Why We’re Called to Protect the Gift of Creation: The Catholic Church and Climate Change

[Note: Below is the text of a speech I gave at the NC Conference on Religion and Climate Change Oct. 13, 2014. I decided to publish it on this blog after several people asked for copies and our pastor, Fr. Steve Patti, OFM, based part of a recent homily on it.]

Consider this quote: “Our earth speaks to us and we must listen if we want to survive….” This statement did not come from Bill McKibben or Al Gore or a twenty-something tree hugger. You may be surprised to learn it was made by Pope Benedict XVI, the predecessor to Pope Francis.

The Catholic Church’s position on climate change is a pretty well kept secret, like much of Catholic Social Teaching. You might know of it if you’re a news junkie with an excellent memory or a Catholic nerd. But the church has been clarifying its teaching on care of creation in the last three decades. In the last three years, the Vatican’s academy of sciences has published two reports affirming the reality of man-made climate change and recommending action.

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Christianity has a rich heritage of teachings on the relationship between God, humans and the natural world. An essential insight is that the created world is a window into the divine that reveals the beauty of God.

Early Christian and medieval theologians often referred to the natural world as a gift from God. These writers often said that God was revealed in two books: the book of Scripture and the book of nature. Many mystics, including St. Francis, had a special reverence for nature. Nature, in its abundance, beauty, majesty, creativity and the wondrous variety of plant and animal life, teaches us about the goodness of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples to learn from nature how to trust in God, telling them to let go of their daily anxieties for food and clothing and “look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Many early saints contributed to the development of Catholic thinking on the interconnected relationship between God, humans and nature. St. Augustine wrote lyrically about the ways in which all elements of nature and all creatures give praise to God. He taught respect for all creatures, even those such as plagues of locusts that harm humankind. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that God created living and nonliving entities in an orderly relationship with one another to achieve their common good. According to Aquinas, the harmony and wholeness of creation is a manifestation of God’s goodness.

St. Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved of all Catholic saints, had such a deep connection with nature that he is portrayed as preaching to birds and wolves. Legend has it that he even carried a worm to the side of the road so it wouldn’t be stepped on. In St. Francis’ well-known “Canticle of Brother Sun,” all of creation praises God, and the sun, moon, wind and water are our brothers and sisters.

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Catholic teaching on God as the creator of the cosmos originates in Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. From the creation story in Genesis come two main themes that continue to inform Catholic teaching on the environment. First, God made creation and sees it as good. Second, God gave humans a special responsibility to care for creation and exercise “dominion” over it.

The word dominion has been problematic, to say the least. For centuries dating from the Enlightenment, many Christians have interpreted dominion to mean that humans have license to conquer nature in the name of progress and material benefit. The last two Popes, Benedict and Francis, have taken pains to clarify that dominion does not mean license to destroy the natural world for the material gain of a few people.

Humans do have a vocation as stewards of God’s creation, but they have misinterpreted what it means to have dominion over creation, Pope Benedict wrote in his 2010 World Day of Peace message. Humans failed to see the call to stewardship as a responsibility to care for what ultimately belongs to God. Instead, we succumbed to pride and the exercise of power. “Human beings let themselves be mastered by selfishness; they misunderstood the meaning of God’s command and exploited creation out of a desire to exercise absolute domination over it,” Pope Benedict said.

Credit: James Holloway
Credit: James Holloway

Conquering or degrading the natural world for human convenience can be seen as desecration of the sacred. This perhaps becomes clearest in the Franciscan tradition of Catholicism, with its emphasis on incarnational theology. The Christian belief that God chose to become human in the form of Jesus Christ –the incarnation – implies the sanctity of the interconnected natural order that humans are part of.

The Creator lowered himself to take on human flesh and thus sanctified all of creation. The entire created world comes from God in a sacred and inexhaustible outpouring of love, which St. Bonaventure compared to an overflowing fountain. We see Christ as the perfect exemplar of that love. Jesus Christ came exhorting people to change their hearts and turn toward God, teaching us to love God and neighbor as ourselves, and proclaiming a time when humanity would be saved. Importantly, salvation includes not only humanity but all of creation. St. Paul writes in the letter to the Romans (8:22) that “all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.”

Modern Catholic Teaching and Climate Change

A problem occurs when we try to connect Christ’s teaching of love in the Gospel to the issue of climate change – or any of the other modern issues posed by advances in technology. In response to the complexity of modern social problems, the Catholic Church in the late 19th century began developing principles of Catholic Social Teaching as a framework to guide ethical decision-making.

Of the seven core principles of Catholic Social Teaching, four apply to the issue of climate change. These principles are: care for creation, which is the religious way of saying to care for the environment; concern for the common good; a sense of solidarity with other peoples because we see them as our brothers and sisters; and the primary importance of caring for people in poverty.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001 described climate change as a serious problem that requires human action motivated by the virtue of prudence. The Vatican in recent years has taken an even stronger position under Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis. The church accepts the scientific consensus that the evidence for global warming is unequivocal, principally caused by humans, and that inaction carries great risks, said the Vatican’s representative to the recent UN summit on climate change.

Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy
Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy
Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Climate change raises ethical and moral questions because it affects all people, particularly the poorest, who are most exposed to its effects, Cardinal Parolin testified. All people have responsibility to protect creation for the common good of people across the globe and for future generations.

Since his inauguration, Pope Francis has consistently emphasized the importance of “protecting the environment,” which he said, “all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.”

The church has a special role to play in social action to address climate change. Scientific, technological, economic and political entities fail to adequately spur action because they don’t address the ethical reasons for action. In recent decades, globalization has resulted in a dawning awareness of the interdependence of the global community. The growth of ecological understanding has shown the interconnection between humans and all parts of the natural world.

Boy exploring beach at low tide
Credit: Sheila Read

Ethics brings in the principles of justice and equity, of care for others outside our immediate families. An ethical approach to climate change also challenges the Western materialistic lifestyle. Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to write extensively about the global ecological crisis, which he attributed at core to a culture of greed and selfishness. The pope called for an ecological conversion of heart. In his 1990 World Day of Peace message he wrote, “Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world, society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause.”

Pope Benedict was dubbed the “Green Pope” for his urging of action on the environment and his initiation of a program to reduce carbon emissions at the Vatican by 20 percent by 2020. He emphasized “human ecology,” and made explicit that there is a connection between the way people treat each other and the way they treat the Earth.

Pope Francis talks frequently about the evils of a “throwaway culture” and the “globalization of indifference.” In the modern throwaway culture, the idolatry of profit, money and consumerism lays waste to both the natural world and to people’s lives, especially the young, the elderly and people in developing countries. A Vatican representative to the recent UN Summit on climate change said that market forces, devoid of ethics, cannot solve the interrelated crises of poverty and the exclusion of most people from opportunity and treatment with human dignity. Questions of human dignity and values cannot be reduced to technical problems.

Confronting global warming will involve not only a global political effort but also a fundamental change in lifestyles and models of development, Cardinal Parolin said. We must relearn to value people above things. We must rediscover the value of the common good in shaping economic policies and build a future for the entire human family.

Pope Francis is said to be finalizing an encyclical on the environment that is expected to more thoroughly address climate change. In a homily in May, the pope urged people to nurture and safeguard creation as God’s greatest gift to us. Because while God always forgives, creation never forgives and – he warned – if we destroy creation, in the end it will destroy us.

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