Is the Catholic Church Green?

The subject of global ecology is relatively new within Catholic social teachings, and its increasing prevalence in magisterial documents has many wondering what to think. In a similar way, the term “New Evangelization” seems to be prompting more than a little confusion. What exactly does this term mean? What are Catholics being asked that is new? And how does one engage a world that has forgotten its Christian roots? As Pope Benedict XVI has noted, there is no single answer to such questions. There is no one formula.

In addition to recently announced guidance by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it seems that the Holy Father’s ongoing environmental dialogues demonstrate one method of baptizing a largely scientific, timely topic that, in itself, raises a variety of social and ethical questions. Ecology straddles and informs issues of human life, social mores, and the relation between faith and reason—three areas critical to reintroducing the Gospel to Western culture.

The pontiff laid a foundation for all this in his 2007 World Peace Day message. Building on the connection made by John Paul II of a “natural and moral” structure within the cosmos, Benedict XVI continues his predecessor’s use of the secular term “human ecology,” which, he tells us, “demands a ‘social’ ecology.” Clearly, the Holy Father has much more in mind than ecosystem integrity when he speaks of ecology.

A year later, at Sydney’s World Youth Day, the pontiff explored such themes more deeply. After reflecting on the Earth’s beauty as seen during his flight to Australia—which called to his mind the goodness of nature as revealed in the Book of Genesis and the psalms of praise for creation—he noted the presence of modern global ills, such as “erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption.” He then spoke of the link between pollution and sin, and, thus, used the former to instruct us on the latter.

“Here too, in our personal lives and in our communities, we can encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created.”

This link between the natural world and the human person took center stage within the environmental discussions of his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. “The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.”

Like “human ecology,” the concept of “integral human development” is itself an example of baptizing contemporary, worldly sciences. The notion of the human person’s integral or authentic development was proposed by Paul VI to deepen notions that were in vogue in the 1960s. When pontiffs include within the magisterial lexicon technical terms from secular fields, they elevate them with the grace of revelation—and this may get peoples’ attention.

This was apparent on the floor of the German Parliament last September. There, Pope Benedict spoke of eco-political movements that had grown out of a concern for nature. He did this to offer a point of agreement with his diverse audience—which, sadly, was missing most of its left-wing members, who were protesting the pope’s appearance. He then connected this conversation to the Gospel. The point of agreement he sought was an acknowledgement that there is an order to nature, which we ignore to our peril. “If something is wrong in our relationship with reality,” the pontiff advised, building off sentiments of the idealistic German ecologists of the 1970s, “then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture.”

“The importance of ecology is no longer disputed,” he continued. “We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.”

With this proposition that there is an “ecology of man”—like so many of his statements and propositions, especially in Caritas in Veritate—Pope Benedict XVI demonstrates a stunning methodology that the rest of us can use to engage post-Christian cultures. The analogy between a healthy ecosystem and a fully integrated human person and culture—of a community that thrives when its members heed physical and moral laws—invites reflection on issues at the core of Christian anthropology, such as the nature of marriage, the value of all human life, and the place of the Cross.

Indeed, given what seems to be a stalemate in the arguments for and against topics such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and embryonic stem-cell research, etc., ecology offers different and unexpected pathways for dialogue with those who dismiss Christian anthropologies.

We find this in practice in recent statements by the American bishops—most especially Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development—who have been vocal about recent federal regulation of mercury. In addressing this largely eco-scientific issue, the bishops have reframed it to speak of cultural and scientific attitudes toward the unborn. That is, just as a buildup of mercury in human bodies (born and unborn) from contaminated foods causes severe neurological harm—and does so irrespective of one’s opinion of mercury—so it must be true that other threats to the unborn are of equivalent concern, again, regardless of one’s personal opinions.

Indeed, unalterable natural and physiological laws require that mercury harms human life. So, too, do unalterable moral laws require that, for instance, recreational drug use and extramarital sex cause suffering within friendships and families, thus harming civilization and hastening its decline. Ecological discussions are, then, not some sort of ruse to sneak the Gospel through the back door. Rather, they are a new means to present the Gospel to a world reeling from sin.

The pontiff did exactly this in his 2011 World Food Day message. Referring to the inequities in worldwide food supplies and distribution, Pope Benedict noted that the resolution of such ills requires “adopting an inner attitude of responsibility, able to inspire a different life style, with the necessary modest behavior and consumption, in order thereby: to promote the good of future generations in sustainable terms; the safeguard of the goods of creation; the distribution of resources and above all, the concrete commitment to the development of entire peoples and nations.”

This “adopting of an inner attitude of responsibility” is really just another way of saying “repent and believe in the Gospel.” Indeed, in a December 2000 address to catechists, the future pontiff spoke of the element of conversion within the New Evangelization. “The Greek word for converting means: to rethink—to question one’s own and common way of living; to allow God to enter into the criteria of one’s life.”

Ecology, then, allows the Church to communicate its understanding of sacrifice for the good of others in ways that will resonate with secular naturalists, who, in similar ways, ask for sacrifice.

Here, for instance, Catholics have something to offer with a return to meatless Friday fasting. The meat industry can be very dirty—one that uses significant amounts of water and grain to keep you and me feasting on cheeseburgers. If Catholics were to reduce their meat consumption by, theoretically, fourteen percent (one day out of seven), this penitential practice would reap ecological benefits. It would also become a means for evangelization, because such a public witness (if it were adopted by a Church the size of theUnited States’) would resonate with environmental communities, the meat industry, and, yes, the media.

Lastly, the Catholic engagement of ecology showcases the Catholic relationship with science—a relationship that many wrongly characterize as hostile. Perhaps this is why in his October 2011 Apostolic Letter announcing a Year of Faith, the Holy Father admits that evangelizing within the West’s hyper-positivistic mentality will bring new challenges. Fortunately, the Church’s perennial engagement of outside worldviews—from St. Paul to today’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences—provides 21st century evangelizers with the tools to connect modern thought to the timeless Gospel. Indeed, the Apostolic Letter notes that “the Church has never been afraid of demonstrating that there cannot be any conflict between faith and genuine science, because both, albeit via different routes, tend towards the truth.”

This reference to Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio and Section 159 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlights that the re-evangelization of a post-Christian world requires, in part, engaging intellectual communities. One way of doing exactly this is to make the Church present in ongoing conversations about great scientific and moral issues of the age. And ecology is just one of them.


W. L. Patenaude has been writing and speaking on the intersection of faith and reason for almost two decades. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MA in theology. Patenaude has served as a special lecturer in theology at Providence College, writes at, and has provided analysis for The National Catholic Register, Catholic News Agency, Associated Press, National Geographic, Crux, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Patenaude is a Knight Commander with the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. 

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