Renewing the Earth
Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. . . . [A] new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge. . . . The ecological crisis is a moral issue. Pope John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, nos. 1, 15, December 8, 1989
I. Signs of the Times
At its core, the environmental crisis is a moral challenge. It calls us to examine how we use and share the goods of the earth, what we pass on to future generations, and how we live in harmony with God’s creation.
The effects of environmental degradation surround us: the smog in our cities; chemicals in our water and on our food; eroded topsoil blowing in the wind; the loss of valuable wetlands; radioactive and toxic waste lacking adequate disposal sites; threats to the health of industrial and farm workers. The problems, however, reach far beyond our own neighborhoods and work-places. Our problems are the world’s problems and burdens for generations to come. Poisoned water crosses borders freely. Acid rain pours on countries that do not create it. Greenhouse gases and chlorofluorocarbons affect the earth’s atmosphere for many decades, regardless of where they are produced or used.
Opinions vary about the causes and the seriousness of environmental problems. Still, we can experience their effects in polluted air and water; in oil and wastes on our beaches; in the loss of farmland, wetlands, and forests; and in the decline of rivers and lakes. Scientists identify several other less visible but particularly urgent problems currently being debated by the scientific community, including depletion of the ozone layer, deforestation, the extinction of species, the generation and disposal of toxic and nuclear waste, and global warming. These important issues are being explored by scientists, and they require urgent attention and action. We are not scientists, but as pastors we call on experts, citizens, and policymakers to continue to explore the serious environmental, ethical, and human dimensions of these ecological challenges.
Environmental issues are also linked to other basic problems. As eminent scientist Dr. Thomas F. Malone reported, humanity faces problems in five interrelated fields: environment, energy, economics, equity, and ethics. To ensure the survival of a healthy planet, then, we must not only establish a sustainable economy but must also labor for justice both within and among nations. We must seek a society where economic life and environmental commitment work together to protect and to enhance life on this planet.
v. God’s Stewards and Co-Creators
As others have pointed out, we are the first generation to see our planet from space–to see so clearly its beauty, limits, and fragility. Modern communication technology helps us to see more clearly than ever the impact of carelessness, ignorance, greed, neglect, and war on the earth.
Today, humanity is at a crossroads. Having read the signs of the times, we can either ignore the harm we see and witness further damage, or we can take up our responsibilities to the Creator and creation with renewed courage and commitment.
The task set before us is unprecedented, intricate, complex. No single solution will be adequate to the task. To live in balance with the finite resources of the planet, we need an unfamiliar blend of restraint and innovation. We shall be required to be genuine stewards of nature and thereby co-creators of a new human world. This will require both new attitudes and new actions.
A. New Attitudes
For believers, our faith is tested by our concern and care for creation. Within our tradition are important resources and values that can help us assess problems and shape constructive solutions. In addition to the themes we have already outlined from our social teaching, the traditional virtues of prudence, humility, and temperance are indispensable elements of a new environmental ethic. Recognition of the reality of sin and failure as well as the opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation can help us face up to our environmental responsibilities. A new sense of the limits and risks of fallible human judgments ought to mark the decisions of policy makers as they act on complicated global issues with necessarily imperfect knowledge. Finally, as we face the challenging years ahead, we must all rely on the preeminent Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love to sustain us and direct us.
There are hopeful signs: public concern is growing; some public policy is shifting; and private behavior is beginning to change. From broader participation in recycling to negotiating international treaties, people are searching for ways to make a difference on behalf of the environment.
More people seem ready to recognize that the industrialized world’s overconsumption has contributed the largest share to the degradation of the global environment. Also encouraging is the growing conviction that development is more qualitative than quantitative, that it consists more in improving the quality of life than in increasing consumption. What is now needed is the will to make the changes in public policy, as well as in life-style, that will be needed to arrest, reverse, and prevent environmental decay and to pursue the goal of sustainable, equitable development for all. The overarching moral issue is to achieve during the twenty-first century a just and sustainable world. From a scientific point of view, this seems possible. But the new order can only be achieved through the persevering exercise of moral responsibility on the part of individuals, voluntary organizations, governments, and transnational agencies.
In the Catholic community, as we have pointed out, there are many signs of increased discussion, awareness, and action on environment. We have offered these reflections in the hope that they will contribute to a broader dialogue in our Church and society about the moral dimensions of ecology and about the links between social justice and ecology, between environment and development. We offer these reflections not to endorse a particular policy agenda nor to step onto some current bandwagon, but to meet our responsibilities as pastors and teachers who see the terrible consequences of environmental neglect and who believe our faith calls us to help shape a creative and effective response.
B. New Actions
This statement is only a first step in fashioning an ongoing response to this challenge. We invite the Catholic community to join with us and others of good will in a continuing effort to understand and act on the moral and ethical dimensions of the environmental crisis:
- We ask scientists, environmentalists, economists, and other expertsto continue to help us understand the challenges we face and the steps we need to take. Faith is not a substitute for facts; the more we know about the problems we face, the better we can respond.
