The Catholic Church has a rich history of being environment conscious. Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote Octogesima Adveniens, a 1971 apostolic letter that warned against the consequences of unchecked human actions. “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation,” he wrote.
In Saint Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, the Pope also wrote about man’s role as a steward of the earth. “Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption,” John Paul II wrote “Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master” and “guardian”, and not as a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer”.
So what does it mean to be an environmentally-friendly Catholic? Let’s take a look at the recent writings of the past two popes to gain a clearer definition of a green Catholic.
Will the original Green Pope please stand up?
While Pope Francis has written extensively on how we are called to be good stewards of the earth (don’t worry, we’ll check out his writings in a minute), the original green Pope is Pope Benedict XVI. The lasting legacy of his papacy was how he shifted the global conversation on the earth’s climate and our responsibility for its care.
In his very first homily as the pope, Benedict alluded to his passions for human and environmental ecology. Here’s what he said about the deserts in our world (and in our souls!) today:
“There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.”
There were so many times that Pope Benedict XVI talked about care of the environment in the eight years of his pontificate that he was nicknamed ‘The Green Pope.’
Initiatives that Pope Benedict XVI spearheaded at the Vatican to encourage eco-friendly practices were:
- Approving a plan to cover the Vatican’s Paul VI hall with solar panels
- Making Vatican city the only city in the world that is fully carbon neutral
- Driving a hybrid Popemobile that ran partially on electricity
On a huge variety of occasions, Pope Benedict XVI used his papal platform to start conversations about becoming good stewards of the earth God gave us. .
In 2007, he wrote a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople during the Symposium of the Religion, Science and the Environment movement. He wrote:
“The relationship between individuals or communities and the environment ultimately stems from their relationship with God. When ‘man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order.”
Pope Benedict XVI retired from his papal position in 2013. But the best way to measure his commitment to the environment isn’t through his carbon footprint or his hybrid Popemobile. Instead, his passion for stewardship of the earth can be seen through his utilization of his voice as Pope to start conversations globally about how the world is a gift to us from God Himself.
Pope Francis and Laudato Si’
Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of his predecessor. Encouraging good stewardship of the earth is something that Pope Francis holds dear. Even the name he took as Pope is inspired by the earth-conscious Saint Francis of Assisi. His first solo encyclical, Laudato Si’, was released in 2015 and deals mainly with matters of ecology and the environment. The encyclical’s name means “Be praised” or “Praise be to you” – a line directly from St. Francis of Assisi’s famous Canticle of the Sun.
Pope Francis asks for a renewed look at the environment, siting how lack of interest in the past has led to careless interaction with the earth – our common home. He writes:
“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest.”
The encyclical is divided into six chapters:
- Chapter One – What is Happening to Our Common Home
- Chapter Two – The Gospel of Creation
- Chapter Three – The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis
- Chapter Four – Integral Ecology
- Chapter Five – Lines of Approach and Action
- Chapter Six – Ecological Education and Spirituality
The encyclical is a call to action for all mankind to realize the state of the earth and the state of mankind in our modern culture. Pope Francis approaches the issue with science, philosophy, and theology. He also gives practical tips on how one can integrate respect for the earth into daily living:
“Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”
What does it mean to be green AND Catholic?
There is a big difference between an authentic, Catholic approach to environmentalism compared to the secular approach.
Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute explained the difference to the National Catholic Register back in 2007. “A lot of environmentalists are very anti-life,” Royal said. “They think human beings are the disrupters of the environment as if it would be better if there were a planet without human beings.”
Green Catholics realize that being pro-earth and pro-life go hand in hand. Human beings are not in the way of being green. Instead, human life is viewed as irreplaceable.
At the welcoming celebration for World Youth Day in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized how care for creation and respect for life are intertwined together:
“My dear friends, God’s creation is one and it is good. The concerns for nonviolence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity. They cannot, however, be understood apart from a profound reflection on the innate dignity of every human life from conception to natural death: a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable.”
We can see this human-focused approach in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ as well. While majority of the encyclical was focused on good stewardship of creation, the Pope also discussed subjects such as consumerism, birth control, and the family.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes about the concept of integral ecology. “Integral” ecology is focused on a complete approach to the environment. So if one approaches the subject of being ‘green’ without taking into account human beings, their ecology is only partial.
For an integral and complete approach to becoming good stewards of the environment, we must take into consideration human ecology and natural ecology. Green Catholicism is integrally pro-life, taking into consideration the value of human life from the moment of conception to natural death – but also contemplating the environment in which human life exists.
After all, we cannot have a discussion about leaving the earth in a better state for future generations if we do not value the lives of those who will make up the next generation. Pope Francis’s thoughts found in Laudato Si’ summarize this perfectly:
“Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ‘If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away’”