Caring for the environment is part of Catholic social teaching

Friday, Dec. 02, 2011
By Jean Hill
Director, Diocese of Salt Lake City Office of Life, Justice and Peace

Human action is having an increasingly negative effect on our planet in terms of climate change, according to a May 2011 report from the Working Group commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In terms of Catholic social teaching, the effects implicate multiple areas of concern, including the most obvious, our duty to care for Creation.

From the Book of Genesis to Pope Benedict XVI, humanity has been called upon to "cultivate and care" for the gift of Creation (GN 2:15). Pope Benedict reminded us of this calling in his 2010 World Day of Peace message: "The true meaning of God’s original command, as the Book of Genesis clearly shows, was not a simple conferral of authority, but rather a summons to responsibility."

Whether you call it climate change or not, human activity is impacting our environment in ways that harm all of us—Utah’s infamous air quality is a prime example. As Catholics, we are called to do what we can to mitigate our impact on the planet.

We do so not only to care for creation, but in recognition of the profound impact climate change has on the right to life. As the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops stated, "The web of life is one. Our mistreatment of the natural world diminishes our own dignity and sacredness, not only because we are destroying resources that future generations of humans need, but because we are engaging in acts that contradict what it means to be human." Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II asserted this same interconnectedness in multiple encyclicals and speeches. Both explained that human life is not just about individuals—all of creation is part of a life of dignity and protecting life is impossible without also protecting creation.

In keeping with Catholic teaching, our efforts to protect creation must also account for the disproportionate effects of climate change on the poor. According to the Working Group Report, human-caused changes threaten water and food security, "especially among those ‘bottom 3 billion’ people who are too poor to avail of protections made possible by fossil fuel use and industrialization." Even in wealthy countries, the poor are more likely to live on or near polluted lands and suffer greater hardships from natural disasters, as demonstrated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Given the very real threat to health and human life posed by climate change, the Working Group recommends immediate action to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, decrease the concentrations of dark soot, methane, ozone, and hydroflourocarbons in the atmosphere, and prepare for impacts of climate change that we will not be able to mitigate.

The Group makes these recommendations not only in a scientific context, but also in a Catholic context. The Working Group summarizes much of Catholic social teaching on the issue when it states, "By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life. We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink, as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us."

Jean Hill is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace and Justice Commission.

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