Online Course Unit 4

The environment, Catholic social teaching and public policy[1]



The publication of Laudato si in 2015 was hailed as a landmark by many in the Catholic Church and beyond. Indeed, it was the first social encyclical to focus on the environment. However, an examination of the Church’s teaching on the environment will demonstrate that there is remarkable continuity in relation to this topic.

The first part of this chapter will focus on the continuity of the Church’s teaching on the environment. The second part will respond to Pope Francis’s call for dialogue and the discussion of Laudato si is offered in that spirit. The analysis will be set in the context both of developments in economics and of earlier Catholic social thought on issues which might seem unrelated to the environment but which are, in fact, closely connected. It is hoped that, by contributing to dialogue, and responding to the challenge of the encyclical, we can improve the Catholic contribution to discussion of public policy issues in this field.

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Laudato si: continuity with Church teaching

When a papal social encyclical is produced, the media tend to scour the document for statements on politics and public policy.[2] In doing so, they tend to look at the document through a secular lens. Of course, statements on public policy questions are important. But even more important in a social encyclical is the way in which Catholic social teaching frames issues theologically, philosophically and anthropologically. Laudato si is a good example of this. Within this document was an important discussion about our relationship with the natural environment which was consistent with earlier Catholic teaching and with the Catholic Church’s understanding of natural law.

Laudato si begins by reflecting on the harm we have inflicted on the earth. Pope Francis describes the natural environment as a “sister”. The Pope reminds us that our bodies are made up of the elements of the earth and that we breathe and drink the products of the earth. In other words, we have a relationship with the earth which is intrinsic. We should cherish and nurture the earth and not plunder it violently.

In paragraph 33, Pope Francis notes that different species are not merely resources to be exploited but also have value in themselves because they are created creatures. Of course, they have a lesser value than that of a human person, but they have value. Considering these insights should help us understand how a rightly ordered life would treat the earth, the natural environment and other creatures.

Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, Laudato si notes that it was through the intention of the Creator that the whole variety that we see in the creatures of the earth came about:

Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety “come from the intention of the first agent” who willed that “what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another”, inasmuch as God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature”. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan. (86)

Again referring to St. Thomas[3], Pope Francis points out that we are more wholesome as people if we understand our proper relationship with the rest of creation:

[T]he world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things…This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. (240)

As well as being consistent with Thomistic teaching and natural law, the encyclical is also consistent with modern Church teaching on the environment. Perhaps the first document published by the Catholic Church which addresses modern ecological problems was Octogesima adveniens published in 1971. Pope Paul VI warned that we risked destroying nature and then becoming a victim of its degradation. He refers to pollution, refuse and the absolute destructive capacity of the human race that was creating an environment which might well become intolerable (21).

Paul VI’s successor, John Paul II, raised the issue of the environment in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis. Typically, he developed important anthropological and philosophical insights stating:

Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master” and “guardian”, and not as a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer”. (15)

This criticism of consumption for its own sake is a common theme throughout John Paul II’s encyclicals. The importance of our being both masters and guardians of the environment arises from our nature as human persons who can reason whilst taking responsibility for creation.

John Paul II stressed that life itself is a gift which must be respected. He therefore joined what Benedict XVI called the “moral ecology” with the need for respect for the environment. In other words, it does not make sense to debase the human person and not be open to the transmission of life and disposed towards the protection of life from conception to natural death whilst purporting to have concern for other aspects of the natural environment. In this respect, we should beware false green movements that see the environment incompletely, seemingly forgetting the human element.

