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Should Catholics Be Environmentalists?

After the Vatican recently hosted several international conferences on the environment and environmental problems, headlines reported that the Catholic Church is finally jumping on the environmental bandwagon. They were wrong on two counts. First, Catholic teaching has long been that care for the earth is both a duty that we owe to God and a reflection of our respect for each other. So, the Church isn’t some Johnny-come-lately to protecting the planet. Second, the Church’s understanding of what it means to be a good steward is not precisely in line with the thinking of many modern environmentalists.

Subdue the Earth—Not Abuse It

The modern environmental movement is usually traced to the 1960s, sparked in large part by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. Major federal legislation, like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, was not signed into law until the 1970s. As early as 1891, however, Pope Leo XIII wrote that God gave the earth to “mankind in common” so as to leave “the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and the institutions of peoples.” Regardless of how property is divided among private owners, “it does not cease to serve the common interest of all, inasmuch as no living being is sustained except by what the fields bring forth” (Rerum Novarum, 8). He went on to explain that “the goods of nature and the gifts of divine grace belong in common and without distinction to all human kind. Whether you abound in, or whether you lack, riches, and all the other things which are called good, is of no importance in relation to eternal happiness. But how you use them, that is truly of utmost importance” (RN 21)

In 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote that mankind has the right of private ownership “not only that individuals may be able to provide for themselves and their families but also that the goods which the Creator destined for the entire family of mankind may through this institution truly serve this purpose” (Quadragesimo Anno, 45).

In 1961, Pope John XXIII spoke 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. (Mater et Magister, 196-197)

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed that: “God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples” (Gaudium et Spes, 69). As Pope John Paul II later explained, these words mean that it is manifestly unjust when a privileged few squander resources while others live in need.

This idea of the environment being preserved for the benefit of other humans is fundamental to Catholic teaching. As Pope Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio (1967):

The Bible, from the first page on, teaches us that the whole of creation is for humanity, that it is men and women’s responsibility to develop it by intelligent effort and by means of their labor to perfect it, so to speak, for their use. If the world is made to furnish each individual with the means of livelihood and the instruments for growth and progress, all people have therefore the right to find in the world what is necessary for them. (22)

Despite the idea of nature being preserved for the benefit of humanity, people are not free to abuse it. In 1971, Paul issued an Apostolic Letter (Octogesima Adveniens) in which he wrote:

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. (21)

He went on to encourage Christians to “take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.”

Pope of the Environment

In 1979, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi as patron saint of ecologists. John Paul explained that Francis “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation. . . . Saint Francis invited all of creation—animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon—to give honor and praise to the Lord.” (1990 World Day for Peace Message, 16). John Paul hoped that St. Francis’s example would show Christians that when they are at peace with God they are better able to devote themselves to peace among all peoples.

John Paul II wrote and spoke so often on environmentalism that he could properly be considered “the environmental pope.” His notable address at the 1990 World Day for Peace, “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility,” began with a passage that might have come from almost any modern environmental leader:

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. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. . . . [A] new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.

John Paul went on to discuss the Bible’s description of the Creation, and he explained that “these biblical considerations help us to understand better the relationship between human activity and the whole of creation.”

Much of John Paul’s address (which was written in 1989) sounds like it might have been ripped out of yesterday’s headlines:

The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related “greenhouse effect” has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants: All of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands. (“Ecological Crisis,” 6)

To the pope, the “ecological crisis” was a moral crisis, and each individual had an obligation to protect the environment: “Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone.” Directly addressing Catholics, he said:

The commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. 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. (“Ecological Crisis,” 16)

John Paul also called upon all the nations to “join with others in implementing internationally accepted standards” and to “make or facilitate necessary socio-economic adjustments within its own borders” to protect the environment (9). These standards should include monitoring the impact of new technological advances and protecting citizens from exposure to dangerous pollutants.

Central to John Paul’s teaching was that the principal objective of environmental protection is the benefit of human life: “The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many patterns of environmental pollution. . . . Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress” (7).

Human Life at the Center

This is where Catholic teaching on the environment departs from much of modern environmentalism: The Catholic approach is centered on humanity, not an abstract notion of nature. The Commission has also explained that some environmentalists take serious objection at this notion: “Christianity has been accused by some as in part responsible for the environmental crisis, for the very reason that it has maximized the place of human beings created in the image of God to rule of visible creation” (Communion and Stewardship, 72).

