Earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way.... The mere accumulation of goods and services, even for the benefit of the majority, is not enough for the realization of human happiness."
Instead of limiting ourselves to mere "sustainable development," Catholics strive for more: We strive for authentic development. Numerous social conditions, including the right to life from conception to natural death, respect for the person, liberty, food, clean water, clothing, shelter, health, rewarding work, education and culture, love, peace, security, the right to establish a family, a beautiful environment, and the right to seek and know God, impact our ability to realize our human dignity and reach our full potential.
Humankind wisely and with love develops Creation so that the whole of Creation reaches its full potential, according to God's will.
"...poverty must be overcome
through authentic human development, based on the idea of the person as a unity
of body, soul, and spirit.... Authentic development is not simply a function of
what a person 'has,' it must also embrace higher values of ...fraternity,
solidarity, and the common good." ~ Pope Benedict XVI, 15 October 2010.
"Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every person and of the whole person."
~ Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), March 26, 1967
"The apex of development is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge..."
~ Blessed Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus
A Balanced Approach
"If the Church’s Magisterium expresses grave misgivings about notions of the environment inspired by ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things. In the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the 'dignity' of all living creatures, such notions end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms. The Church, for her part, is concerned that the question be approached in a balanced way, with respect for the 'grammar' which the Creator has inscribed in his handiwork by giving man the role of a steward and administrator with responsibility over creation, a role which man must certainly not abuse, but also one which he may not abdicate."
~Pope Benedict XVI, 2010 World Day of Peace Message
The Promise of Redemption
Redemption refers to the restoration of humankind and all of Creation from the consequences of sin, through the death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation of Jesus signifies the taking up into unity with God the whole of humanity as well as the entire visible and material world. The redemptive act of Jesus extends to all of Creation, all of which shares a common destiny. The work of Creation culminates in the greater work of Redemption.
Blessed Pope John Paul II has said, "Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Christ accomplished the work of reconciling humanity to the Father, who 'was pleased ... through (Christ) to reconcile to himself all things, whether on Earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross'. Creation was thus made new. Once subjected to the bondage of sin and decay, it has now received new life while 'we wait for new heavens and a new Earth in which righteousness dwells'. Thus, the Father 'has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery ... which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time: to unite all things in him, all things in heaven and things on Earth'."
The first Creation finds its meaning and its summit in the New Creation in Christ, the splendor of which surpasses that of the first Creation. According to Blessed Pope John Paul II, "The essential joy of Creation is completed by the joy of Salvation, by the joy of Redemption.... The work of Redemption is to elevate the work of Creation to a new level. Creation is permeated with a redemptive sanctification, even a divinization. It comes as if drawn to the sphere of the divinity and of the intimate life of God."
As God's children, we have a special responsibility toward each other and the rest of Creation. Nature is our sister. As responsible stewards and co-workers with Christ, we are part of Creation, not separate from it. We must demonstrate the meaning of Christ's life, death, and resurrection in our treatment of Creation. We are to begin the process of properly conserving, developing, and restoring Creation, a process that will be completed by God - the Creator (Father), Redeemer (Son), and Sanctifier (Holy Spirit) of the whole Universe.
"For the mystery of the Incarnation of God is the salvation of the whole of Creation."
~ St. Ambrose (about 339-397)
"Until we are willing to recognize the sins that are involved in environmental destruction, we will have a very hard time confronting the evil that leads to this degradation of the environment. Every action that harms the ecology of the planet is ultimately a personal decision, and every decision is either in accord with or in violation of the will of God. Every decision human beings make is a moral decision; it is either an act of virtue or a sinful act."
~ Father Lawrence E. Mick
Traditionally, environmentalism promoted conserving endangered wildlife species and pristine habitats, with less emphasis given to safeguarding the environment where people live, work, and play. Environmental justice ties together concern for the natural environment with care for people, the poor, the marginalized, and future generations. It directly links environmental concerns with social justice issues.
"The key to the success of the Church's efforts in advancing environmental justice is in the parish," wrote the U.S. Catholic Bishops. "The parish is where we come together to worship and witness to our faith. The celebration of the Sunday Eucharist each week is a sign of parish unity that fosters our spiritual growth, enabling us to meet the challenges posed by environmental justice. Part of being a believer is caring for Creation. Environmental concern needs to be an integral part of Christian faith."
Top 10 Reasons to Care for Creation
God is the Creator of the Universe and maintains its existence through an ongoing creative will.
God has blessed and called "very good" all that is created.
God's plan for Creation is one of harmony and order. Creation forms a whole, a cosmos.