John Paul II again related environmental questions to the problem of over-consumption and to the dangers of “having” rather than “being” in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis. Interestingly, he did so in a slightly positive light, writing:

Among today’s positive signs we must also mention a greater realization of the limits of available resources, and of the need to respect the integrity and the cycles of nature and to take them into account when planning for development, rather than sacrificing them to certain demagogic ideas about the latter. Today this is called ecological concern. (26)

And Pope Francis’s immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, referenced environmental concerns in a number of homilies and written statements as well as in his social encyclical Caritas in veritate. In that document he wrote:

Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. 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. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. 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. (48)

This raises the question of stewardship, but also the fact that our concern for the environment should result from the fact that it is God’s creation for which we should care. It is a gift: it is a gift for us to use creatively for our benefit. But, like all gifts, we should not abuse it. Pope Francis also addresses this issue specifically in his theological treatment of ecology.

In the theological reflections in Laudato si, Pope Francis raises many similar themes to those raised by his predecessors. In paragraph 67 Laudato si explains how man having “dominion” over the earth does not mean that we should be domineering and destructive, but that we should till the earth. The encyclical further states that, endowed with intelligence, we need to respect the laws of nature and the letter uses the psalms and other books of the bible to reinforce that point.

Whilst emphasising that man is superior to all other creatures, the document quotes the Catechism which summarises the Christian reality that

Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection…Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things”. (Laudato si 69 and Catechism of the Catholic Church[4], 339).

Laudato si does not depart from the teaching of Pope Francis’s predecessors on the fundamental treatment of the theology of the environment. There is a continuity in Church teaching that we would expect. There is also a strong natural law element to Laudato si. It is clear that Francis’s writing is based on a starting point of how human persons, as created beings, ought to order their lives in relation to God’s creation.

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From theory to practice – solidarity and distributive justice

As with all social encyclicals, Laudato si, was not simply a discussion of theory. There were calls for action, both at the individual level and at the level of government policy. There was also a call for dialogue[5]. This is important. Catholic social teaching on specific issues is often contingent on time and place, especially in relation to practical details. Its development relies on the virtue of prudence, which requires deliberation, and it is often informed by other disciplines. Indeed, Bishops’ conferences from around the world had an input into the document.

Laudato si struck a very pessimistic note on climate change in general and on its impact on the world’s poor in particular. Pope Francis stated:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. (23)

Despite criticisms from some quarters, this statement is difficult to dispute. Some would argue that the scientific consensus is wrong, but this is an accurate description of that consensus.

Pope Francis sees this, and other environmental questions, as issues of inter-generational justice a subject which forms a whole section of the encyclical.

Indeed, there is no doubt that distributive justice and solidarity are relevant to environmental problems. Solidarity is the virtue by which we commit ourselves to working for the common good. If environmental resources are destroyed, as a result of over-consumption, and future generations are unable to obtain a dignified living as a result, this undermines the common good. Distributive justice is that form of justice by which the goods of this world are divided according to appropriate criteria. There is no systematic treatment of how this might relate to future generations in Catholic social teaching. However, it would seem clear that there is no application of this principle that would conclude that it is just for one generation to enrich itself in such a way that it imposes costs on future generations without conferring any equivalent benefit. Or, as Laudato si expresses is: “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us” (159). Of course, we should enjoy the fruits of the earth. However, we should restrain ourselves when enjoying them so that future generations can obtain what is justly theirs.

Again, this is not an innovation in Church teaching. In his 2010 World Peace Day message, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “A greater sense of intergenerational solidarity is urgently needed. Future generations cannot be saddled with the cost of our use of common environmental resources” (8; emphasis in original). And, rather less specifically, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church had already stated: “Responsibility for the environment, the common heritage of mankind, extends not only to present needs but also to those of the future. ‘We have inherited from past generations, and we have benefited from the work of our contemporaries; for this reason we have obligations towards all, and we cannot refuse to interest ourselves in those who will come after us, to enlarge the human family.’” (467; emphasis in original)[6]

Another way in which environmental issues can be connected to distributive justice, solidarity and the common good is suggested by Pope Francis in relation environmental damage in poor countries caused by actions in rich countries. Laudato si relates this both to natural resource use and the impact of global warming which, argues Pope Francis, is largely caused by over-consumption in richer countries whilst many of the impacts are felt by poorer countries. This is described as an “ecological debt” (51).