In 2007, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace gathered some 80 experts representing the scientific, political, economic, and spiritual sides of the climate-change debate to discuss “Climate Change and Development.” At the closing ceremony, Renato Cardinal Martino, president of the Council, said: “Nature is for the human person and the human person is for God . . . The person has an indisputable superiority over creation and, in virtue of his personhood and being gifted with an immortal soul, cannot be placed on an equal plane with other living beings, nor can he be considered a disturbing element in the natural ecological equilibrium.” Discussing what it means to be a good steward, Martino explained:

Nature is not an absolute, but a wealth that is placed in the person’s responsible and prudent hands. . . . The person does not have an absolute right over nature but rather a mandate to conserve and develop it in light of the universal destination of the earth’s goods which is one of the fundamental principles of the social doctrine of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI has also advanced this idea. In his 2008 World Day of Peace address, Benedict reminded us that humans have a duty to protect our environment for the benefit of mankind. This legitimate respect for and concern about the environment is not the same as viewing “material or animal nature more important than man.” The pope made clear that human beings “are of supreme worth vis-à-vis creation as a whole.”

“No More Value Than Slugs”

Environmentalists who blame Christianity and its influence on Western Civilization for ecological problems tend to reject the Christian notion that humans are special. These people are pantheistic at heart. Pantheism is an ancient religious outlook that makes no distinction (or at best a very unclear one) between the Creator and the creation. Under this view, God is not transcendent: God is in all and all is part of God. As such, there is no special role for humans in nature. Of course, this results in the rejection of a Christian view of mankind, understanding of creation, and teachings related to God’s plan for humanity.

John Davis, the editor of Earth First! (the self-proclaimed voice of the radical environmental movement), has written: “Human beings, as a species, have no more value than slugs” (The Environmentalist’s Little Green Book). David Foreman, writing in the same magazine, said: “We advocate biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake. It may take our extinction to set things straight” and “Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental” (qtd. in J.H. Huebert and Walter Block, “Environmentalists in Outer Space,” The Freeman, March 2008). David Graber, a biologist with the National Park Service, said: “I know scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line . . . we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. . . . Some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along” (qtd. in Glenn Woiceshyn, “Environmentalism and Eco-Terrorism,” Capitalism Magazine, September 30, 1998). Dr. Reed F. Noss of The Wildlands Project said: “The collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans” (qtd. in Michael S. Coffman, “Taking Liberty,” Range Magazine, Fall 2005). Similar, if less extreme, sentiments can be found in many environmental writings.

Even very mainline environmental groups take positions that are hard to align with Christian beliefs. I ended my membership in the Sierra Club in 1993 because of its pro-abortion stance (see “Sierra Club’s Two-Child Policy,” below).

To the extent that the Sierra Club supports abortion rights due to concern that overpopulation is a threat to the environment, it is wrong on two counts. First of all, the “population bomb” that was such a core concern to environmentalists in the 1960s seems not to be a serious threat anymore. Birth rates have slowed in many parts of the world, and we have developed the ability to sustain a much larger world population.

More importantly, this policy indicates that the Sierra Club views abortion as just another form of birth control. That is a sad commentary on what most people would consider a mainline environmental organization. Polls regularly show that people oppose abortion used in this manner. Even ardent supporters of abortion rights usually say that it should be reserved for exceptional cases. It is hard to believe that the Sierra Club wants to protect trees, fish, and insects but supports the routine destruction of human life. Yet, the Sierra Club is not the only group to use the environment to justify abortions.

At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, several nations and non-governmental organizations argued that an expected increase in population would cause the collapse of the earth’s natural balance and lead to disaster. The solution that they proposed called for more abortions and mass sterilization of the poor. Fortunately, the Holy See’s diplomats were instrumental in preventing the anti-life plan from being enacted. Cardinal Martino, then the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, later explained that “the Church . . . has faith in the person and in his ability to look for new solutions to the problems that history places before him—an ability that enables him to refute recurring and improbable catastrophic forecasts” (“Climate Change and Development” conference statement). That faith in the ability of people to contribute to mankind, rather than just be a drain on resources, is fundamental to the Catholic view of the environment.

Nature’s Dogmatic Enforcers

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s current representative to the U.N., reflected the Church’s concern for humanity when he explained that “the dovetailing of environmental and developmental concerns with commercial and industrial policymaking will surely lead to a safer, more prosperous future for all” (statement to the United Nations, May 11, 2006). Migliore noted that while many people are “rightly worried” about the “irrational destruction of the natural environment,” too little attention is focused on protecting “the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.”

Part of the Church’s commitment to the environment includes carefully evaluating scientific evidence in light of the benefit for humanity. Consider, for instance, the current debate over global warming. According to some accounts, for the one-year cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol (the proposed worldwide agreement to cut carbon emissions to combat global warming), humanity could provide safe drinking water across the globe in perpetuity. Many people, including concerned scientists and environmentalists, think that Kyoto will provide fairly little benefit considering its cost.

