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The Big Picture: Catholic Social Teaching on Environmental Stewardship

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By Chris Sparks (Oct 2, 2019)
Catholic social teaching is one of the great treasures of the Church, and yet all too often, it's neglected or overlooked entirely. In this issue of Marian Helper, we continue our exploration of the Church's social teaching, this time focusing on the environment.

By Chris Sparks

Not everyone recognizes the connection between environmental stewardship and bringing about the culture of life.

In fact, failing to see the connection between the pro-life cause and good environmental stewardship (a failing of both the left and the right) is a classic case of failing to see the forest for the trees.

Indeed, we can get so focused on "our" issue — on the issue that makes most sense to us, or touches us directly, or that is addressed by "our" political party or favorite news sources — that we fail to see the bigger picture, the primordial, providentially intended connections between God, neighbor, body and soul, and the created order.

In his 2010 message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict XVI put our environmental obligations into proper perspective. He wrote:

Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of "environmental refugees," people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it — and often their possessions as well — in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development.

Reread and ponder the above carefully. Pope Benedict XVI clearly says that in order to ensure life, we need to have a clean environment. Degradation of the environment kills. Degradation of the environment threatens lives, not just of those of us walking around, but the unborn, as well. The Church has taught this loudly, consistently, and clearly for a long time.

The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many of the patterns of environmental pollution. ... Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God.
— Pope St. John Paul II, 1990 World Day of Peace Message, 7, 16.

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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2415; cf. Centesimus Annus, 37-38.

Catholics don't have the option to be blind to the bigger picture. In fact, Catholics are called to environmental stewardship because of our pro-life convictions; because we are convinced that human beings have rights and responsibilities given to us by our Creator; and because the whole of creation is a gift, not just to some of us, but to all of humanity, past, present, and future (see Catechism, 2401-2406, 2415-2418).

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He looked out over His creation, before the fall of man, and He called it good. As Dr. Scott Hahn explains in his book 'A Father Who Keeps His Promises, humanity was given the Garden of Eden to abodah and shamar, Hebrew words that mean to "till" and "keep" (Gen 2:15) — the same Hebrew words that are used to describe the responsibility of the priests in the Temple (see Nm 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6).

The whole of creation, Dr. Hahn explains, was made by God to be a cosmic temple, under the stewardship of the high priests: humanity. The created world was meant as the medium for the message of God's love (see Catechism, 1147), and for the transmission of our love back to God through worship. The fall disrupted that transmission of life and love, and Christ's Incarnation restored it.

So our Catholic faith makes clear that all of the created order is given over to humanity for our use, yes, but also for our stewardship. We are meant to till and to keep the world, to make it fruitful and to defend it. We are to live prudently in the land, making sure that it flourishes and is fecund for generations upon generations down to the end of the world (see Catechism, 2415).

Our environmental stewardship (or failure to exercise environmental stewardship) directly affects us all, born and unborn alike. We can make use of the natural world and trust natural processes to clean it up, within reason. But past that point? Unless we take steps to render the poisons produced by industry harmless; unless we safeguard the radioactive waste generated by our nuclear power plants; unless we act as responsible stewards and clean up after ourselves, we will kill our environment and ourselves along with it.

We know the realities of climate change, as referenced by Pope Benedict. Moreover, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, since the Industrial Revolution, the ocean's acidic level has increased by about 30 percent. According to the World Wildlife Federation, an estimated 18 million acres of forest are cut down each year. Photos from space confirm our ocean now hosts massive garbage patches, including the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is more than twice the size of Texas.

The evidence is overwhelming that we are not acting as responsible stewards.

Think of a cook in the kitchen, or a carpenter at his bench, or children playing in the mud. They can choose not to clean up after themselves. The cook can leave the dirty dishes lying about; the carpenter can simply pile tool on tool and heap the sawdust to the ceiling; the children can go to bed filthy and keep getting filthier. But someday, that cook will poison someone. That carpenter will burn down his workshop. The children will fall ill.

Why would we imagine that our environment is any different? Why would we shirk ecological stewardship? Why would we imagine that our good God, who commands love of Himself and of neighbor as the two great commandments, would have no expectations of His children when it comes to the welfare and wellbeing of our common home?

Our neighbors are impacted by our consumerism and our materialism (see Catechism, 2404). The factory that belches smoke into the air and pours waste into the river impacts its neighbors, to whom, according to God, that factory owner has an obligation (see Catechism, 2432). We are our brother's keeper, after all (see Evangelium Vitae, 19).

So what do we do about all this?

The Church invites us to mark the ecumenical "Season of Creation" from Sept. 1, the Feast of St. Giles (c. 650-710), to Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) and the Vigil of the Feast of St. Faustina (1905-1938). During that time, let's commit to prayer, study, and action.

Let's pray for our spiritual and political leaders that they may wisely guide us in being good stewards of creation.

Let's study, turning to both faith and reason, both to Church teaching on environmental stewardship (such as Pope Francis' encyclical letter Laudato Si) and to good books, documentaries, or other reliable sources of scientific information about our environment. Let's find out what we need to do to be good stewards of the created order. Let's familiarize ourselves with the environmental issues impacting our local communities, our state, our nation, and the globe.

And then let's act, taking part in works of mercy and justice, such as those laid out in our ecological examination of conscience (see page 13). Let's spend time in nature. Some of the greatest advocates of environmental stewardship have historically been outdoorsmen, hunters, and fishermen, like President Theodore Roosevelt, founder of the national park system.

Let's join their ranks and grow to love this tremendous gift from our loving Father.

Ecological Examination of Conscience

Do I waste food, water, or other natural resources?
Do I waste fuel or electricity?
Do I look for ways to reduce my consumption of goods more generally?
Do I help act as a steward of our common home through the following acts?
Plant a tree or garden
Generate less trash
Observe the Church's days of abstinence from meat
Where possible, buy my clothes second-hand
Arrange a home energy efficiency assessment through my power company or state agency
Have I embraced the spirit of poverty to which the Church calls me (see Catechism, 2407)?
Do I recognize that I am a steward of a portion of the goods of the earth for a time, and have an obligation to use resources with consideration of those who come after me (see Catechism, 2402-2405)?

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Pamela - Oct 12, 2019

It would seem obvious that the state of our souls would be impacted by our degree of stewardship of creation. It is such a shame that this has been so politicized and separated from other pro-life issues.

Can you focus on our souls not on our trash - Oct 3, 2019

I am confused by this