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Practical policy concerns

Some have criticised Pope Francis for taking a view on environmental questions, especially climate change. It is true that it is legitimate for Catholics to take different positions on the economics, politics and the science of environmental issues, including climate change: disagreement and dialogue on prudential issues is to be encouraged. However, it is also reasonable for the Church, in its social encyclicals, to apply what she regards as the best of the physical and social sciences and combine them with philosophy and theology to make statements that involve prudential judgements. Such judgements may then change over time, or at least the emphasis may change[7]. As Charles (1998, volume II, page 15) states, the magisterial authority of the encyclicals extends to matters of moral principle and their implications only. On those matters, it is binding on the conscience of members of the Church. Practical and other related matters, according to Charles, can be judged on the basis of the arguments presented[8]. It is in this spirit and in response to Pope Francis’s call for dialogue that the remainder of the chapter proposes some additional perspective on the issues raised in Laudato si.

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Private property and the environment[9]

The concept of private property has always been important in Catholic social thought. There is legitimate dispute about its place in the thinking of the early Church[10]. However, in the thought of both St. Thomas Aquinas and the Late Scholastics there is no doubt that private property was regarded as important for promoting the common good[11]. In Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum, the importance of private property was stressed repeatedly. Private property was connected to work and responsibility: people would be more likely to cultivate what they owned and would also be more likely to work if they could keep some of their wages in the form of property. And if ownership of property was clear, people would be more likely to take responsibility for it. In Laborem exercens (12), Pope John Paul II suggested that it is through taking ownership of the various riches of nature, including sea, land or space, that we are able, through work, to cultivate the natural world and make it bear fruit.

However, Catholic social teaching has emphasised that the principle of private property must be subordinate to the promotion of the common good and the question has been raised as to whether private property might undermine the protection of the environment.

Laudato si discussed the issue of private property rights in 93-95. In doing so, it repeated the conclusions of Sollicitudo rei socialis and Centesimus annus and gave the impression that private property rights were problematical, rather than helpful, in promoting the common good when it came to environmental resources. The more recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, published in 2020, emphasised so emphatically that private property rights were subordinate to other principles of Catholic social teaching that many commentators were left with the firm impression that Pope Francis was attacking the institution of private property.

In Centesimus annus, John Paul II specifically raises what he describes as the “ecological question” in relation to private property (37). He then suggests that “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” (40). In doing so, he seems to be calling into question the ability of private ownership to protect the environment. Laudato si reiterates this statement and continues the discussion about private property and the protection of the environment with a negative emphasis. Pope Francis says that the Christian tradition has never recognised property rights as absolute or inviolable and that they must be subordinated to a social purpose. Specifically, he says: “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all” (95).

Laudato si moves on not to address the subject again. So, Pope Francis leaves unconsidered the question: “are private property rights the best way to deal with the protection of the natural environment for the good of all?”. This is the crucial question.

In the period between the publication of Sollicitudo rei socialis and Laudato si there has been a huge amount of work done on the importance of property rights for environmental conservation. Interestingly, this confirms the Church’s general position on the importance of property rights for the promotion of the common good.

We could compare the statement in Laudato si: “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” with one of the justifications for private property suggested by Aquinas. He stated that human affairs are more efficiently organised if each person has his own responsibility to discharge and that there would be chaos if everybody cared for everything[12]. Rerum novarum (7-9) also explained how persons cultivate what they own so that it is sustainable and will provide sustenance for the future. This is confirmed by modern economic work. The absence of property rights in environmental resources leads to a situation whereby the environment is the responsibility of nobody and in which people bear no cost from destroying whilst obtaining no benefit from caring for the environment. On the other hand, private property rights can lead to effective stewardship.