God loves the community of life.
God's creatures share a common home.
God's presence is discernable in all Creation.
God intends the Earth's goods to be equitably shared.
Within Creation, the human person enjoys a consummate dignity. Inherent to this dignity is that of exercising a wise and just stewardship over the rest of Creation.
Sin brought division into the entire world, but not only within and between human persons. The consequences of sin also affect the Earth.
In a mysterious way, Christ's redemptive mission extends to all of Creation.
Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, one of the world's leading environmentalists, described several of the stumbling blocks that hinder our ability to properly cultivate and care for Creation: "In the differentiated and complex field of the environment, it is difficult to reach conceptual agreement of the precise nature of the problem or the solution. When approaching the question from a religious perspective, it is also far too easy to get caught up in particular conceptual approaches that can end up by closing groups in on their own concerns and cutting off the possibility of working credibly with others. Some examples of this difficulty are:
Putting the human person on the same level as the rest of Creation, thereby actually reducing the responsibility of the person for his or her actions as regards the whole of Creation;
A refusal to recognize that much of progress is good, that all is not bad in industrialization and in modern technology;
A certain "Garden of Eden" mentality that refuses all modern developments, rejecting them as evil;
A glorification of the goodness of nature that more or less romantically overlooks its harshness;
A demonization of the First World and a refusal to consider that the Third World might have some part of responsibility for environmental degradation, thereby blocking the needed common efforts; and
A type of new paganism, fostering a form of nature worship.
But there are other stumbling blocks -- perhaps the most serious of all -- indifference, a trivializing of environmental problems, or a ridiculing of those engaged in promoting environmentally sound habits and practices" (Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace).
There are additional stumbling blocks worth noting:
A major stumbling block is the demonization of capitalism, a concept that is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. Industrialized capitalist countries have enacted all sorts of worker, consumer, and environmental safeguards since the turn of the 20th century, and civil rights have a strong tradition. As with any human endeavor, there is ample room for improvement. "Primitive" capitalism, on the other hand, where it still exists in the world has serious flaws that must be addressed.
Often coupled with the demonization of capitalism is the glorification of socialism, communism, or other oppressive ideology. However, some of the worst environmental and social conditions exist under socialist, communist, and other oppressive systems.
The Church opposes "unbridled" or "primitive" capitalism, while it also strongly opposes oppressive alternatives such as socialism. According to Blessed Pope John Paul II, "what is being proposed as an alternative [to primitive capitalism] is not the socialist system, which in fact turns out to be State capitalism, but rather a society of free work, of enterprise and of participation. Such a society is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied." The Holy Father has affirmed this "new capitalism" as "an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector.... It would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a 'business economy,' 'market economy,' or simply 'free economy'" (Centesimus annus, 1991). This new capitalism, rightly understood, is not only compatible with Catholic social doctrine, it may ultimately be the strongest force for social and environmental justice.
About this new capitalism, Blessed Pope John Paul II had said, "It is the task of the State to provide for the defense and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces. Just as in the time of primitive capitalism the State had the duty of defending the basic rights of workers, so now, with the new capitalism, the State and all of society have the duty of defending those collective goods which, among others, constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals on the part of each individual.... Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages: they help to utilize resources better; they promote the exchange of products; above all they give central place to the person's desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person. Nevertheless, these mechanisms carry the risk of an 'idolatry' of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities" (Centesimus annus, 1991).
The temptation of assuming that if God wants us to care about something, He must necessarily want us to put that something under government control.
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The Pieta icon above is by Meltem Aktas. A convert to Catholicism, Turkish-born Meltem Aktas has embraced the art of iconography as part of our ancient spiritual tradition. The ultimate purpose of the icons is an encounter with the invisible God through the image in an ancient form of quiet, meditative prayer. Sacred art is a passion for which Aktas has truly given her heart, soul and hands. Click here for more information about the artist. Copyright Imago, Inc. All rights reserved.
Portrait of Blessed Pope John Paul II by Rolando Conti
Portrait of Christ, "Agemian Image," from the Shroud of Turin, by Pasquale Ariel Agemian (1904-1963)
Photograph of baby cradled in hands ©Anne Geddes
1Mick, Fr. Lawrence E. Liturgy and Ecology in Dialogue. 1997. The Liturgical Press. Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.
2 1991 statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth
3Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. 2000. Care for Creation: Human Activity and the Environment. Vatican City.
5Address to FAO, 16 November 1970, N. 3; Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, VIII, p. 1147
61990 World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II
7Sister Marjorie Keenan, R.S.H.M., at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Nov. 4, 1998.
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