As the name of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Environmental Justice program indicates, this ethical framework binds together social justice and environmental stewardship as integral parts of a unified moral perspective.
Biblical and Theological Foundations
Creator and Creation
God, the Source of all that is, is actively present in all creation, but God also surpasses all created things. . . . We can and must care for the earth without mistaking it for the ultimate object of our devotion. We believe that faith in a good and loving God is a compelling source of passionate and enduring care for all creation. The very plants and animals, mountains and oceans, which in their loveliness and sublimity lift our minds to God, by their fragility and perishing likewise cry out, "We have not made ourselves."
God brings them into being and sustains them in existence. (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
The Goodness of Creation
A Christian responsibility for the environment begins with appreciation of the goodness of all God's creation. In the beginning, "God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good" (Gn 1:31). The heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, the earth and the sea, fish and birds, animals and humans — all are good. God's wisdom and power were present in every aspect of the unfolding of creation (see Prv 8:22-31). (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
A Sacramental Universe
For many people, the environmental movement has reawakened appreciation of the truth that, through the created gifts of nature, men and women encounter their Creator. The Christian vision of a sacramental universe — a world that discloses the Creator's presence by visible and tangible signs — can contribute to making the earth a home for the human family once again. Pope John Paul II has called for Christians to respect and protect the environment, so that through nature people can "contemplate the mystery of the greatness and love of God." (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
Biblical and Theological Foundations
The Order and Integrity of Creation
Theology, philosophy and science all speak of a harmonious universe, of a "cosmos" endowed with its own integrity, its own internal, dynamic balance. This order must be respected. The human race is called to explore this order, to examine it with due care and to make use of it while safeguarding its integrity. (Pope John Paul II, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation”)
As well as being stewards of creation, human beings are profoundly related to non-human creation because, like all things, they are creatures made by God. Human beings are fellow-creatures and companions with all creation. The common good involves all creation. . . . Human beings are part of the environment, not separate from it. There is need to employ human intelligence and inventiveness in order to secure a balance between ecological concerns and the need for employment, just wages, decent living conditions, economic advancement. (Bishops of Florida, “Companions in Creation”)
People share the earth with other creatures. But humans, made in the image and likeness of God, are called in a special way to "cultivate and care for it" (Gn 2:15).
Men and women, therefore, bear a unique responsibility under God: to safeguard the created world and by their creative labor even to enhance it. Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly within it, rather than manage creation as though we are outside it. The human family is charged with preserving the beauty, diversity, and integrity of nature, as well as with fostering its productivity. Yet, God alone is sovereign over the whole earth. "The LORD'S are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it" (Ps 24:1). Like the patriarch Noah, humanity stands responsible for ensuring that all nature can continue to thrive as God intended. After the flood, God made a lasting covenant with Noah, his descendants, and "every living creature." We are not free, therefore, to use created things capriciously. (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
Sin and the Environment
. . . Adam and Eve were to have exercised their dominion over the earth (Gen 1:28) with wisdom and love. Instead, they destroyed the existing harmony by deliberately going against the Creator's plan, that is, by choosing to sin. This resulted not only in man's alienation from himself, in death and fratricide, but also in the earth's "rebellion" against him (cf. Gen 3:17-19; 4:12). All of creation became subject to futulity, waiting in a mysterious way to be set free and to obtain a glorious liberty together with all the children of God (cf. Rom 8:20-21)... 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.
If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace: "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). (Pope John Paul II, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation”)
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. (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
Jesus Christ and Creation
Jesus of Nazareth constantly made use of the beauty of creation to illustrate and underscore his message of salvation. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field were a reminder of God’s providential care (cf. Mt 6:25-34).