The importance of ownership for promoting environmental conservation is illustrated by the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. This idea is often attributed to Garrett Hardin following the publication of an article with that title in the journal Science (Hardin, 1968). The original work was a pamphlet by the economist William Forster Lloyd in which a situation was described whereby common land was open to grazing by all. The land would be over-grazed because a person would get the benefit of putting additional cattle on the land without bearing the cost that arises from over-grazing which would be shared by all. In the end the common land would be destroyed.

An even clearer example is fish stocks. A trawler taking extra tuna from the ocean will benefit but the greater cost of taking the extra tuna in terms of lower levels of breeding will be shared between all trawler owners over the very long term. In practice, examples of fishing rights being tradable and privately owned, such as in Iceland, have led to fishing grounds thriving (see, for example, Gissurarson, 2015) whereas the unclear definition of fishing rights has led to the devastation of fish stocks[13].

If an environmental resource is owned, the owner both bears the cost and gains the benefit of over-exploitation. This is not to say that all environmental resources that are privately owned will always be managed sustainably or that private property rights are the only way to deal with these problems: state regulation can be used too. However, the state regulation of every environmental resource, such as fields, fisheries and forests, would be impractical and has not always given rise to good results. Certainly, private ownership and the enforcement and protection of property rights are compatible with environmental conservation. The particular area of the privatisation of water resources is discussed in the annex.

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Good governance, the rule of law and environmental outcomes

Whilst private ownership of environmental resources is consistent with the promotion of the common good, there may be circumstances in which state ownership or regulation is more practical either at the local or national level. Regardless of whether private or state ownership is adopted, it is vital that there is good governance and that property rights are effectively enforced through uncorrupt legal systems.

The problem of corruption is mentioned a number of times in Laudato si, for example:

Often, politics itself is responsible for the disrepute in which it is held, on account of corruption and the failure to enact sound public policies. If in a given region the state does not carry out its responsibilities, some business groups can come forward in the guise of benefactors, wield real power, and consider themselves exempt from certain rules, to the point of tolerating different forms of organized crime, human trafficking, the drug trade and violence, all of which become very difficult to eradicate. (197)

Corruption is problematic for environmental outcomes. It is easy to understand why that might be the case. Corruption might, for example, lead to bribes being paid to governmental authorities in return for permission to abuse environmental resources or to bribes being paid to law enforcement agencies or the judiciary to prevent successful prosecution. It has been estimated that: “almost half (49 percent) of total tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was due to illegal conversion for commercial agriculture” (Lawson, 2014, page 2). Sundstrom (2016) suggests that the academic evidence shows that bribery is a “door opener” to illegal activities in forest management[14].

The problem, however, is not just the direct relationship between bribery and environmental destruction as might happen when a corporate interest bribes law enforcement agencies to ignore illegal logging. Good governance is more important more generally. One interesting example is given by the difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic which share an island. Photographs of the border zone reveals a stark contrast between the Haitian and Dominican Republic sides[15].

As the United Nations puts it, “Environmental degradation in the worst affected parts of the Haitian border zone is almost completely irreversible, due to a near total loss of vegetation cover and productive topsoil across wide areas” (United Nations Environment Program 2013, 6). Haiti has around 4 per cent forest cover, a figure which is reducing. In contrast the Dominican Republic has around 40 per cent, a figure which has increased significantly over the last 20 years.[16]

In effect, the Haitian side of the border is a huge, ungoverned and unowned commons. Haiti has been, for much of the recent past, a failed state. It is ranked the 12th most fragile state in the Foreign Policy Fragile State Index, 2019[17] and has a terrible record of corruption (173 out of 183 in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index)[18]. In relation to Haiti, the 2019 Heritage Index of Economic Freedom states that “Bona fide property titles are often nonexistent”[19].

