Catholic Social Teaching and Caring for Creation


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.

As Pope Francis said of St. Francis “Saint Francis “heard the voice of God, he heard the voice of the poor, he heard the voice of the infirm and he heard the voice of nature. He made of them a way of life. My desire is that the seed that Saint Francis planted may grow in the hearts of many”. (Fratelli Tutti, 48).

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”.

For more excerpts on what Pope St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have said about caring for creation and the importance of combatting climate change, please see here.

Pope Francis

The following paragraphs are excerpts from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’,  Fratelli Tutti and his Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia.

“To care for the world in which we live means to care for ourselves … Often the voices raised in defence of the environment are silenced or ridiculed, using apparently reasonable arguments that are merely a screen for special interests. In this shallow, short-sighted culture that we have created, bereft of a shared vision, “it is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims”. (Fratelli Tutti, 17)

“If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists. I do not want to speak of divine retribution, nor would it be sufficient to say that the harm we do to nature is itself the punishment for our offences. The world is itself crying out in rebellion.” (Fratelli Tutti, 34)

“Setting others free from their forms of bondage surely involves caring for the environment and defending it, but, even more, helping the human heart to be open with trust to the God who not only has created all that exists, but has also given us himself in Jesus Christ. The Lord, who is the first to care for us, teaches us to care for our brothers and sisters and the environment which he daily gives us. This is the first ecology that we need. (Querida Amazonia, 41)

In the Amazon region, one better understands the words of Benedict XVI when he said that, “alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology which in turn demands a ‘social’ ecology. All this means that humanity… must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology”. This insistence that “everything is connected” is particularly true of a territory like the Amazon region.” (Querida Amazonia, 41)

Pope Francis’ comments on the ecosystem of the Amazon can equally apply to the ecosystem of the world:

“Furthermore, in an ecosystem like that of the Amazon region, each part is essential for the preservation of the whole. The lowlands and marine vegetation also need to be fertilized by the alluvium of the Amazon. The cry of the Amazon region reaches everyone because “the conquest and exploitation of resources… has today reached the point of threatening the environment’s hospitable aspect: the environment as ‘resource’ risks threatening the environment as ‘home’”. The interest of a few powerful industries should not be considered more important than the good of the Amazon region and of humanity as a whole.” (Querida Amazonia, 48)

“Frequently we let our consciences be deadened, since “distractions constantly dull our realization of just how limited and finite our world really is”. From a superficial standpoint, we might well think that “things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen”.” (Querida Amazonia, 52).

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. (Laudato Si’, 5)

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. (Laudato Si’, 27)

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. (Laudato Si’, 91)

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. (Laudato Si’, 192)

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. (Laudato Si’, 211)

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. (Laudato Si’, 217)

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

In the 2021-22 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Social Justice Statement, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, the Bishops offered some theological foundations for our response to ecology and poverty.

The Bishops said: “We stand with Pope Francis in acknowledging that ‘a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system’ and that “humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it”. (Laudato Si’, 23, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, page 12)

They particularly emphasised the perspectives of first nations people in caring for country.

The Bishops recognised the call of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council which said: “This connection to country and all of God’s creation reveals our Spirituality as people and our ancestors, a home we have looked after with special regard for millennia.

It is time that all Australians, particularly those following in the footsteps of Christ, recognise that God’s creation, our wonderful home here on earth, needs to be loved, looked after and kept, not degraded or abused.” (Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, page 13)

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.”

Last Updated August 2021