The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which teaches that the world around us permits us to "recognize the inner nature, the value, and the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God" (Lumen Gentium, 36). The Catechism goes on to remind us that "nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator" (Catechism, 338). It is in this context that we speak about our own responsibility towards our environment.
We often speak of the Church using the image of a loving mother. This image reminds us that a parent often protects children from their tendency to excess in one direction or another. The Church, as the guardian and transmitter of God's word, helps us to do just that. It is important to see our stewardship of the environment in this context. In discussing this topic, there can be the danger of an unhealthy excess in one direction or another. For instance, the Book of Genesis describes the relationship of man and woman to the world around them by God saying to our first parents: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all living things that move on the earth. See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food" (Genesis 1:28-29). There is a danger of using this concept of our mastery over material creation as an excuse to abuse the elements of the world around us, as if they were there merely to serve us. It is true that it is contact with the creature made in God's image and likeness that gives to all of creation its complete dignity and source of greatness but it is also a part of God's glorious creation in its own right.
On the other hand, there is the danger of treating created things and the world of nature in general as ends in themselves, even worthy of some type of quasi-worship. We might liken this to family members who inherit a thriving business, built up by those who have gone before them. In enjoying the fruit of success, if they are forgetful of its source they would be guilty of foolish pride and ingratitude. So it is with the glory of created things: to forget their source and see them only in a vacuum, forgetting their Creator, would make us not highly-advanced independent beings but short-sighted and ungrateful beneficiaries of the glories of God's created world.
Christian environmental culture
Now that we have laid the foundation for a sound, faith-based environmental consciousness, we can move into some of the details of the challenge facing the world today in the care and preservation of our environment and its resources. In a greeting which Pope Benedict XVI recently (June 7, 2007) sent to a World Environment Day presentation held in Italy's Chamber of Deputies, he invited the participants to "always respect creation and promote an environmental culture that is based on respect for ethical values, the protection of life, and an economy of solidarity and sustainable development". You notice that in expressing his concern for the environment, our Holy Father includes all the elements of our environment, not merely the ecological ones. There are the structures of faith, based on God's revealed word, which give us a morality and a guidance which create an atmosphere of true and lasting internal peace. There is our care for the protection of human life, first and foremost, from its very inception to its natural end. In the use of our resources, there is not a selfish depletion of the goods of the earth but a consciousness of the needs of the entire human family. The Pope in his brief statement places Christian environmental care in its proper context.
One of the themes that has been running through the topics we have addressed in this column has been that of human dignity. This reality is not just another opportunity for us to demand our rights and privileges as human beings. It is also an acknowledgment of our ability to reason and make choices for which we are responsible. It is easy to abdicate our personal responsibility for our actions to structures or larger groups. Certainly structures have their responsibility for the common good and we can even speak of structures as being sinful but the paramount responsibility of the individual, made in God's image with the ability to know and to reason can never be replaced. In this context, we also address our personal responsibility for the environment. Pope Benedict XVI recently addressed this point in the context of the mastery of the earth, which we wrote about earlier in this article. He said: "The mastery of man over life on earth, God's creation, has become despotic and senseless. We must safeguard life on earth, God's creation. We must preserve the rainforests. Trees and plants are our only source of oxygen. Humans and other animals will not be able to survive drinking man-made deadly poison acid rain water" (Address to the Vatican's Conference on Climate Change, 27 April 2007).
One of the concepts which the Church has always put forth has been that of the common good. This concept takes us from personal responsibility, which is always present, to a consciousness of the needs of our neighbor, community and the world at large. This is especially valid for our present topic. The United States Catholic bishops have declared: "At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God's creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both ‘the human environment' and the natural environment" (Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good, USCCB, page 1).
What to do?
We should try never to address a problem without also offering a solution. First, we have tried to see our care for the environment in its proper context. We neither worship nature in itself nor do we abuse it. Likewise, it is the common patrimony of the entire human family and we do not make use of it in a vacuum. Our highly industrialized United States, with its tremendous consumption of fuel and resources, needs to be especially conscious of its responsibility to the world community. Proper consciousness and understanding of an issue is always a beginning. This should lead to personal responsibility for our every day actions in our use of the environment. This includes the products we consume and their effect on the earth and ultimately on human persons. Our use of fuel to maintain a highly comfortable lifestyle should also create an awareness of the earth's needs and an avoidance of selfish consumption. Manilo Sodi, a professor of theology at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, summarized this personal responsibility at the World Environment Day mentioned earlier. He said that a healthy ecology "encourages an examination of conscience; offers an opportunity for formation; looks at the person in all its greatness and integrity; calls for the formulation of laws and regulations that demonstrate the harmony between person and nature (and) respects th environment so that, as it was received, it can be passed on to others."
The example of Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi is a much-loved and popular figure. Sometimes his life and example are distorted or reduced to mere sentimentality. However, we know that the richness of both his teaching and example, including his intense participation in the Passion of Jesus and his radical embrace of poverty, take him far above a mere sentimental figure. One of Saint Francis' most famous writings is his Canticle of Creation. When it is viewed in its complete context, it is actually an excellent summary of the topic we have been discussing, even though it was written almost eight hundred years ago! To show forth the eternal teaching of Christ's Church and also be helped toward a practical vision and plan with regard to creation and its use, we would do well to conclude with that famous Canticle of Saint Francis.
The Canticle of Creation
Most high, all powerful, good Lord, to You be praise, glory and honor and all blessing. To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and there is no man worthy to name You. Praise be to You, my Lord, with all Your creatures. Chief of all is Sir Brother Sun, who is our day; through whom You give light. Beautiful is he, radiant, with great splendor. He is a true revealer of You, Most High. Praise be to You, my Lord, for Sister Moon and for the stars. In heaven You have formed them, bright, precious and fair. Praise be to You, my Lord, for Brother Wind, and for the air, and for the cloud, for clear sky and for all weathers, by which You give nourishment to all Your creatures. Praise be to You, my Lord, for Sister Water. She is most useful and humble, precious and pure. Praise be to You, my Lord, for Brother Fire, by whom You light up the night. Fair is he and merry, mighty and strong. Praise be to You, my Lord, for our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and keeps us. She brings forth divers fruits, the many-hued flowers and grass.You, my Lord, for those who grant pardon for love of You, and bear weakness and buffetings. Blessed are they who live in peace, for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned. Praise be to You, my Lord, for our Sister, Bodily Death, From whom no living man can flee. Woe to them who die in mortal sin! But blessed they who shall find themselves in Your most holy will; to them the second death shall do no ill.