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are a particularly interesting contrast because of their proximity to each other. However, there is abundant evidence that the lessons from this example can be generalised. For example Araujo et al (2009) argues: “insecure property rights in land drive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon”. They demonstrate a causal relationship which arises through several channels. Their results are strong and lead to the conclusion that an exogenous escalation in property rights insecurity brings a significant increase in the rate of deforestation.

The modern economics of this issue is really just a reiteration of the points that Aquinas makes and the points we have made regarding water. Private ownership and the institutions that surround it, provide incentives for sustainability. The value of a piece of land at any time reflects the value of all that can be yielded from the land in the indefinite future. The cost of damaging the resource is huge because it relates to all possible lost future production and not just to production over a year or two. However, people will not nurture property in a sustainable way if they believe that it is going to be polluted and plundered by others.

Private property and uncorrupt juridical systems are not the only aspect of good governance which is important. Civil conflict and war can both lead to the direct destruction of the environment and its plundering for short-term purposes and are not compatible with environmental stewardship. Rewilding projects in Mozambique demonstrate how a number of different governance solutions and property rights solutions have restored some of the environmental devastation of earlier wars[20]. But, it should be noted that the destruction of the wildlife in the first place arose as a result of a war that rode roughshod over established property rights.

It is worth noting that, despite the pessimistic tone of Laudato si, the rate of deforestation has slowed dramatically in recent years to around 0.1 per cent of the total each year. Looking more carefully at this trend, there is a strong relationship between net forest regeneration and both income and measures of governance and the protection of property rights. For example, no country ranked in the top ten in the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom has net forest loss and only two countries ranked in the bottom ten have net forest gain. These questions of good governance, the rule of law and the protection of private property, which have featured in other discussions of Catholic social teaching throughout history, ought to be considered especially important where Catholic social teaching is informing thinking about the political structures that best promote the common good in relation to the environment.

In this context, one approach to environmental management that has shown particular success in some institutional contexts and which is especially congruent with Catholic social teaching is the community management of natural resources.

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Community management of environmental resources

Property rights are often highly complex or informal, especially in poor countries. There has been a great deal of work on community-based property rights and environmental problems. The most famous figure in this area is Elinor Ostrom who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics for her anthropological work in this area. This work is widely regarded right across the political spectrum.

She argued that communities develop methods of controlling the use of environmental resources – fisheries and forests in particular – that are remarkably stable and effective and they do so from the bottom up. Communities develop their own systems of enforcement. And the main role of government is to support those systems and not to take them over. In other words, in line with Catholic social teaching, governments play a subsidiary role in helping the community manage resources, for example, by providing information to aid enforcement. Ostrom’s principles include (see Ostrom, 2009 and Ostrom, 2012):

  • There should be clear and locally understood boundaries between legitimate users and non-users. This clearly implies some kind of private property rights (at least rights of exclusion) even if those property rights belong informally to the community and are not individualised.
  • There should be congruence with local social and environmental conditions – in other words methods of managing environmental resources such as fish and forests should be culture and circumstance specific
  • The rights of local users to make their own rules are recognised by the government.

Ostrom’s work is largely empirical. She demonstrates that community-managed natural resources such as forests and fish have better sustainability outcomes than where you have government-managed systems or individualised private property rights. Her approach aligns with the social teaching of the Church which has made the point that private property clearly allocates responsibility so people know who is responsible for what. In this case, community management also ensures that disputes can handled peacefully and provides an incentive to manage the resource sustainably because the community members, who control access, benefit from its sustainable management unlike where there is no ownership.

Some commentators might not define such forms of ownership as “private” ownership. Indeed, Ostrom herself used a nuanced vocabulary which made her ideas accessible to and popular with a wide range of people. The semantics do not really matter. Her work demonstrates the importance of the principle of subsidiarity, the enforcement of rules that ensure exclusion from the resource and of non-individualised community rights of ownership in preserving environmental resources. The approach is congruent with the Church’s social teaching in a number of respects and deserves greater consideration in the development of that teaching.

