Catholic Social Teaching and Caring for Creation

Introduction

Since Pope Francis promulgated Laudato Si’ “On Care for our Common Home” in 2015 many people have become better informed about the Catholic teaching that advocates caring for creation and the environment. However, caring for creation has been an important part of Christian living from the beginning and throughout history.

What does Scripture say about caring for Creation?

In Genesis 1:31 we are told “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Humanity was given a mandate to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion…over every living thing that moves over the earth” (Gen 1:28) and “to till [the earth] and to keep it” (Gen 2:15). Pope Francis clarified that although Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, today we must forcefully reject the idea that God gave humanity absolute domination over other creatures (Laudato Si’, 67). The Pope reiterates that the texts require humans to cultivate, care, protect and preserve the environment which implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” Pope Francis chose as his namesake, St Francis of Assisi who also cared deeply for creation as part of his choice to live an authentic Christianity.

What have the saints said about Caring for Creation?

“Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars. Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. Now, think. What delight God gives to humankind with all these things…All nature is at the disposal of humankind. We are to work with it. For without we cannot survive.” –  St. Hildegard of Bingen

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” – St. Francis of Assisi

In a Catechesis session in 2001 Pope Saint John Paul II said, “The human creature receives a mission to govern creation in order to make all its potential shine. It is a delegation granted at the very origins of creation, when man and woman, who are the ‘image of God’ (Gen 1: 27), receive the order to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth (cf. Gen 1: 28)…Man’s lordship, however, is not ‘absolute, but ministerial:  it is a real reflection of the unique and infinite lordship of God. Hence man must exercise it with wisdom and love, sharing in the boundless wisdom and love of God’ (Evangelium vitae, 52).”

What has the Church said about Caring for Creation?

God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. – Gaudium et Spes, 69

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone (171). It continues to note that “[solidarity] is to be applied above all – although not only – to the earth’s resources and to safeguarding creation, the latter of which becomes a particularly delicate issue because of globalisation, involving as it does the entire planet understood as a single ecosystem” (367).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2415) states “The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation…Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

What have recent Popes said about caring for Creation?

Pope Benedict XVI

In an address to clergy in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The brutal consumption of Creation begins where God is not, where matter is henceforth only material for us, where we ourselves are the ultimate demand, where the whole is merely our property and we consume it for ourselves alone. And the wasting of creation begins when we no longer recognize any need superior to our own, but see only ourselves. It begins when there is no longer any concept of life beyond death, where in this life we must grab hold of everything and possess life as intensely as possible, where we must possess all that is possible to possess.”

Pope Benedict XVI also called on the faithful to “eliminate the structural causes of global economic dysfunction and to correct models of growth that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment and for integral human development, both now and in the future”.

Pope Francis

The following paragraphs are excerpts from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’.

The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. .

Other indicators of the present situation have to do with the depletion of natural resources. We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.

Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (Laudato Si’ 49).

A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted…. Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.

On the other hand, to find ever new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items and quick profit, would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial…We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity.

Here, I would echo that courageous challenge: “As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning… Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life”. Laudato Si’ 207

A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle.

The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”… So what [certain Christians] need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.

What has the Catholic Church in Australia said about Caring for Creation?

In the 2002 Social Justice Statement A New Earth The Environmental Challenge, “In justice, it is an urgent task for Christians today to be reconciled with all creation, and to undertake faithfully our responsibility of stewardship of God’s gifts. To achieve such reconciliation, we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart.”

The Australian Bishops also recognised “The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occupy a unique place in Australian society as the original owners and custodians of these lands and waters” and that “our relationship with the land and all of its people will not be fully healed until the relationship between Indigenous and other Australians is healed.”

“In Australia, people living in remote Indigenous communities or residential areas close to heavy industry are the most vulnerable to sickness caused by environmental factors and pollution…As the worst emitters per person of greenhouse gases on the planet, Australians are particularly challenged in justice to reflect on the plight of our Pacific island nation neighbours.”