Catholics and the Environment

Is a Catholic obliged to support environmental causes? It depends on how one defines "environmental causes." On one level, the answer is obvious. Yes, we must be concerned about the environment. We are the caretakers of God's creation. "Remaking all things in Christ" implies a commitment to interacting with nature in a manner consistent with God's plan for the world. It is hard to see how God would want anyone, whether we are talking about the director of a major industry or a small-town dry cleaner, dumping his industrial wastes into our streams or filling the air with toxic exhausts in an attempt to keep down production costs.

Am I saying that I think it is a sin to deliberately pollute or despoil nature? I am not a theologian, but I would say yes. I can remember when I was a boy, watching some teenagers strip the bark from a leafy, 20-foot high tree with their pen knives, leaving the trunk bare and wet and vulnerable-looking. I don't remember what kind of tree it was, but the bark peeled off easily in long, thick sections. A passerby warned them that what they were doing would kill the tree, since the life-sustaining sap flowed through the bark and up to the leaves. But the boys just laughed and made some vulgar comments, and stripped away.

I can remember thinking that I was watching an evil act. I was not a "tree-hugger," even back then. I would not have minded if the tree had been cut down to make baseball bats or a piano, but destroying it wantonly and for no good purpose struck me as a loathsome thing to do. Is it my point then that a Catholic is obliged to support the work of groups like Greenpeace and the recent efforts of Al Gore against global warming? It is not. There are environmentalists and there are environmentalists. Let's draw some distinctions.

 It seems clear to me, for example, that the extreme back-to-nature, brown-rice-and-peasant-blouse brand of environmentalism is not part of the Catholic tradition. (Not that there is anything contrary to Catholic thought about individuals opting for such a simple life. Hermits and monks have been part of the Church's life from its earliest days.)

I have in mind the environmental activists who act as if an environmental setting cannot be considered clean until all traces of mankind's presence are removed from it. That is muddle-headed.

Let me be blunt: A certain level of "pollution" is an inevitable and acceptable consequence of man's presence, as Martha Stewart would say, "a good thing." The skyscrapers, and creative energy the skyscrapers represent, cannot exist in Manhattan if we insist upon the Hudson River being kept as sparkling clean as it was when Henry Hudson sailed up it in 1609.

Moreover, we cannot have the skyscrapers of Manhattan without the smokestacks from Pittsburgh's steel mills pouring their exhausts into the air in Western Pennsylvania; and we cannot have the smokestacks of Pittsburgh without the coal mines of West Virginia carving up the mountain scenery in a way that Daniel Boone might have found offensive. In all these things, some perspective must be maintained. We do not want people's lives and health endangered by uncontrolled industrial wastes. The old pictures we have all seen of the rivers around industrial cities filled with steaming chemicals and dead fish are unacceptable. That is obvious. But neither do we want mankind's creative energies untapped because of prohibitions against any human enterprise that result in changes in the quality of our air or water from its most pristine state.

Recent history has demonstrated that this balance can be struck. The water around New York City is now clean enough to swim in. It was not that way when I was a boy. (Even though my friends and I swam in it anyway.) There are few complaints these days about the quality of the air in western Pennsylvania. The interaction of government and industry has led to policies that permit industry and commerce to operate profitably, without contaminating the environment in the process. The air and water in these areas are "dirtier" than before the scene was industrialized, but to a degree that few find worrisome.

It would serve us well to keep in mind that the old centers of Catholic Europe — Rome, Paris, Madrid, Vienna — do not look like Stonehenge or a hippie commune. They are products of mankind reshaping the natural world, not a consequence of a search for the simple life. In the Catholic tradition, "natural" does not imply passivity, as much as it does resourceful individuals and communities mining, quarrying, forging and constructing great works with the materials of God's creation. Paris and Manhattan are worth some level of "pollution." Man's creative energies are as much a part of nature as a babbling brook or a tree blowing in the breeze. Those creative energies are a large part of what is meant by the Catechism maxim that we are "made in the image and likeness of God." We belong on this planet as much as the squirrels.

There is one other thing: Catholics are under no obligation to fall in line behind every public figure who proclaims himself a champion of environmental causes. We are free to use common sense to spot charlatans and hucksters. We are within our rights to listen to those scientists who remind us that there have been cooling and warming cycles on this planet long before the industrial age, and to be skeptical of those who insist that an "ecological holocaust" is just a few years away due to modern global warming. We are free to speculate about the political agenda of those whose environmental complaints tend to focus on handing more power to the United Nations to manage and tax American industries as the answer to the world's environmental needs.

We are within our rights, as well, to be skeptical if those who warn us of these things live in multiple homes that consume vastly greater amounts of energy than the rest of us use, and who fly around the world in private jets to the conferences where they warn us of our excessive consumption of fossil fuels, and who are clever enough to resort to gimmicks like "carbon offsets" to toss up a smokescreen around their own energy use. (You are right: I have someone in mind.)

There is also nothing "anti-Catholic" about noting that the ice caps on Mars are receding in recent years and that there are no factories or SUVs up there to blame it on. Also, that back in the 1970s the experts were convinced that the great threat to mankind was global cooling. You can check it out. The June 24, 1974 edition of Time magazine, in an article entitled "Another Ice Age," warned of the ominous signs of global cooling spotted by the scientific experts of the time.

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