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Trade-offs, prices and markets

A final issue on which dialogue might be useful is the question of trade-offs and the role of prices and markets in regulating consumption and spurring investment in alternatives.

Laudato si was correct to say that the scientific consensus is that there will be damaging man-made climate change. However, there is still a question more suited to the domain of economics about whether action to stop climate change will cause more harm than good. Making energy more expensive or less reliable may inhibit economic development and reduce our ability to innovate or be resilient in the face of extreme weather events. As noted above, deforestation has slowed dramatically in many countries and this is often related to increases in incomes[21]. Laudato si noted that: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (21). But in many developed countries, environmental indicators are improving dramatically. When a community is choosing between malnutrition and deforestation, it is much harder to take a decision to preserve the environment. To put it in economic terms, conservation is an income elastic good. It is worth noting, for example, that since 1970 in the US, combined emissions of major particulates have reduced by 77 per cent since 1970[22]. Such improvements are much more difficult to achieve in poorer countries.

A good example of this is the use of air conditioning which was strongly criticised in paragraph 55 of Laudato si. However, air conditioning has led to a reduction of 80 per cent in deaths from heat in the US and is becoming more important in hospitals in countries such as India where it will, if it becomes more widely adopted, hugely reduce deaths from heat. Air conditioning has also facilitated significant population movements to the hotter south of the US which would otherwise not have taken place – keeping hot places cool through air conditioning is very much less carbon intensive than warming up cold places, such as Chicago, in winter (see Barecca et al, 2013). Thus there is a trade-off between a technology that emits carbon and forsaking the role of that technology in reducing deaths in general and facilitating adaptation to climate change.

It could certainly be argued that Laudato si presented a view of markets that was too negative. However, it also perhaps assumed away genuinely difficult decisions that have to be taken in the political realm. Sometimes, policies that, at first sight, might benefit the group we are most trying to help might, on further consideration, cause other harms that might be greater.

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The issues discussed in this chapter are most acute in the world’s poorest communities for whom the Church has particular care. Laudato si, Pope Francis’ major encyclical on the environment was an attempt to develop and unite moral teaching of the Catholic Church with modern economics and science.

The insights about human nature and why we should care for the environment were well expressed and should be taken to heart by all people of goodwill. However, it could be argued that the encyclical could have been more successful in integrating the Church’s long-held views on private property with concern for the environment, especially given modern developments in economics. The Church has been at the heart of these debates in the past and should be now. Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Fratelli tutti reinforced the impression that the Church believes that the institution of private property might be problematic in the very circumstances in which can promote the common good most effectively. Given that the stakes are so high, it is important that a dialogue on these issues is opened up in order that we can develop policy frameworks that promote the common good.

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Alves, A. and Moreira, J. (2010), The Salamanca School, London: Continuum.

Aquinas, T. (1963), Summa Theologiae, London: Blackfriars.

Araujo, C., Araujo Bonjean, C., Combes, J- L., Combes, M. P. and Reis, E. J. (2009), Property Rights and Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, Ecological Economics, 68, 8–9 (June): 2461–2468.

Barreca, A., Clay, K., Deschenes, O., Greenstone, M., Shapiro, J.S., Adapting to Climate Change: The Remarkable Decline in the U.S. Temperature-Mortality Relationship over the 20th Century, NBER Working Paper No. 18692 2013.

Bergida, J. (2019), Patristic Socialism?: Ambrose of Milan and Catholic Social Teaching on Private Property, Journal of Markets and Morality, 22(2), 263-280.

Booth, P. M. (2017), Property Rights and Conservation – the missing theme of Laudato si’, Independent Review, 21 (3). pp. 1-20. ISSN 1086 1653.

Booth, P. M. (2021), Property and Popery – is Pope Francis’s teaching on private property radical?, The Review of Austrian Economics. pp. 1-26. ISSN 0889-3047 DOI:

Booth, P. M. and Nakrosis, S. (2019), Government Debt, Inter-generational Justice and Catholic Social Teaching, Bible in Transmission, Autumn/Winter, pp. 16-19. ISSN 9780564013968.

Catholic Church (1994), Catechism of the Catholic Church, London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Charles, R. (1998), Christian Social Witness and Teaching: The Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus Volume 1, Leominster: Gracewing.

Chroust, H. and Affeldt, R. J. (1951), The Problem of Private Property According to St. Thomas Aquinas, Marquette Law Review, 34 (3), 152–82.

Gissurarson, H. N. (2015), The Icelandic Fisheries: Sustainable and Profitable, Reykjavik: University of Iceland Press.

Hardin, G. (1968), The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 162:1243–48.

Lawson, S. (2014), Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture and Timber Plantations, Forest Trends Report Series, Washington, D.C.: Forest Trends.

Ostrom, E. (2009), Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 8, Stockholm University.

Ostrom, E. (2012), The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation, Occasional Paper no. 148. London: Institute of Economic Affairs.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2005), Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, London: Burns & Oates.

Sundstrom, A. (2016), Understanding Illegality and Corruption in Forest Governance, Journal of Environmental Management, 181:779-790.

United Nations Environment Program (2013), Haiti–Dominican Republic Environmental Challenges in the Border Zone, Nairobi: United Nations Environment Program.

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Papal encyclicals and other Church documents referred to in this section

Francis, 2020, Fratelli tutti, encyclical letter:

Francis, 2015, Ladauto si, encyclical letter

Benedict XVI, 2009, Caritas in veritate, encyclical letter:

John Paul II, 1991, Centesimus annus, encyclical letter:

John Paul II, 1987, Sollicitudo rei socialis, encyclical letter:

John Paul II, 1981, Laborem exercens, encyclical letter: /john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html

John Paul II, 1979, Redemptor hominis, encyclical letter:

John XXIII, 1963, Pacem in terris, encyclical letter:

Paul VI, 1971, Octogesima adveniens, apostolic exhortation:

Leo XIII, 1891, Rerum novarum, encyclical letter:

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Environmental conservation and property rights in water

The provision of water is a good example of the importance of private property rights and environmental conservation. There is general concern about the depletion of water resources. In Laudato si, this was linked to privatisation:

Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. (30, emphasis in original).

It is, though, under conditions of scarcity that markets and property rights are most important. When things are in abundance we need neither markets nor property rights to allocate resources. The fact that water might be regarded as a human right and essential for survival does not change this. Food and shelter are regarded by the Church as basic human rights, but it is rarely argued there should not be markets, property rights or pricing of such goods and services.

The most important social functions of markets and property rights, when it comes to water, are to ensure that it is used with care and allocated towards its most important and valuable uses. In the developed world, for example, California has a water crisis and yet most homes in many cities do not have metered water and the government caps water charges. Furthermore, agriculture accounts for 80 per cent of water consumption in California but is only 2 per cent of economic activity, with land being flooded to grow crops such as rice and alfalfa. By one account, over the years, farmers have paid just 15 per cent of the capital costs of the federal system that delivers much of the water to farmers in California. Not surprisingly, only 4 per cent of water in the US is re-used.

The situation is worse in many poorer countries. A recent report to the Indian Parliament suggests that the current subsidy system: “Encourages using more inputs [in agriculture] such as fertiliser, water and power, to the detriment of soil quality, health and the environment. They also disproportionately benefit rich and large farmers.”[23]

The pricing of water resources and private ownership encourages conservation, investment in preventing wastage and the use of water for its most valuable ends in water-scarce countries. It also reduces the extent to which rich and well-connected business interests can obtain water subsidies at the expense of the population in general.

The absence of property rights in water also has the potential to sow the seeds of violent conflict in the coming century as water becomes more scarce. This takes us back to Aquinas third point about private property: private property ensures peace if it is divided and its ownership understood.

