Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Principles of Catholic Environmentalism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 30, 2010

Because of the excesses associated with environmentalism in an increasingly pagan West, many Catholics shy away from formal involvement with the “environmental movement”. At the same time, Catholics are (or ought to be) by the very nature of their Faith deeply committed to responsible stewardship over nature, cultivating and even improving God’s patrimony for the common good. This understanding of man’s God-given responsibility for creation lies at the heart of Pope Benedict’s emphasis on a proper response to environmental concerns.

While the Pope has mentioned environmental concerns frequently in various homilies and addresses, he has also articulated a complete Catholic approach to the environment in two documents last year: First, in his great social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, particularly the fourth chapter, in July 2009; second,in his Message for World Day of Peace 2010, issued in December 2009 on the theme “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation”. In this In Depth Analysis, I can do no better than to provide an outline of Catholic environmental thought by relying heavily on Benedict XVI’s own words.

Integral Human Development

Benedict situates environmental concerns in the context of rights and duties on the one hand, and integral human development on the other. Thus Chapter Four of Caritas in Veritate is entitled “The Development of People, Rights and Duties, the Environment,” and it opens with a quotation from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio: “The reality of human solidarity, which is a benefit for us, also imposes a duty.” Benedict goes on to explain that it is necessary to understand that rights presuppose duties if rights are not to become licentious:

Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become license. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defense and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good. (CV 43)

Moreover, the Pope notes that “the sharing of reciprocal duties is a more powerful incentive to action than the mere assertion of rights” (CV 43).

One of the first duties of man is a responsible stewardship of Creation, which he has been given by God. In both the encyclical and the World Day of Peace message, Benedict points out that “human development is closely linked to the obligations which flow from man’s relationship with the natural environment.” Thus, the environment must be seen “as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations” (MWDP 2). He also immediately cautions that whenever human persons and nature as a whole are viewed as products of chance or evolutionary determinism, “our overall sense of responsibility wanes.” To the contrary, “seeing creation as God’s gift to humanity helps us understand our vocation and worth as human beings” (MWDP 2, cf. CV 48). Hence a proper understanding of man’s relationship to nature is essential to integral human development.

The Grammar of Nature

Within this context, the Pope distinguishes two false viewpoints concerning the environment which are very common today. It is contrary to authentic development, he says, “to view nature as something more important than the human person.” This leads to neo-paganism and a new pantheism, as if salvation can come from nature alone. But it is also contrary to authentic development “to aim at total technical dominion over nature” because nature is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure (CV 48, MWDP 13). Instead Benedict emphasizes that man enjoys a reciprocal relationship with nature: “As we care for creation, we realize that God, through creation, cares for us” (MWDP 13).

The Pope refers frequently to the “grammar” of nature which we must learn to read, a grammar by which nature expresses a design of love and truth which is prior to us, and which has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. This grammar sets forth “ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation”:

Nature speaks to us of the Creator and his love for humanity (cf. Rom 1:20). It is destined to be “recapitulated in Christ at the end of time (cf. Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:19-20). Thus it too is a “vocation”. Nature is at our disposal not as “a heap of scattered refuse”, but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). (CV 48)

In his World Day of Peace message Benedict offers a beautiful exegesis of the Book of Genesis to demonstrate that God’s original command to subdue and fill the earth “was not a simple conferral of authority, but rather a summons to responsibility” (MWDP 6).

Following Benedict’s thought, the Catholic cannot escape seeing that all the great problems of our time, including environmental problems, have at their heart questions that are fundamentally moral in character. Quite often, in fact, they reflect a moral crisis. In Caritas in Veritate, the Pope stresses that “much in fact depends on the underlying system of morality”, and that this is why the Church’s social doctrine can make such an important contribution (CV 45). Later, he exclaims that “there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity” (CV 49); he also notes in the World Day of Peace message that Pope John Paul II had called attention to the “primarily ethical character” of the environmental crisis as early as 1990 (MWDP 4).

Indeed, Benedict insists that “our present crises—be they economic, food-related, environmental or social—are ultimately also moral crises.” A superior model of development is demanded, he says, not only by “the ecological health of the planet” but by “the cultural and moral crisis of humanity whose symptoms have for some time been evident in every part of the world” (MWDP 5).

Human Ecology and Environmental Ecology

This grammar and moral framework provides the basis for what Benedict calls a “human ecology”. In both documents, as in many other places, he insists on the need to get human ecology right if we want to have a constructive environmental ecology. Early in the fourth chapter of the encyclical, he emphasizes that “morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource” (CV 44). A little later he reminds us that “the way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa”, and he lays down the principle that “when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits”:

[T]he decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: It takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. (CV 51)

He repeats this in the World Day of Peace message: “Young people cannot be asked to respect the environment if they are not helped, within families and society as a whole, to respect themselves.” Our duties toward the environment “flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others.” An authentic human ecology must affirm “the inviolability of human life at every stage and in every condition, the dignity of the person and the unique mission of the family, where one is trained in love of neighbor and respect for nature” (MWDP 12).

The Pope calls for nothing less than a new culture based on a Christian human ecology as the key to addressing successfully our concern about the environment.

Solidarity and Its Lack

Within a culture which properly values God, man, creation and man’s position as a steward of nature, Benedict emphasizes repeatedly that the willingness to deal properly with the environment depends on the social virtue of solidarity. Recalling John Paul II’s insistence on the “urgent moral need for a new solidarity” in his own Message for the World Day of Peace in 1990, Benedict calls for a “profound cultural renewal” marked by “sobriety and solidarity” (MWDP 5). He also notes that “every violation of solidarity and civil friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” (CV 51).

