‘The fragile world’: Church teaching on ecology before and by Pope Francis

How does Pope Francis’ thinking about ecology compare with that of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Catholic teaching on ecology prior to Pope Francis

In 1971 the document Justice in the World, issued by the Synod of Bishops, represented a major step in the development of Catholic teaching on the environment; Barbara Ward-Jackson was a consultant before and during the synod and undoubtedly had a considerable influence on its outcome.

This document emphasised the close link between ecology and justice; one could say that it linked an ‘option for the poor’ with an ‘option for the earth’ – though it did not use these terms.

It insisted that it is not possible for all parts of the world to have the kind of ‘development’ which characterised the wealthy countries.

It therefore called on those who are rich ‘to accept a less material way of life, with less waste, in order to avoid the destruction of the heritage which they are obliged by absolute justice to share with all other members of the human race.’

Pope John Paul II

In his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (1979), Pope John Paul II warned about ‘the threat of pollution of the natural environment’.

In his 1987 encyclical, Solicitudo rei socialis, he referred to ‘the limits of available resources’ and used the term ‘the integrity and cycles of nature’.

In describing the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, John Paul sometimes used language which we would now avoid – writing of ‘the exploitation of the earth’ in a favourable sense and of the human person as ‘master’ of the earth.

However, on the many occasions when he met indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, he invariably stressed the vital relationship that exists between indigenous peoples and their land.

John Paul’s 1990 ‘Message for the World Day of Peace’ provided a quite comprehensive teaching on ecology and went a long way towards enabling the Catholic Church to catch up with the approach which had been developed in the World Council of Churches. It pointed out that:

The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment.

When it went on to consider how ecological problems can be overcome, this message insisted on the need for ‘a more internationally coordinated approach to the management of the earth’s goods’; and it pointed out that the ecological problem cannot be solved unless modern society ‘takes a serious look at its life style.’

It insisted that: ‘simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life’.

It also insisted on the integrity of creation.

Nevertheless, in this document and later ones, John Paul had an anthropocentric conception of the relationship between humans and the rest of nature – seeing the value of the rest of the natural world almost exclusively in terms of its value for humans.

In his 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus annus, John Paul said:

The earth … is God’s first gift … But the earth does not yield its fruits without a particular human response to God’s gift, that is to say, without work. It is through work that man … succeeds in dominating the earth.

I have put the word ‘gift’ in italics because it prefigures the strong emphasis by Pope Benedict XVI seventeen years later on the idea of the earth as a gift.

I have also put the word ‘dominating’ in italics because it suggests that John Paul held on to the older understanding of God’s command in the book of Genesis as a justification for dominating the rest of the natural world.

In Centesimus annus, John Paul made a contrast between natural ecology and what he called ‘human ecology’, with the suggestion that the latter is more important.

I shall return to this issue in the second part of this article.

Nevertheless, John Paul made a very valuable contribution to Catholic Social Teaching by putting a strong emphasis on ecological issues.

One of the most significant aspects of his teaching came when, in a General Audience in 2001, he spoke of the need for humans to have an ‘ecological conversion.’

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI was deeply committed to raising awareness about the urgency of finding solutions to ecological problems and to promoting an ecologically respectful lifestyle.

But, perhaps even more strongly than John Paul II, he contrasted ‘the human environment’ with the natural environment.

He insisted that there is an inseparable link between the two but held that the former is ‘more serious’ and should be given priority.

In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009), Pope Benedict maintained that the environment is ‘God’s gift to everyone’ and that we must respect the ‘inbuilt order’ or ‘grammar’ which God has given to nature, rather than treating it as raw material which we can use in any way we wish.

But he warned of the danger of seeing nature as more important than humans and seemed to be unduly concerned about the dangers of ‘neo-paganism or a new pantheism’.

He gave a quite detailed account of the various ecological issues we face and called for ‘a responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways.’

He went on to point out the need for ‘an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles’.

Benedict made an important contribution to Catholic Social Teaching by insisting on ‘inter-generational justice’, ‘intergenerational solidarity,’ and ‘a solidarity which embraces time and space’.

On the issue of the use of biotechnology for genetic modification (GM) the Vatican has given mixed messages, sometimes warning of its dangers and sometimes seeming to be quite in favour.

During the years when Cardinal Marino was head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, that Council seemed strongly in favour of GM.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which it issued in 2004 gives a quite favourable account of biotechnology, though it does, of course, say that it should be used responsibly.

More recently, the attitude of the Pontifical Council seems rather more cautious and ambivalent.

I would suggest that neither Pope John Paul II nor Pope Benedict XVI sufficiently locate theeconomic issues we face in the context of ecology.

Furthermore, both popes could be said to have an anthropocentric approach to ecological issues.

So there is a need for a theologicalconversion alongside the ‘ecological conversion’ which they have rightly called for.

The ‘theological conversion’ which is needed is a paradigm shift which involves situating us humans, with all our achievements, our problems and our responsibilities, within the wider context of nature. Continue to read Pope Francis on ecology

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