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Part 2: The Environment

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By Marian Friedrichs (Feb 20, 2016)
The following is the second in our series on Catholic social teaching.

So often, when I hear of the ways we have hurt our planet and our fellow creatures, I cannot help thinking that we Catholics could make an enormous difference if we would simply "become what we are," as St. John Paul II put it. That is, if we would take to heart the teachings of Holy Mother Church and consistently put them into practice, we could help the earth and its inhabitants begin real healing. Consider the following:

Since the earliest days of Christianity, the faithful are known to have abstained from meat on Fridays as an act of penance and remembrance of the day Christ died. Pope Nicholas I (858-867) declared the practice obligatory. While the American bishops have granted permission to American Catholics to substitute a different sacrifice on all Fridays except those during Lent, there are excellent reasons to revive the age-old practice of Friday abstinence — one of which is to help conserve the resources we must all share.

In 2003, the Meatless Mondays campaign was launched to encourage meat-eaters to live as vegetarians one day per week. According to the movement's website (meatlessmondays.com), cutting meat from our diets just one day per week can benefit not only our health but that of the planet as well, as meat production uses more water, emits more greenhouse gases, and consumes more fossil fuel than vegetable production.

In 1968, amidst increasing enthusiasm for and use of the birth control pill, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae vitae (Of Human Life), the encyclical that upheld the constant teaching of the Church that contraception is a grave moral evil guaranteed to inflict profound damage on the culture that embraces it as a way of life. Five decades later, our common home is being forced to cope with the industrial and medical waste resulting from the manufacture and use of various contraceptive chemicals and devices. For example, it has been discovered that hormones from the birth control pill are causing sterile and intersex fish in some bodies of water. The effects of these hormones on humans and other mammals are still unknown, though some researchers fear they may pose "an increased risk for those people who are prone to estrogenic cancer" (see "Can Birth Control Hormones Be Filtered From the Water Supply?" from scientificamerican.com, July 28, 2009).

There are many who would argue that pollution from birth control is worthwhile to prevent the conception and birth of more humans who would consume more resources. We should remember, however, that the system of family planning taught by the Church — for the unmarried, celibacy; for the married, abstinence during the wife's fertile times when there is a serious reason to avoid pregnancy — leaves virtually no carbon footprint whatever and carries with it the added benefit of producing citizens practiced in self-control, without which our global crises cannot hope to be resolved.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the papal encyclical Rerum novarum (On the Condition of Labor), which contained the first formal development of the principle of subsidiarity, a key concept in Catholic social teaching. Simply put, the principle of subsidiarity states that any particular task — be it food production, the manufacture of clothing and other goods, or the education of the young — should be performed by the smallest entity competent to handle it.

One author who has attempted to apply this principle of subsidiarity to current economic realities is Juliet B. Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College. In 2010, Schor published a book entitled Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, which argued that true and lasting solutions to the catastrophe of climate change depend on a radical shift away from "BAU" ("business as usual"): the system in which we rely on big business to provide us with income, products, and even fulfillment.

Plenitude urges us to dramatically reduce this reliance by creating and producing things ourselves, buying the things we cannot make from cottage industries and individual craftsmen rather than large corporations, and deriving meaning from personal relationships rather than grasping at it in obsessive careerism or overspending. In other words, Dr. Schor asserts that a new approach to work and consumption, guided by the principle of subsidiarity (though she does not use the term) and coupled with a proper understanding of the relative value of persons and things (another cornerstone of Catholic social teaching) could be what is necessary to save the world.

I do not mean to imply that everyone should embrace Catholicism because its practice could help protect the environment. As philosopher and Catholic convert Peter Kreeft has said, the only good reason to believe in anything is because it is true. Not because it makes us well behaved or happy or for any other pragmatic reason, but because it is true. On the other hand, if it is true that God became man and that He established a Church to guide us in our worship of Him and in our treatment of ourselves and others, then it should not surprise us that when we disregard the laws passed down by that Church, all of creation suffers. After all, if Christianity is true, then God is a compassionate and provident God whose commands — like the house rules laid down by caring parents — exist solely to keep us safe in body and soul. When we ignore them and live by our own rules, we must naturally expect disaster.

Sadly, there are some devout Catholics who do not believe we should be concerned about ecological problems at all. When Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato si (On Care for Our Common Home) last year, there were grumblings that the Holy Father should be focusing his teachings on more important topics than "the care of our common home." This unfortunate attitude disregards the scriptural mandates that we are to hold conscientious dominion — not ruthless domination — over God's handiwork (which He pronounced "good" and therefore treasures as any artisan does his work) and that we are responsible for the care of the poor, who are the ones most hurt by pollution and its effects.

Scoffing at our well-documented global troubles also places an obstacle in the way of evangelization by undermining the credibility of the Christian who holds this view. Finally, such haughty indifference robs environmental dialogues of the Catholic perspective, which carries crucial messages — for example (as emphasized by the Holy Father in Laudato si) that it is illogical and unethical to strive to preserve animal and plant life while supporting the disposal of human life in the form of the sick, the handicapped, the elderly, or the unborn.

The Creator has entrusted to us the work of His hands for our prudent and responsible use. He, His cherished poor, and the souls He wants to bring into existence depend on us to rein in our unruly appetites before we gobble up everything.

Catholics, become what you are.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Dave - Feb 19, 2016

Your characterization of the argument critics have of Laudato Si is specious at best. Laudato Si has many flaws, among them are the false assumptions that global warming/climate change is a settled fact and that man has caused such change. Further, Francis' call for a centralized governmental solution follows the thoroughly debunked theories of so many Marxists. Catholics are obliged to stand up for truth and fight falsehood especially if such falsehood emanates from the pope who should be the principal guardian of truth.

Robert - Feb 26, 2016

In response to the previous Comment: I don't think it is fair to imply that Pope Francis merely called for a "centralized government solution" to the problems of pollution and environmental care. As I read the document, he calls for action at every level: by central governments, but also by local governments, by businesses, and through changes in individual and family lifestyles. One can legitimately debate which one of these areas should be given more emphasis, and whether Pope Francis's policy recommendations were entirely prudent in each case. But I do think it is unfair to summarize his exhortations as simply "Marxist."

And I do not think there is any statement in the document that can be taken to insist that Catholics accept his every rumination on particular solutions as definitive teaching.

Besides, his exhortations to environmental stewardship remain valid even if there is no global warming going on: there are many forms of air and water pollution and lasting environmental damage that should be the concern of all even if global warming turns out to be an unrealistic fear.