When it comes to the most vulnerable, most Catholics think of the elderly, the poor or the unborn. But there is another group we have been given to care for, and it is in danger of being neglected.
The Stopping EPA Overreach Act was introduced in January by U.S. Representative Gary Palmer, a Republican from Alabama who prides himself on a “jobs first” mentality. The goal of the bill is to limit regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to create jobs, but the bill’s side effects could be incredibly damaging to the planet and its wildlife. The bill essentially looks to prevent the government from regulating greenhouse gases and states that “nothing” in the Endangered Species Act, among other laws, “authorizes or requires the regulation of climate change or global warming.”
The effect of climate change on the habitats of animals is undeniable. When the climate changes, animal habitats can be harmed by fluctuating temperatures or a loss of vital plant life.
“Climate change in eons past has been a long process,” explains Dan Misleh, executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant. “If climate change is drawn out over time, creatures can adjust [more easily], rather than with a rapid increase of temperatures, as we’re seeing now.” Mr. Misleh offers the example of migratory birds, which studies show are not finding food in the places they were able to just 20 years ago.
"We have a beautifully created world that humans have been given the responsibility of taking care of. So when we lose species, we’ve lost something of ourselves.”
Why should Catholics care? With all of the pressing issues these days, including immigration, abortion, poverty and war, why should we care about how some bird finds its dinner?
“All of creation is kin. All of creation is companion to us. When [animal species] are lost, God feels a great deal of sorrow for the loss of something he has created,” Mr. Misleh says. “We have a beautifully created world that humans have been given the responsibility of taking care of. So when we lose species, we’ve lost something of ourselves.”
As Pope John Paul II wrote in his “Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics”:
At the beginning of history, man and woman sinned by disobeying God and rejecting His design for creation. Among the results of this first sin was the destruction of the original harmony of creation. If we examine carefully the social and environmental crisis which the world community is facing, we must conclude that we are still betraying the mandate God has given us: to be stewards called to collaborate with God in watching over creation in holiness and wisdom.
It is important to note that animals and human beings are not on an equal plane of dignity. We do not want to fall into the erroneous thinking that animals have the same spirit, reasoning ability or capacity to love as we do. That is why the Catholic Church does not forbid using animals for food or clothing. When we look at animals as equal to humans, we lose sight of what makes human beings sacred—that we are made in the image and likeness of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Of all visible creatures only man is ‘able to know and love his Creator.’ He is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,’ and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.”
We should always put humans before animals. If the choice is between the survival of a person or a puppy, it is our duty to value the human life. It would also be imprudent to suggest more effort be put toward saving the lives of animals than the lives of the unborn, as abortion is a human tragedy that takes the lives of thousands each day.
But we do not rank God’s teachings or say that because one is so important, we should ignore all of the others. The priority of human life does not make the care of animals less important. When we lose endangered animal species, we lose God’s creation. When we stop valuing vulnerable life the world as a whole suffers. Although it is noble and good to value American jobs and think of creative solutions to create more of them, we cannot make these decisions at the expense of God’s creatures.
The E.P.A. was created to help protect the earth—a vulnerable part of creation that humans, at times, abuse for our own gain. Stripping the federal agency of its power to take into account endangered species when making climate change policy decisions would be a mistake. But even if the E.P.A. were to disappear tomorrow, Catholics would still have an important responsibility to till and cultivate the earth as well as to defend all of its most vulnerable inhabitants. As Pope Francis says, “In plants and in animals, we recognize the imprint of the Creator.”
Correction: Aug. 30, 2017
This article stated incorrectly that U.S. Representative Gary Palmer was from Arizona. Mr. Palmer is a Republican from Alabama.