In December 2007, Pope Benedict released a statement on the environment (actually an early version of his 2008 World Day of Peace address) in which he explained that we must not selfishly consider nature “to be at the complete disposal of our own interests,” and we must preserve the earth for future generations. He noted, however, that the international community must base its policies on science rather than the dogma of the environmentalist movement. Always, the simple dignity of human life must come first.

Because the pope did not uncritically accept every assertion of fact set forth by environmentalists, and because he recognized the special need to care for humanity, one account of this speech—which was widely reprinted—called it a “surprise attack” on the theory that man-made carbon emissions are creating global warming. The Daily Mail from London reported: “The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering” (Simon Caldwell, “The Pope Condemns the Climate Change Prophets of Doom,” December 13, 2007).

Of course, the Daily Mail article was nonsense. The pope did nothing more than explain the need to examine the evidence and consider the impact on people, including the poor who are often the most severely affected. Rather than embrace this logical advice, some environmentalists were angered because he did not blindly accept their claims. When environmentalism becomes a religion, any departure from the party line becomes heresy.

Stewards of God’s Kingdom

Environmental concerns are nothing new to the Catholic Church. It has long taught that the duty to protect the environment is rooted in a profound theological understanding of the world and mankind’s place within it. Several environmentalists, including former Vice President Al Gore, have recognized that the green movement must involve the churches if it is to be successful in the future. Unfortunately, it will be difficult for Catholics and many other religious people to walk arm-in-arm with environmentalists as long as so many of them reject pro-life positions.

The Catholic view is that the human person must be at the center of environmental concerns. As John Paul II explained, however, the special human role as master of the environment is “not the mission of an absolute and unquestionable master, but of a steward of God’s kingdom” (“God Made Man the Steward of Creation,” L’Osservatore Romano, January 24, 2001, p. 11). Modern environmentalists would do well to recognize that simple truth.


Children Indoctrinated at Museums

Several years ago I took my children to the Museum of Natural History in Jackson, Mississippi. As is common in modern museums and zoos, the displays focused not only on animals and nature, but also on pollution, threatened habitat, and extinction or threatened extinction. At the end of the museum there was one display that asked the children how they felt after having observed the exhibits. The three options given were sad, angry, or guilty. None of those were emotions that I wanted for my children after a family outing. (Nor did this strike me as a good way to attract a new generation into environmental awareness.)

More recently, the Australian Broadcasting Company had a game for children to play on its Web page. Children were asked a series of questions related to energy use, and based on the answers a cartoon pig would inflate or deflate. Eventually the pig exploded and children were told what age they should be when they die so that they use only a normal amount of resources over the course of their life. What happens when a kid takes the advice too literally? (According to the game, I should have died at the age of four.)

Sierra Club’s Two-Child Policy

On the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade., President Bill Clinton lifted the so-called gag rule that prevented doctors in federally funded facilities from counseling women about abortion. Carl Pope, then-president of the Sierra Club, said: “This is a great gesture of hope for women, children, families and the environment.”

I was an officer in our local Sierra Club and was active in state projects. I could not support President Pope’s statement, and I did not want to be associated with it. The pro-abortion stance seemed so incompatible with the Sierra Club calendar that I carried at the time, which had a poem about the beauty of (and the need to protect) a seed buried in the earth, so that it could bloom in the spring. Was not an unborn human also worthy of protection?

My initial assumption was that Pope was using his position to express a personal political viewpoint. I considered that an abuse of office, and I wanted to lodge a protest with the club. It also occurred to me, however, that the Sierra Club might have an official position on abortion. No one at our local club knew of any policy, nor did anyone at the state office. Finally, however, the national office provided me with the official Sierra Club policy on abortion rights. It was adopted in 1969 (prior to Roe v. Wade.), and it resolved that:

[F]amilies should not have more than two natural children . . . state and federal laws should be changed to encourage small families and to discourage large families; that laws, policies, and attitudes that foster population growth or big families, or that restrict abortion or contraception . . . should be abandoned.

The resolution went on to call for universal birth control programs and readily available sex education. Carl Pope’s 1993 statement was not an abuse of office; it reflected club policy.

Further Reading

  • At Home on Earth: Foundations for a Catholic Ethic of the Environment. by Charles Murphy (Crossroad, 1989)
  • Creation and Redemption. by Gabriel Daly, OSA (Michael Glazier, 1989)
  • Ethical and Pastoral Dimension of Population Trends. (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994, available online at
  • The Greening of the Church. by Sean McDonagh (Geoffrey Chapman, 1990)
  • The Human Presence: Ecological Spirituality and the Age of the Spirit. by Paulos Mar Gregorios (Element, 1994)


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