John Paul II and the Environment

It is no accident that Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi patron of those who promote ecology. It was emblematic of his thinking on the subject which he addressed consistently throughout his pontificate.

In fact, the Holy Father raised the environment in his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man) in 1979. His teachings on creation, the environment, and stewardship are worth considering for their relevance to the current dialogue.

On January 1, 1990, the pope delivered his World Day of Peace message in which he noted the lack of due respect for nature, but also a new ecological awareness. According to Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM, who wrote a definitive history of the Holy See and the environment, this remains the only major papal document totally on the environment. The Holy Father reviewed the biblical account of creation and the reconciliation of humanity to the Father through the death and Resurrection of Christ, concluding that “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.” Stating that “the ecological crisis is a moral issue,” he affirmed the obligation of all men and women to contribute to the restoration of a healthy environment. For Christians the responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.

While defending the marketplace in the 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), the pope stated that

Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way.

He describes this “senseless destruction of the natural environment” as being grounded in an “anthropological error” as to the true nature of human beings.

The magisterial Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), one of the pope’s lasting contributions to the faithful, discusses “Respect for the integrity of creation” under the Seventh Commandment (“You shall not steal”). The Catechism follows long-standing Church teaching that the common good requires respect of “the universal destination of goods” as well as the right to private property. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. “The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives,” states the Catechism:

Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come.

In his 1995 Encyclical Letter, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the Pontiff affirms that

…man has specific responsibility towards the environment in which he lives, towards the creation which God has put at the service of his personal dignity, of his life, not only for the present but also for future generations.

He emphasizes that

[i]t is the ecological question — ranging from the preservation of the different species of animals and of other forms of life to “human ecology” properly speaking — which finds in the Bible clear and strong ethical direction, leading to a solution which respects the great good of life, of every life….

This is because, “when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity.”

And in 2002 the pope issued a joint declaration with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, which stated that

Christians and all other believers have a specific role to play in proclaiming moral values and educating people in ecological awareness which is none other than responsibility toward self, toward others, toward creation.

Another priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, expressed this unique, sacramental mode of perceiving the natural world, similar to that articulated by John Paul II. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins exclaimed,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil


Despite being “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” and the fact that it “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” the world is ever new. “And for all this, nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This fact Hopkins attributes to “the Holy Ghost” which “over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

John Paul II grounded his ethic of stewardship in the dignity of man created in the image and likeness of God as reflected most fully in the Word made flesh. He steers clear of materialism and pantheism, embracing a sacramental view of creation as a visible manifestation of God. Stewardship as articulated by the pope does not come with easy answers. The Holy Father would be the first to recognize the paramount role of the virtue of prudence in human affairs. Still, his teaching on stewardship offers a true compass for thinking about the environment based as it is on his strong faith, his keen intellect, and his outdoorsman’s love of nature.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

G. Tracy Mehan III served as assistant administrator for water at the US Environmental Protection Agency, 2001-2003. He is a principal with The Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, VA

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