The pruner of fruit trees and the manager of farms were examples of good stewards of God’s creation and thus a reminder of the ways Jesus’ followers should live their own spiritual lives (cf. Luke 13:6-9). This wisdom was to be gained as a gift of God by observing the lessons of nature (cf. Luke 21:29). Jesus used these examples to illustrate the wisdom of caring and of vigilance. He went further to show his followers the deeper significance of bread broken, wine shared and oil poured. He saw in the seed cast on the ground (Luke 8:11) a symbol of the Word of God searching for a response in faith. How often did he use fishing and the vicissitudes of work on the lake (Mark 1:16-20) to call the disciples not to be afraid and to be evangelizers. How prophetic then is the disciples’ subsequent question which also is ours: “Who then is this whom even the wind and the sea obey?” (Mark 4:41). (Bishops of the Boston Province, “And God Saw That It Was Good”)
Redemption and the Environment
The new covenant made in Jesus' blood overcomes all hostility and restores the order of love. Just as in his person Christ has destroyed the hostility that divided people from one another, so he has overcome the opposition between humanity and nature. For he is the firstborn of a new creation and gives his Spirit to renew the whole earth (see Col 2:18; Ps 104:30). The fruits of that Spirit–joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Gal 5:22) -- mark us as Christ's own people. As they incline us to "serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13), they may also dispose us to live carefully on the earth, with respect for all God's creatures. Our Christian way of life, as saints like Benedict, Hildegard, and Francis showed us, is a road to community with all creation. (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
Caring for the Poor
The ecological problem is intimately connected to justice for the poor. . . . The poor of the earth offer a special test of our solidarity. The painful adjustments we have to undertake in our own economies for the sake of the environment must not diminish our sensitivity to the needs of the poor at home and abroad. The option for the poor embedded in the Gospel and the Church's teaching makes us aware that the poor suffer most directly from environmental decline and have the least access to relief from their suffering. Indigenous peoples die with their forests and grasslands. In Bhopal and Chernobyl, it was the urban poor and working people who suffered the most immediate and intense contamination. Nature will truly enjoy its second spring only when humanity has compassion for its own weakest members. (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
Respect for Life and the Dignity of the Human Person
The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many of the patterns of environmental pollution. Often, the interests of production prevail over concern for the dignity of workers, while economic interests take priority over the good of individuals and even entire peoples. In these cases, pollution or environmental destruction is the result of an unnatural and reductionist vision which at times leads to a genuine contempt for man.
On another level, delicate ecological balances are upset by the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless exploitation of natural resources. It should be pointed out that all of this, even if carried out in the name of progress and well-being, is ultimately to mankind's disadvantage. . . . Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress. (Pope John Paul II, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation”)
The Common Good
Working for the common good means that our social, economic and governmental decisions, plans and policies contribute toward providing all people with the basic necessities for a decent life: living-wage jobs, transportation, housing, effective schools, and health care. Working for the common good also includes examining how we are affecting this wonderful part of God’s creation. It has too often been the case, as Pope John Paul II remarked, that we “have been making decisions, taking actions and assigning values that are leading us away from the world as it should be, away from the design of God for creation, away from all that is essential for a healthy planet and a healthy commonwealth of people. . . .” (Bishops of Connecticut, “Common Ground, Common Good”)
In the Catholic tradition, the universal common good is specified by the duty of solidarity, "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good," a willingness "to ‘lose oneself' for the sake of the other[s] instead of exploiting [them]" (Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 38). In the face of "the structures of sin," moreover, solidarity requires sacrifices of our own self-interest for the good of others and of the earth we share. Solidarity places special obligations upon the industrial democracies, including the United States. "The ecological crisis," Pope John Paul II has written, "reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized" (EC, no. 10). Only with equitable and sustainable development can poor nations curb continuing environmental degradation and avoid the destructive effects of the kind of overdevelopment that has used natural resources irresponsibly. (U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth”)
The earth is ultimately a common heritage, the fruits of which are for the benefit of all. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, "God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples" (Gaudium et Spes, 69). This has direct consequences for the problem at hand.
It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness — both individual and collective — are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence. (Pope John Paul II, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation”)
The virtue of prudence . . . is not only a necessary one for individuals in leading morally good lives, but is also vital to the moral health of the larger community.
Prudence is intelligence applied to our actions. It allows us to discern what constitutes the common good in a given situation. Prudence requires a deliberate and reflective process that aids in the shaping of the community's conscience. Prudence not only helps us identify the principles at stake in a given issue, but also moves us to adopt courses of action to protect the common good. Prudence is not, as popularly thought, simply a cautious and safe approach to decisions. Rather, it is a thoughtful, deliberate, and reasoned basis for taking or avoiding action to achieve a moral good. . . . [If] enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind's well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action. This responsibility weighs more heavily upon those with the power to act because the threats are often greatest for those who lack similar power, namely, vulnerable poor populations, as well as future generations. (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good”)