There have been significant problems with water privatisation programmes, especially in poorer countries, including in countries which had Bishops’ Conferences contributing to Laudato si. This has normally involved the private management of pre-existing water infrastructure in a public-private partnership, and it is true that such schemes have often been beset by corruption and inefficiency. It could be that Laudato si is, implicitly, referring to the problems with such schemes when it mentions the problems of privatisation. It should also be noted that the nationalisation of water rights and provision is not incompatible with its efficient use as long as water is priced.

The conclusion is not that water should always and everywhere be privately owned and priced but that:

  • Pricing may well be important in ensuring that water resources are used for their most important social ends and in ensuring that they are not wasted where most scarce or appropriated by well-connected political interests.
  • Private ownership is not intrinsically incompatible with the common good and may well promote it in this as in other areas.
  • Clear ownership (even if by the state) may help prevent conflict.
  • The state, in some way or other, must ensure that all have access to clean water for essential functions.
  • If the state controls water resources, in most circumstances, if it is scarce, it should ensure that their use is priced.
  • Good governance and the protection of property rights is important whatever the regime of ownership.

Although these may seem like economic rather than theological arguments, it is the sort of prudent reasoning that is important in Catholic social thought when making judgements about social institutions and the conclusion here is different from the judgement of Pope Francis in Laudato si.

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Questions for discussion

To what extent did Laudato si extend a tradition of Catholic social teaching on the environment that began in earlier Catholic Church documents?

How did Pope Francis draw upon the teaching of the early Church, St. Thomas Aquinas and biblical sources in the development of Laudato si?

How should the idea of distributive justice be extended to include justice towards future generations? What areas other than the environment might be relevant here?

In what ways can communities manage natural resources adopting the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity? Although the scholarly work in this field has mainly been undertaken in poorer countries, if you live in a richer country such as the US or the UK, can you think of local examples of community management of environmental resources?

Discuss how good governance, peace, the rule of law and the absence of corruption are important for environmental outcomes. Look at some empirical data on measures of corruption and environmental outcomes and discuss your results.

Is it a paradox or a contradiction that private property is important for promoting the management of environmental resources?

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[1] Although the material has been updated and changed substantially, there are overlaps between later sections of this chapter and Booth (2017).

[2] The author of this chapter, for example, was invited onto the BBC programme Newsnight the evening before Laudato si was issued to debate the Pope’s expected rejection of carbon trading.

[3] The references are in footnote 171 of Laudato si.

[4] Catholic Church (1994).

[5] Including three times in the introduction. The word “dialogue” appears 23 times in the document.

[6] This quotation itself quotes from Populorum progressio thus going even further back. This reference is listed as Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2005) in the references.

[7] Note for example, the difference in tone at least between Populorum progressio 58 and Centesimus annus 33 on the question of trade and protectionism.

[8] This is also pointed out clearly in Centesimus annus (3). It is often debated whether social encyclicals fall within the magisterium. That would be to miss the point. It is the nature of reasoning which determines whether particular statements within an encyclical fall within the magisterium.

[9] For a comprehensive discussion of private property in Catholic Church teaching, see Booth (2021).

[10]  See Chroust and Affeldt (1951) and Bergida (2020).

[11] See Charles (1998, volume one, page 207) and Alves and Moreira (2010).

[12] Aquinas (1965), IIa, Q 66, Art 2.

[13] See, for example, this report by the World Wildlife Fund:

[14] For a less academic discussion see:

[15] Both sides of the border can be seen at:





[20] See, for example, this video on the project. The reserves are owned and governed by a mix of non-profit private institutions and government:

[21] Though also with other trends that are related to increasing income such as better governance.

[22] See:

[23] See:

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About the author

Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. Philip is also Director of the Vinson Centre for the Public Understanding of Economics and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). From 2002-2016, he was Academic and Research Director there. From 2002-2015 Philip was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries.

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