- We invite teachers and educatorsto emphasize, in their classrooms and curricula, a love for God’s creation, a respect for nature, and a commitment to practices and behavior that bring these attitudes into the daily lives of their students and themselves.
- We remind parentsthat they are the first and principal teachers of children. It is from parents that children will learn love of the earth and delight in nature. It is at home that they develop the habits of self-control, concern, and care that lie at the heart of environmental morality.
- We call on theologians, scripture scholars, and ethiciststo help explore, deepen, and advance the insights of our Catholic tradition and its relation to the environment and other religious perspectives on these matters. We especially call upon Catholic scholars to explore the relationship between this tradition’s emphasis upon the dignity of the human person and our responsibility to care for all of God’s creation.
- We ask business leaders and representatives of workersto make the protection of our common environment a central concern in their activities and to collaborate for the common good and the protection of the earth. We especially encourage pastors and parish leaders to give greater attention to the extent and urgency of the environmental crisis in preaching, teaching, pastoral outreach, and action, at the parish level and through ecumenical cooperation in the local community.
- We ask the members of our Churchto examine our life-styles, behaviors, and policies–individually and institutionally–to see how we contribute to the destruction or neglect of the environment and how we might assist in its protection and restoration. We also urge celebrants and liturgy committees to incorporate themes into prayer and worship that emphasize our responsibility to protect all of God’s creation and to organize prayerful celebrations of creation on feast days honoring St. Francis and St. Isidore.
- We ask environmental advocatesto join us in building bridges between the quest for justice and the pursuit of peace and concern for the earth. We ask that the poor and vulnerable at home and abroad be accorded a special and urgent priority in all efforts to care for our environment.
- We urge policy makers and public officialsto focus more directly on the ethical dimensions of environmental policy and on its relation to development, to seek the common good, and to resist short-term pressures in order to meet our long-term responsibility to future generations. At the very minimum, we need food and energy policies that are socially just, environmentally benign, and economically efficient.
- As citizens, each of us needs to participate in this debate over how our nation best protects our ecological heritage, limits pollution, allocates environmental costs, and plans for the future. We need to use our voices and votes to shape a nation more committed to the universal common good and an ethic of environmental solidarity.
All of us need both a spiritual and a practical vision of stewardship and co-creation that guides our choices as consumers, citizens, and workers. We need, in the now familiar phrase, to “think globally and act locally,” finding the ways in our own situation to express a broader ethic of genuine solidarity.
C. Call to Conversion
The environmental crisis of our own day constitutes an exceptional call to conversion. As individuals, as institutions, as a people, we need a change of heart to save the planet for our children and generations yet unborn. So vast are the problems, so intertwined with our economy and way of life, that nothing but a wholehearted and ever more profound turning to God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, will allow us to carry out our responsibilities as faithful stewards of God’s creation.
Only when believers look to values of the Scriptures, honestly admit their limitations and failings, and commit their selves to common action on behalf of the land and the wretched of the earth will we be ready to participate fully in resolving this crisis.
D. A Word of Hope
A just and sustainable society and world are not an optional ideal, but a moral and practical necessity. Without justice, a sustainable economy will be beyond reach. Without an ecologically responsible world economy, justice will be unachievable. To accomplish either is an enormous task; together they seem overwhelming. But “[a]ll things are possible” to those who hope in God (Mk 10:27). Hope is the virtue at the heart of a Christian environmental ethic. Hope gives us the courage, direction, and energy required for this arduous common endeavor.
In the bleak years of Britain’s industrial revolution, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of urban decay wrought by industry and of Christian hope for nature’s revival. His words capture the condition of today’s world as it awaits redemption from ecological neglect:
And all is seared with trade;
bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge
and shares man’s smell:
Is bare now, nor can foot feel,
And for all this, nature is never spent:
There lives the dearest
freshness deep down things;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah!
Saving the planet will demand long and sometimes sacrificial commitment. It will require continual revision of our political habits, restructuring economic institutions, reshaping society, and nurturing global community. But we can proceed with hope because, as at the dawn of creation, so today the Holy Spirit breathes new life into all earth’s creatures. Today, we pray with new conviction and concern for all God’s creation:
Send forth thy Spirit, Lord
and renew the face of the earth.
This bishops’ statement is the result of a process that began in June 1990 at the joint meeting of the USCC Committees on International Policy and on Domestic Policy. At that time the committees responded to concerns, raised by several bishops in the United States and by bishops’ conferences in developing countries, about the religious and moral dimensions of the environmental crisis. After a year and a half of study and consultation, the bishops adopted this statement, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching, at their November 1991 meeting. The statement is authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Monsignor Robert N. Lynch
Copyright © 2000, United States Catholic Conference, Inc. All rights reserved.