The environment and continuity in Catholic social teaching


We are all entitled to empathise with different ways of proclaiming Church teaching, and of course with different pontiffs. John Paul II had and Benedict XVI and Francis have particular charisms which different people find attractive. One of the purposes of the MA in Catholic Social Teaching at St. Mary’s, however, is to emphasise the continuity of Church teaching. When it comes to Catholic teaching on the environment, that continuity has been evident – it did not begin with Laudato Si.


Laudato Si was the Catholic Church’s first social encyclical devoted to the environment. However, the Catholic Church has taught on this issue explicitly or implicitly throughout her history. Laudato Si was important and lengthy, but it was not designed to be novel.

Laudato Si starts by talking about the harm we have inflicted on what Pope Francis calls “sister earth”. The Pope tells 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 love it – not like we love a human being but in a way such that we cherish and nurture it. 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. They have a lesser value than a human person, but they have value and are not there to be abused.

Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.

This echoes earlier Catholic Church teaching. For example, in an Apostolic Exhortation in 1971, Pope Paul VI commented:

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it [the environment] 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.

Paul VI’s successor, John Paul II, in his first encyclical (Redemptor Hominis) raised the issue of the environment and, as is typical of his encyclicals, incorporated in his comments important anthropological and philosophical insights. For example, he wrote:

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”.

Pope John Paul, as he often does, is attacking consumption for its own sake and reiterating the importance of us being both masters and guardians of the environment because that is our right and duty as human persons who can and should take responsibility for creation. We should also live in harmony with nature.

John Paul II stressed that life itself is a gift which must be respected, joining what Benedict XVI called the moral ecology with respect for the environment – it does not make sense to debase the human person by not being open to the transmission of life whilst purporting to protect the natural environment.

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, another encyclical of John Paul II, also referenced environmental questions, though in a slightly positive light, saying:

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.

This point is then immediately followed by a discussion about “having” versus “being” and the dangers of consumerism.

Benedict XVI referenced the environment in a number of homilies and written statements. This includes in his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritatein which it was said:

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…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.

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 own benefit. But, like all gifts, we should not abuse it.

So, it was on this earlier teaching that Pope Francis built. In Laudato SiPope Francis raises many similar themes in his theological reflections. In paragraph 67, the document explains how man having “dominion” over the earth (Genesis) does not mean that we should be domineering and destructive, but that we should till and keep the earth. It further states that, endowed with intelligence, we need to respect the laws of nature and Pope Francis uses the psalms and other books of the bible to reinforce that point.

The issue that runs through all these documents, lectures and homilies about the environment is the idea that care for the environment is related to consumerism and that we should see this in terms of our human purpose. It is not just that consumerism puts strain on the use of environmental resources. The problem is that an attitude of “having”, rather than “being” and trying to live a good life, leads to the wrong kind of living which seeks satisfaction only from physical goods. This is bound to lack the necessary harmony with creation as well as being unfulfilling.

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Author: Philip Booth

Published: 4th February 2020

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020