Care for creation: A moral issue and a Catholic issue
By Effie Caldarola
You need look no further than the rising sea waters threatening Miami or the erosion of coastal Alaska, where entire villages must be relocated in a state that’s becoming a bellwether for climate change.
Or study our polluted oceans, where our love affair with one-use plastic desecrates the sea, or feel the incrementally hotter temperatures assailing us each decade.
It doesn’t take much to conclude that climate change and environmental degradation are here.
The care of creation is a moral issue. It’s a Catholic issue.
If you have any doubts that climate change and care for God’s creation are moral concerns dear to the Catholic heart, you need only study what our three most recent popes have said on the issue.
Then, read the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statements and see the activism of Catholic Climate Covenant that was formed in 2006 — inspired by a 2001 USCCB statement on climate change — and that is supported by 16 national partners, including the USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association and congregations of religious men and women, among others.
Pope Francis is our first pope to devote an entire encyclical to the environment. “Laudato Si’, On Care of Our Common Home,” was published in 2015, and in it the pope relies on well-documented scientific studies but also upon Catholic teaching, moral arguments and the statements of his predecessors.
In his 1990 World Day of Peace message, St. John Paul II said the environment must be a moral priority of the church, warning that a lack of due respect for nature threatened world peace.
Pope Benedict XVI famously installed large solar panels at the Vatican, and the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said at the time that “the gradual exhaustion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect have reached critical dimensions.”
Papal interest in social problems was made clear by Pope Leo XIII. He took on the volatile issues of his day, defending the rights of workers and labor unions in his 1891 encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” the template for Catholic social justice.
As Jesuit Father James Martin reminded in a 2015 article in America magazine, an encyclical carries great authority in the church — only below the teaching of an ecumenical council or the Gospels themselves.
Pope Francis quotes St. Francis of Assisi’s 13th-century poem, “Canticle of the Creatures,” in the opening lines of “Laudato Si’.” Beyond this great saint of nature, care of creation can be traced to Jesus and beyond him to Genesis.
This is a Catholic issue.
In his article, Father Martin helped explain the lengthy encyclical in 10 main takeaways. One thing Pope Francis has done, Father Martin says, is bring faith into the international dialogue on the issue.
Pope Francis brings home another message, Father Martin explains: that environmental destruction has a disproportionate effect on the poor. The wealthy exploit resources from the poor, who cannot defend themselves from the ravages of climate change.
Why, Father Martin says the pope asks, are so many of the wealthy turning away from the poor? This is a grave moral question of our time.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have been vocal on climate change. In 2001, the bishops wrote “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good.”
“Action to mitigate global climate change must be built upon a foundation of social and economic justice,” they wrote.
In their document, the bishops stated, “We especially want to focus on the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests.”
Again, we hear the Catholic plea to listen to the poor rather than powerful interest groups and lobbyists that so often dominate politics today. But, we ask, who is listening to the cry of the poor?
After the March 28 executive order in which President Donald Trump effectively dismantled the Clean Power Plan, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development criticized the decision.
“The USCCB, in unity with Pope Francis, strongly supports environmental stewardship and has called consistently for ‘our own country to curtail carbon emissions,’” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., in response to the order.
“This executive order places a number of environmental protections in jeopardy and moves the U.S. away from a national carbon standard, all without adopting a sufficient plan for ensuring proper care for people and creation.”
What can an individual do?
Pope Francis tells us this is a personal, moral issue of connectedness between us and God’s creation.
We must examine our own greed, our personal connection and concern for the poor. What is our role in what the pope calls a “throwaway culture”? Do our cars and driving habits consider fuel efficiency? Are we wasteful, recreational shoppers? Do we turn our thermostats down and examine our use of non-renewal items like plastic utensils and packaging? Can we become activists and write our elected representatives? Join the Catholic Climate Covenant?
Pope Francis has given us a strong mandate: On climate change, “there is therefore a clear, definitive and urgent ethical imperative to act.”
Effie Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
Creation in Scripture
By Nancy De Flon
Concern for the environment now occupies a prominent place in Catholic teaching. Pope Benedict XVI spoke out frequently about our need to care for the earth, and Pope Francis, in “Laudato Si’” and elsewhere, emphasizes creation care as an integral part of Catholic teaching along with other social justice and respect for life issues.
But environmental concern is not exclusively a recent issue; its basis can be found in the Bible.
Psalm 104 is a lengthy hymn of praise to God as Creator: “How varied are your works, Lord! … The earth is full of your creatures.” Best known for its reference to God’s Spirit renewing the face of the earth, this psalm praises God for holding the world and all its creatures in existence, providing water to drink and “food in due time.”
Some of the loveliest references to the beauty of creation are those that depict the natural world worshipping God with human gestures. “Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy” (Ps 98) and “let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord who comes” (Ps 96). Some of these passages, referring to the Lord’s coming, appear in our Advent liturgies. Nature is also used to personify God’s attributes. In Psalm 61, the psalmist wants to “take refuge in the shelter of your wings,” thus emphasizing God’s protectiveness. Psalm 144 extols God as a reliable source of strength: “Blessed be the Lord, my rock.”
The creation account in the first chapter of Genesis repeats the refrain, “God saw that it was good.” God delights in his work and invites humans to enjoy it and care for it, giving us not “domination” but “dominion” over the rest of creation.
The original Hebrew word suggests stewardship, not power. Genesis 2:15, similarly, says that God “took (Adam) and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.”
In Leviticus, God enjoins the people to observe a sabbath for the land, letting it lie fallow every seven years (25:4). This is not ritual for its own sake: Giving the land a rest will increase its future fertility.
In the Old Testament, God frequently says he desires mercy and justice, not burnt offerings of animals. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews echoes this by pointing out how Jesus, as high priest offering himself as victim, did away with animal sacrifices.
Nancy De Flon is an editor at Paulist Press and the author of “The Joy of Praying the Psalms.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Pope Francis isn’t the only pope who has proposed care of creation as a Catholic, moral issue.
In his 2008 World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict XVI stated that “respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man.
“Rather, it means 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.”
St. John Paul II, in his encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” voiced his concern for the “ecological question” and the “senseless destruction of the natural environment.”
Man should remember, said St. John Paul, that his “capacity to transform and … create the world through his own work” is “always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are.”
“Another name for peace is development,” St. John Paul said, quoting Blessed Paul VI, and part of this development means changing lifestyles to “limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of those resources.”