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8 More Keys to the Catholic Environmental Vision


This post will articulate the final eight of fourteen principles that I think underlie the Catholic environmental vision. Part one ended on the thought that the first six principles imply a positive and optimistic attitude toward the natural world, the creator, and the human race.

Principle seven, however, is not positive, since Catholicism holds that at the very beginning, something happened which damaged the way man relates to creation. Original sin has disrupted the harmony that ought to exist between humanity and the rest of the natural world. After the fall, God says to Adam:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:17-19)

In reflecting on the effect of the fall of man on creation, in his January 1, 1990 World Day of Peace address Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation (PC), Pope St. John Paul II offered some sobering thoughts. “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” (PC 5). For John Paul II, this is reflected by the Old Testament prophet Hosea when he wrote, “Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away” (Hos 4:3). In our day, the pope continues, people inside and outside the faith sense that the earth is suffering. The cause of this suffering is “the behavior of people who show a callous disregard for the hidden, yet perceivable requirements of the order and harmony which govern nature itself” (PC 5).

Catholic theology claims that original sin has affected every human being in many ways. In terms of the effect of original sin on man—and thus on people’s regard for nature—I will point out just three: a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and concupiscence.

  • It is hard for people to know the truth. Mankind, in fact, makes profound errors, many of which are self-chosen out of self-interest.
  • In addition, our wills are weak: we might see exactly what we should do but we don’t seem to have the strength of will to do it. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41).
  • Finally, we are subject to concupiscence. This means that our passions and emotions rule our reason and will rather than being directed by them.

Many if not all environmental problems stem from original sin in so far as they are a result of ignorance, short-term thinking, or willful selfishness. For example:

  • Ignorance. Until recently, people simply didn’t know that some forms of irrigation could deposit so much salt in the soil that it would eventually kill the plants they wanted to grow, and so, they irrigated their fertile fields into deserts.
  • Short-term thinking. Some early Yankee settlers in California learned from Native Americans that some pine trees on the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada mountains were edible. So they cut down the trees to get the nuts.
  • Selfish evil. In places where organized crime controls the garbage industry, toxic waste is illegally and unsafely dumped because the gangsters make more money that way.

These are examples of how humanity’s actions negatively affect the environment. But this is not inevitable or even the norm, which leads to our eighth principle: the positive transformation of the world through work.

Creation, including human nature, is wounded but it is not ruined. Creation and human nature remain essentially good. As Pope St. John Paul II points out in his encyclical Laborem exercens, “Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth” (LE 4). In carrying out this mandate to work, “man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (LE 4).

Even though work—humanity’s primary activity—is difficult, it is still the way we transform creation and build up human culture. Labor is one of the basic means by which people sanctify themselves, others, and creation itself.

All work which is not evil per se (like criminal activity) has dignity and value. This includes both intellectual and manual work, as well as ordinary, everyday tasks.

Just as our present world is the result of the work of hundreds of generations of people before us from which we benefit (and in some cases suffer), our work today contributes to the cultural and environmental inheritance of those who will succeed us. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and those who will come after us will benefit from any good work we do during our time on earth.

Mankind’s basic role in the natural world is to be a sub-creator or co-creator with God. Man takes things in the natural world and recombines them in order to create new things. Whether it is the creation of stories or of cell phones, this remaking of things out of something is another dimension of man’s creation in the image and likeness of God, who makes things out of nothing.

In addition, I think we can be very optimistic about the future, despite the environmental problems we face today. The reason is that just as human ingenuity has had a great role in creating our environmental problems, it can also find solutions to these problems. Henry Ford figured out a way to mass produce automobiles so that cars were affordable for everyone. This set off a worldwide transportation revolution with many positive effects, as well as negative environmental problems, like L.A. smog. However, there are far more cars in the Los Angeles basin today and far less air pollution than in the 1960s.

The ninth principle is the universal destination of goods. It answers the question of who should benefit from the goods of God’s creation and human co-creation.

God created the earth for the benefit of all human beings, not just some. This means that the resources of the earth belong to everyone. They belong to all the people living now, including the poor, and they also belong to future generations.

The Church teaches that private property and the rule of law are two powerful ways to protect people’s right to secure the goods of the earth for their own and for others’ welfare. In fact, poverty and injustice actually increase in places where governments appropriate property in the name of “the people,” where laws are inconsistent, and where contracts cannot be enforced.

Nevertheless, a street orphan in Central America has an intrinsic right to a family, to food, to shelter, to education, to a safe and clean environment, to marry (at least potentially), and so on, even though practically-speaking it is impossible to enjoy these goods at this moment. In the same way, future generations have a right to a healthy planet in which the resources are not all used up.

I think it is important to note that wealth is not a zero-sum game. Because of the innovative creativity of human beings, there is not a fixed amount of the goods of the earth such that if one person has more another person necessarily has less. The marvel of the modern world is that wealth can be created and the goods of the earth can be multiplied.

For example, in the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich in his wildly successful book “The Population Bomb” predicted massive famines and wars due to the pressure the world’s growing population was putting on the world’s food supply.

But these famines and wars never materialized. Why? Plant breeders such as Norman Borlaug, using philanthropic funding from sources like the Rockefeller Foundation, had by that time effectively solved the world food problem by developing new strains of cereal crops which produced greater and greater yields. Just as we have more cars and less smog in Los Angeles, around the world fewer farmers are growing more food on less land than ever before. There is no foreseeable end to these developments. For example, a high protein/low starch corn has been developed which could be a great boon to the millions of people for whom corn is the staple of life.

Closely connected to the universal destination of goods is the Catholic principle that “we are all in this together” as human brothers and sisters. This is the tenth principle: solidarity. Solidarity or “brotherhood” is the practice of the sharing of material and spiritual goods (CCC 1948).

In If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation (CPPC), Pope Benedict XVI points out that solidarity should be both intragenerational, that is, lived in regard to all who are now alive, wherever they are or whatever their economic situation, and intergenerational, that is, practiced toward those who will come after us (CPPC 8). Borlaug’s work is a prime example this solidarity. Borlaug’s green revolution helped hungry people all over the world and it will help future generations. And his work was funded, in part, through the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller, who had long-since died but who had wanted to leave a legacy for the future.

Lack of solidarity can create environmental problems. Out of ignorance, people have thought that natural resources were limitless or that oceans were so vast that one could dump anything in them and it would simply “disappear.” This was a common attitude in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with our vast, resource-rich continent to settle. Shortly after World War Two, for example, the Atomic Energy Commission had some steel barrels of nuclear waste. It dumped them in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco. That took care of the problem, didn’t it? We know better now. Polluting the environment is like urinating in a swimming pool. We really are one human family and so, out of solidarity, we should care about what happens to other people in the world and to our descendants.

The eleventh Catholic environmental principle shapes the way we practice solidarity. It is the idea of subsidiarity. According to the Catechism, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CCC 1183).

Subsidiarity means that higher levels support and coordinate the lower levels when—and only when—necessary. Higher levels do not interfere with the legitimate life and functions of the lower levels.

When it comes to environmental questions, individuals, families, civic organizations, businesses, governmental entities, and international bodies each have a legitimate sphere in which to exercise their specific responsibilities. Solutions cannot be handed down from above for everyone to obey because centralization and authoritarianism simply do not work. Individuals and groups should take responsibility within their own realm.

The twelfth principle of the Catholic environmental vision is the problem-solving virtue: prudence. Prudence is the natural virtue which governs our practical decisions. Prudence means using reason to recognize a problem or opportunity, to gather and weigh evidence, to apply objective standards, and to arrive at a decision for action. Prudence counsels us not to ignore problems. If, for example, global warming is both real and a bad thing for us and for future generations, then we are obligated to take realistic steps to act against it, without embracing impossible utopian agendas.

A particular application of subsidiarity and prudence for Catholics is that the Magisterium or teaching authority of the pope and bishops provides the principles (such as those articulated here) but the laity has the responsibility to work out concrete solutions.

As Pope Benedict XVI points out, the application of the principles of the Gospel to social life is the work of reason, “enlightened reason,” which requires Christianity to constantly “reshape and reformulate social structures and ‘Christian social teachings’” according to the concrete demands of the time (Jesus of Nazareth 126-27). This reliance on reason is why Catholics can work with fellow citizens of widely different ideologies, since we are looking for solutions which accord with reason. However, prudence is not confined to technical, practical solutions. There is another whole dimension to consider.

The thirteenth principle is that environmental decisions are moral decisions. Although some environmental matters are purely technical questions (should I use aluminum or titanium?) or involve prudential choices between goods (should I raise chickens or grow vegetables?), one must always begin environmental problem-solving by examining the moral issues involved. When prudence makes a decision, one of the sets of standards it judges by is the standard of the morally right thing to do. One may never do a direct evil or do evil so that good may come of it (Rom 3:8). To give an extreme example, if a government decided to do its part in ending its country’s “addiction to carbon” by cutting off all use of oil, natural gas, and coal, it would probably plunge its people into extreme poverty and suffering that would be morally reprehensible. This would be an example of illegitimately putting environmental ecology over human ecology.

This brings us to the have-nots.

The fourteenth and final principle of the Catholic environmental vision is the option for the poor. The Church insists that the poor and powerless must always be taken into consideration both in assessing environmental problems and in proposing solutions. Out of solidarity, those with power must take the poor into account because the poor don’t have a way of asserting their own dignity and rights. The powerless “poor” includes future generations. These have absolutely no ability to determine our decisions but nevertheless they have to live with the consequences of them.


The Catholic Church sees God as the good creator of his good creation. Within this creation, God has placed his god-like creature, man, to discover creation’s inner nature and wisely to direct it to his own fulfillment. Despite original sin, man can bring the goods of creation to every human being on earth and safeguard these goods for the benefit of future generations, all the while never forgetting the poor. I think this, in brief, is the Catholic vision of creation, stewardship, and solidarity.

Kevin Aldrich

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Kevin Aldrich has a Master’s Degree in English literature and is a certified educator with twenty-four years of teaching and administrative leadership experience in pre-K-12 parochial and independent schools. His students have ranged from kindergarteners through college freshmen with four years of high-school English. He has recently authored the teacher editions for ten high-school theology textbooks in The Didache Semester Series and the eight-volume Didache Parish Program. In the area of character formation he is the author of Teen Virtues and wrote the first two generations of the Families of Character curriculum. In addition to his educational writings, he is the author of fourteen feature screenplays, three television pilots, and four novels. His essay “The Sense of Time in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings” has been reprinted in Tolkien: A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy.

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