The Church and the Environment

Traditional Catholics often have a negative reaction to the environmental movement. This is understandable in light of the fact that the movement is frequently dominated by anti-life liberals and that it frequently tends towards an anti-human rhetoric. That is, it identifies "people" as the problem and the threat to the natural order. Their conclusion often tends to be, "get rid of humans and save the environment." Hence they often manifest great support for the imposition of birth control on indigenous peoples and for abortion: "the fewer humans, the better"is their "solution" to all things having to do with the environment.

But the human person is not the problem; rather, the human person viewed as pure consumer is. When our self-worth is defined in terms of what we buy and how much we consume, then avarice becomes a standard of "virtue." With such an unnatural view, the natural environment must suffer. When we routinely drive a Hummer half a block to pick up a gallon of milk, we leave a pretty big "carbon footprint." It is not people per se, but certain people who cannot restrain their consumption that is the problem. But man is the master of the natural order; God gives us "dominion" over the world. This is not the dominion of a tyrant, but of a father who wishes to bring out the best in those in his care, or of a craftsman, who wishes to make of natural objects something even more beautiful and useful. What everyone should oppose is a view of nature that turns her into a mere resource for the most wanton of desires and a mere garbage heap for the most toxic of unnatural chemicals.

Therefore, Christianity is inherently environmentalist, with a responsibility for the natural order that goes back to Genesis. By running away from this responsibility, we leave the field clear for the capitalists for whom nature is nothing more than another opportunity for exploitation. We cannot in conscience avoid our responsibilities, and we should not have to choose between the abortionists and the capitalists. Rather, we must become the "yeast" that leavens the whole conversation. We must return the conversation to its Biblical and traditional roots, which places responsibility for the created order on man, to whom dominion has been given.

One hopeful sign of this task is the establishment of the John Paul II Institute for Theology and Environmental Studies at Thomas More College. The mission statement of the institute reads:

The John Paul II Institute for Theology & Environmental Studies is dedicated to studying, communicating, promoting, and developing Pope John Paul II’s legacy concerning ecological responsibility and environmental awareness. Finding its warrant in John Paul II’s Christian humanism—the “heart” of the new evangelization—the Institute seeks to:

  • Facilitate Catholic theology’s interface with the multidisciplinary field of environmental studies, i.e., the environmental arts, humanities, and sciences;
  • Advance theological research and foster theological literacy, toward the development of a comprehensive Catholic theology of ecological identity;
  • Provide a forum for dialogue and interaction with the diverse theories and cultural expressions of contemporary environmentalism and environmental concern;
  • Establish a theologically-grounded approach to environmental education, outdoor/experiential education, and formation in the natural sciences/science education; and
  • Promote interdisciplinary studies, the integration of knowledge, and the dialogue between Catholic thought and the natural sciences on the question of the environment, according to the tenets of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in service to the Church, academy, and society.


Ben Monday, December 17, 2007 at 8:03:00 AM CST  

the first paragraph got to me... then I calmed down the more I read. The sweeping generalizations about Catholics and the Church are widespread.

There is not a singular type of Catholic. There are liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. While the church's stance on abortion is quite clear, there is not dogma that says even the most conservative Catholics aren't economy car driving conservationists. Growing up in that community, seeing both liberal and conservatives in the Church, I don't buy into these broad stokes often pushed upon the church's followers... it is far too simplistic.

John Médaille Monday, December 17, 2007 at 10:04:00 AM CST  

Mr. Clark, you are certainly correct, and any short article must rely on some generalizations. However, this suspicion of the environmental movement certainly does exist, as evidenced by Chronicles Magazine which called Al Gore an Enemy of the Planet in its most recent edition. Such comments are common enough, even if not common enough to characterize a whole group.

Anonymous,  Friday, December 28, 2007 at 1:15:00 PM CST  

I absolutely agree and this dichotomy is what makes me feel like a "political misfit." My personal experience as a devout Catholic, aka "an environmenal wacko" is that the "liberal" Catholics, seem to worship creation (so much that they condone abortion etc.) and the "conservative" Catholics, seem to worship the creature. By that I mean they promote unfettered economic growth, approve of the Iraq War, and generally are not in favor of any creature comfort denial to save the planet. Just my experience of course. BTW, I am good friends with your sister Katie (and definitely not in agreement re: environmental issues!) Tanya

John Médaille Friday, December 28, 2007 at 2:02:00 PM CST  

Tanya, Thanks for your comment. Your experience is similar to mine. On the other hand, the tendency of some environmentalists to blame "population" rather then specific, high-consumption populations, causes some Catholics to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Say hello to Kate for me!

Anonymous,  Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 10:36:00 PM CST  

I am personally struggling really hard with this issue. The environazis are driving me to distraction with their Malthusian, anti-life sentiments. Yet, I am very amenable in general to hearing about environmental concerns.

Also, being the wife of a geologist makes me naturally skeptical of the whole "climate change" theory. So, that doesn't help!

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