Again and again Benedict emphasizes the need for inter-generational and intra-generational solidarity, that is, solidarity which is extended in both time and space (MWDP 8). A lack of solidarity causes severe environmental problems, makes them impossible to solve, and places the burden on those least capable of dealing with them. In the World Day of Peace message (MWDP 4), the Pope lists the following problems as meriting particular concern:

  • Climate change
  • Desertification
  • Deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas
  • Pollution of rivers and aquifers
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions
  • Increase of natural catastrophes
  • Growing numbers of environmental refugees
  • Conflicts over natural resources

In Caritas in Veritate he also notes that when “States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources” they pose a “grave obstacle to development in poor countries”, which leads directly to the kinds of conflicts mentioned at the end of the preceding list (CV 49). He makes the same point about water as well (CV 51).

Benedict’s Program

It is a fundamental axiom of Catholic social teaching (namely, the universal destination of goods) that the earth, water and air are gifts of creation that belong to everyone. In response to all those environmental situations which seem to undermine this principle, Pope Benedict affirms that there is an “increasingly clear link between combating environmental degradation and promoting an integral human development.” Consequently, he advocates the adoption of a model of development based on the following (MWDP 9):

  1. “The centrality of the human person”;
  2. “The promotion and sharing of the common good”;
  3. “Responsibility”;
  4. “A realization of our need for a changed life-style”;
  5. “Prudence, the virtue which tells us what needs to be done today in view of what might happen tomorrow”.

Within this context, there are a number of practical points he particularly stresses. First, he observes that while responsible procreation is necessary, far more problems are caused today by population decline, which reduces the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified laborers, and narrows the brain pool. Therefore, “States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society” (CV 44).

Second, in order to work well, development programs must be flexible so they can be adapted to local situations, “inasmuch as there are no universally valid solutions,” and they must be marked by the social virtue of subsidiarity. Thus the people who benefit from such programs “ought to be directly involved in their planning and implementation” (CV 47). International cooperation requires participation through solidarity, supervision, training and respect. Those who receive aid must not “become subordinate to the aid-givers”, and the poor must not be used “to perpetuate bureaucracies which consume an excessively high percentage of funds intended for development” (CV 47).

Third, “it is necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination” (CV 27). There needs to be an international effort to ensure the availability of food throughout the world, and “similar attention also needs to be paid to the world-wide problem of water and to the global water cycle system, which is of prime importance for life on earth and whose stability could be seriously jeopardized by climate change” (MWDP 10).

Fourth, significant environmental concern needs to be directed toward the energy problem. “The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens” (CV 49). Research into alternative forms of energy should be encouraged (CV 49). But “a worldwide redistribution of energy resources” is also needed “so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them” (CV 49; MWDP 9).

Fifth, when making use of natural resources, we must be concerned about their protection for use by others, and we must “consider the cost entailed—environmentally and socially—as an essential part of the overall expenses incurred” (MWDP 7). Thus the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources must be “recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations” (CV 50).

Finally, we must promote forms of agricultural and industrial production capable of “respecting creation and satisfying the primary needs of all” (MWDP 10). This requires a new culture, a shift in mentality leading to the adoption of new lifestyles, replacing hedonism and consumerism and making “the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth…factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments” (CV 51). This is required “not only because of the chilling prospects of environmental degradation on the horizon” but by a profound need for “authentic world-wide solidarity inspired by the values of charity, justice and the common good” (MWDP 10).


Having relied heavily on Benedict’s own words to increase our understanding of the Church’s position on the environment, I wish to be consistent and conclude with a major quotation. Near the end of the World Day of Peace message, the Pope offers these thoughts, which essentially summarize all the major principles of this essay, and so provide a basic charter for Catholic environmentalism:

Nor must we forget the very significant fact that many people experience peace and tranquility, renewal and reinvigoration, when they come into close contact with the beauty and harmony of nature. There exists a certain reciprocity: as we care for creation, we realize that God, through creation, cares for us. On the other hand, a correct understanding of the relationship between man and the environment will not end by absolutizing nature or by considering it more important than the human person. 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. In the same way, the opposite position, which would absolutize technology and human power, results in a grave assault not only on nature, but also on human dignity itself. (MWDP 13)

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 04, 2010 1:07 PM ET USA

    lynnvinc7142 has an excellent point, which I overlooked in my notes. Taking advantage of web-based publishing, I've made a few revisions to indicate the importance of concern for water in the Pope's environmental thought, particularly the new item 3 in the sub-section entitled "Benedict's Program". Thanks.

  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Oct. 03, 2010 10:49 PM ET USA

    Another concern of BXVI is: "Similar attention also needs to be paid to the world-wide problem of water and to the global water cycle system [incl. the glacial cycle], which is of prime importance for life on earth and whose stability could be seriously jeopardized by climate change." I have relatives in India, so this concerns me, altho such problems are projected for various areas around the world in the next few centuries, unless we can act soon to mitigate climage change.

  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Oct. 03, 2010 3:37 PM ET USA

    Bless you for such a wonderful article. I would add from my experience that another push to people becoming neopagan or atheist is the failure of the Church at the ground level (people & priests) to do things to reduce environmental harm, or to even talk about these, except that I often hear anti-environmental talk from Catholics. That demoralizes me (of strong faith); I imagine it pushes those of weaker faith right out of the Church.

  • Posted by: rjdobie9424 - Oct. 01, 2010 12:01 PM ET USA

    Benedict's notion of their being a "human ecology" as well as a natural one goes to the core of an inherent contradiction in the secular-left's attitude to the environment. I have often noticed this contradiction in those who are obsessed with buying "natural" or "organic," in reducing their "carbon footprint," etc., but, when it comes to human sexuality, gender, or the manipulation of the human body actually scorn any talk of what is "natural." Very puzzling!