A new and distinctively Catholic voice on environmental issues has evolved over the last decade. It links traditional church teaching on creation, the common good, social justice and stewardship to major environmental challenges. This often overlooked development is found in initiatives in parishes, schools and other Catholic institutions across the country:
In the Northwest, the bishops issued a major pastoral reflection on the Columbia River that offers a moral vision of pursuing the common good in the midst of polarization and conflict [see America 11/24/03, p. 13];
In Florida, the dioceses are urging community-wide efforts to protect precious limited water supplies, especially the Everglades;
In many Catholic hospitals, a new sense of environmental responsibility is shaping policy and practice;
In the National Council of Catholic Women, local Catholic women’s groups are addressing environmental health hazards and threats to poor children, like lead and asthma;
In Washington, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is helping to shape the debate about how to balance a respect for private property and the demands of the common good.
This fall, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ environmental justice program marks its 10th anniversary. The program responds to the environmental challenge of Pope John Paul II, notably his 1990 message, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility. The bishops are seeking to create an authentically Catholic voice in the environmental debate, one that focuses on the human person’s place in nature and that puts the needs of the poor and vulnerable front and center.
This new voice has old roots. The life of St. Francis of Assisi, for example, demonstrated a love for creatures and the poor that can inspire us to find a way to care for both the earth and the wretched of the earth. It is not surprising that Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis the patron of ecology. Many, including nonbelievers, see St. Francis as a source of inspiration. Too few, however, have reflected his love for both the poor and nature, but this is a distinctive feature of the bishops’ pastoral letter Renewing the Earth (1991) and their statement Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good (2001). These documents offer moral principles, policy criteria and an ethic of responsibility and restraint as a foundation of a renewed environmental ethic in the Catholic community.
A Voice on Behalf of the Poor
Making the poor a priority is a defining element of the church’s contribution to the environmental debate. The poor are vulnerable to environmental hazards. Poor families often live on the margins of society: in urban areas where their housing is poor, or in rural areas, where the land is overused, in flood plains or subject to drought. They often live near toxic dumps, where housing is cheaper. Some hold jobs that people of higher incomes would not consider, jobs that expose poorer workers directly to environmental toxins. In debates about the environment, the poor and vulnerable workers are often out of sight and have no voice.
In serving the poor, the Catholic community has increasingly focused on environmental justice. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is helping poorer communities struggle with environmental health problems - pesticides, for example, that poison farm workers. Catholic Charities USA is training housing counselors to help low-income mothers learn how to protect their children from household toxic materials. Catholic hospitals and health care facilities are finding ways to lessen the harmful effects of medical waste treatment and to address health threats resulting from environmental damage.
The Catholic environmental commitment extends beyond the local community and includes global issues. In their statement Global Climate Change, the bishops insist we need not understand everything about the science of climate change to know it poses serious consequences for humans and the planet itself. Prudence calls for action on behalf of future generations, but the search for the common good is often overwhelmed by powerful competing interests and polarizing claims and tactics. In these struggles, the voices of the poor are missing. But their special needs must not be lost sight of as the richer countries struggle over the potential costs of climate change to their societies.
The Voice of Local Leadership
Environmental justice is everyone’s responsibility, and stewardship for creation is every believer’s duty. The bishops’ program seeks to engage Catholics by helping them to integrate concern for the environment within the broader context of living their faith. The bishops are not urging an exclusive or narrow focus on the environment, but are seeking a way by which a community of faith can harness ethical values and everyday experience to live more in harmony with creation. This Catholic effort is assisted by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a remarkable interfaith collaboration of Protestant, Evangelical and Jewish leaders. The partnership helps each member community to pursue faithfully its own path and approach, while uniting to build a stronger voice for the larger religious community in environmental dialogue.
The integration of environmental concerns in the church’s public agenda is making a difference around the country. As noted above, the bishops of the Northwest published a major pastoral statement on the Columbia River. Likewise, the bishops of New England and New Mexico have also issued pastoral statements addressing their communities’ concerns with fisheries and water respectively. Efforts like these at the diocesan level help build local leadership, capacity and momentum.
The church often plays the role of convenor, pulling elements of diverse communities together to search for the common good. In Connecticut, for example, dioceses under the leadership of the Archdiocese of Hartford are building a coalition of civic, low-income and environmental groups to address urban sprawl and its impact on the community and land. In this instance, the church is playing a key role in helping the entire community face a critical concern. In the Mississippi delta, the Diocese of Houma-Thibodeaux has brought together farmers, watermen and oil producers to address questions of pollution and coastal erosion.
Dioceses in Iowa and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference are helping local communities to face the negative environmental impacts of large-scale hog farming. Some Iowans are Catholics who own or contract to operate large hog farms. Others suffer directly from the air and water pollution generated by large-scale hog farming. Some have lost their small farms to larger corporate hog farms. The church is again playing an important role by convening the stakeholders to consider larger questions and consequences.
Major national Catholic organizations have joined forces in the Catholic Coalition for Children and a Safe Environment, which includes Catholic hospitals, Catholic Charities agencies, schools, women’s groups and other institutions. They are addressing basic environmental health and safety issues, particularly as they affect children. This effort represents a major institutional commitment to deal with issues like asthma, lead, mercury and pesticide poisoning. And since the church owns collectively over 80,000 buildings, retrofitting or building new facilities that are more environmentally safe would be a major contribution by the Catholic community. Such retrofitting would substantially lower energy consumption and help maintain environmental health.
Ten years into this effort, three significant challenges remain. Catholic thought and spirituality must continue to explore more deeply the unique place of the human person in nature and the larger web of life. Extremes need to be resisted. Some espouse an almost divine status for nature, without any reference to the unique dignity of the human person or the need for development. Others embrace a strictly utilitarian view of nature. The church, on the other hand, recognizes that humans are part of nature. It neither divinizes nature nor embraces a materialistic view. No environmental ethic will be satisfactory without a clearer perspective on the place of humans within nature and a better understanding of the moral responsibilities of caring for creation.
Second, the Catholic tradition of the common good and solidarity needs to be developed as an alternative to polarizing political arguments and special interests. Rather than having one side win and the other lose, concern for the common good refocuses our perspective on the need to move beyond special interests or narrow political motives to assume a common responsibility for the future of our planet. Environmental stewardship is a fundamental exercise in solidarity. Our human responsibility begins with our appreciation of the basic goodness of other creatures. The earth is home to all creatures. Our charge is to live responsibly and use wisely the earth’s resources and preserve its beauty, diversity and fecundity.
Third, the neglected needs of the poor have to take priority. The rhetoric of environmental justice must become real in policies, resources and priorities. We must find a way to give expression to the voices, needs and hurts of the poor and vulnerable if we are to integrate the search for social justice and environmental wholeness.
Since 1993, the Catholic bishops across the United States have been building a network of concern for the environment. The environment is an issue with a long-term horizon. While there is still much to learn after these 10 years, it is also necessary for us to recommit ourselves for the longer journey to make environmental justice an integral part of the lives of the members of the Catholic community. This effort, if fruitful, will express itself in our prayer and thought, our work and investments. We must all take to heart the challenge of Pope John Paul II that today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone.