Pope Francis drew the attention of The New York Times during his recent trip to Manila prompting the headline, “Papal Text Says Man Betrays God by Destroying the Environment.”
Speaking on the environment and climate change for the second time in four days, at least in the text from which he departed completely, Francis said, “As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling.”
The text also noted that “this country [Philippines], more than many others, is likely to be seriously affected by climate change.” The day before he visited Tacloban, which Reuters, the source for the Times’s story, called “ground zero of Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 6,300 people, left a million homeless and displaced 4 million more when it struck in November 2013.”
Since the Pontificate of St. John Paul II, whom some call “the Great,” popes have been addressing the moral imperative of environmental stewardship with varying degrees of specificity. I have previously discussed papal environmentalism, Earth Day 2013: The Papal Edition, Protecting natural and human ecology.
John Paul II raised the issue of the environment in his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man), written the very same year he elevated St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecology (1979), Then, on New Year’s Day 1990, in his World Day of Peace message, he said:
When man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which was inevitable repercussions on the rest of the of the created order.
Moreover, he stated, flatly, that “the ecological crisis is a moral issue.” He also revisited the “ecological question” in his 1991 encyclical, Centisimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) that also decried the “senseless destruction of the natural environment.”
Often overlooked are the passages in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by John Paul in 1994, regarding “Respect for the integrity of creation” under the subject of the Seventh Commandment (“You shall not steal”), in which the age-old Catholic teaching on the universal destination of all goods, for the benefit of all of the human race, along with the right to private property, was discussed. Since at least Aquinas, the Church has kept these two ideas in balance.
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperative.
“Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come,” stated the Catechism. The Pope reiterated the same theme in his 1995 Encyclical Letter, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).
Recall that John Paul II was a Pole and familiar with the environmental catastrophe of the Soviet Empire and those captive nations within its benighted realm.
Pope Benedict XVI deepened these teachings. Like his predecessor, he certainly viewed the “supreme worth” of human beings as important as any ecological concerns. In fact, they would both be very uncomfortable with ecocentric views, say, as expressed by Deep Ecologists. His many pronouncements on the environment, including climate change in particular, were collected into a single volume, entitled The Environment (2012), by Jacqueline Lindsey. He viewed respect for the environment as meaning “not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit toward nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.”
So it should hardly have surprised anyone that Pope Francis raised environment in his homily during his inaugural Mass, as pontiff. Citing the need to take up the vocation of “protector” of humanity and creation, emulating St. Joseph, he went on:
It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.
Which brings us back to his recent comments on the environment and climate change. A few things should be kept in mind when reflecting on any papal pronouncements on matters other than faith and morals.
First, there has been only two doctrines ever promulgated ex cathedra, that is, infallibly. These were exclusively theological with nothing to do with social teachings. They were the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 by Pope Pius IX and the bodily Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII in 1950. So, while the Pope is the authoritative spokesman for the Church, he is not speaking infallibly.
Second, no matter how much one might disagree with this or that social or political pronouncement of a pope, most involve prudential judgments rather than prescriptive moral ones. For instance, keeping the peace or waging war is a very broad topic requiring consideration of numerous variables and contingencies. The Just War Theory, to which the Church has adhered since St. Augustine, is not a cookbook with neat answers to those daunting challenges. The prohibition against abortion, however, is categorical. Environmental and natural resources policy is more like the former than the latter.
Nevertheless, the papal teaching as to the overall moral imperative of stewardship is more than just a mere suggestion and should not be ignored by faithful Catholics. Beyond that, they can disagree on specifics.
Regarding the issue of climate change, which both Benedict and Francis have addressed with some feeling, a Catholic should recognize the need to think about it seriously. Certainly, it merits significant investments in research. Yet, what of the trade-offs between economic justice and stewardship? What of the relevant merits of mitigation or adaptation?
And how do we judge the efficacy of this or that policy proposal implemented, say, unilaterally? At a cosmic level, to what extent is climate variability part and parcel with the history of the planet and what can we really do about it.
For the record, I am neither a skeptic nor a “warmist” on the subject. Just confused. I am still a fan of the “no regrets” approach which tries to do things consistent with mitigating greenhouse gas emissions while be justified in and of themselves. This encompasses everything from energy conservation to reforestation and, maybe, a revenue-neutral carbon tax in which you reduce marginal tax rates for a supply-side boost to productivity. Even Art Laffer, the High Priest of supply-side economics buys in to that idea, An Emissions Plan Conservatives Could Warm To (NYT 2008). It certainly beats regulating carbon under the Clean Air Act which is like using a wrench to paint a portrait.
Personally, I would prefer that the Popes limit themselves to moral principles rather than specific policy prescriptions on social issues, but I work in Washington not Rome. That said, there is a growing appreciation of environmental issues in Catholic social teaching with which all men and women of good will should engage for the benefit of all human beings, the planet and the Church.