The next Encyclical: only feeling “green?”

In just several weeks, Pope Francis will publish his encyclical letter on the environment. In it, he will undoubtedly mention climate change, pollution of rivers and the seas, desalination, deforestation, perhaps xenotransplantation, elimination of living species, waste and climate change, among other threats to the habitat of humankind. Many of these problems stem from ignorance, lack of proper and moral scientific testing, and often negligence on the part of states and corporations to think about future consequences. Some persons ignorant of the teaching of the previous popes, the Catechism, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church will hue and cry that this is not proper matter for any pope to write about. However, from the time of Pope Paul VI, all the popes have made many contributions to the wounds inflicted on our ecosystem as it is called. Perhaps Pope St. John Paul II gave the greatest attention to the problem followed by Pope Benedict.

Almost fifty years ago, Paul VI made many warnings on this problem during his pontificate. For example, he advised:

…how can we ignore the imbalances caused in the biosphere by the disorderly exploitation of the physical reserves of the planet, even for the purpose of producing something useful, such as the wasting of natural resources that cannot be renewed; pollution of the earth, water, the air and space, with the resulting attacks on vegetable and animal life?  All that contributes to the impoverishment and deterioration of man’s environment to the extent, it is said, of threatening his own survival.  Finally, our generation must energetically accept the challenge of going beyond partial and immediate aims to prepare a hospitable earth for future generations. (Message to the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment June 1, 1972)

Similarly in his encyclical among many other interventions, Centessimus Annus, 38, St. John Paul warned:

37. 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. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.

In all this, one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man’s outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. In this regard, humanity today must be conscious of its duties and obligations towards future generations.

Turning to the Compendium, which contains many references to our problem, number 466 is very important:

466. Care for the environment represents a challenge for all of humanity. It is a matter of a common and universal duty, that of respecting a common good, destined for all, by preventing anyone from using “with impunity the different categories of beings, whether living or inanimate — animals, plants, the natural elements — simply as one wishes, according to one’s own economic needs”. It is a responsibility that must mature on the basis of the global dimension of the present ecological crisis and the consequent necessity to meet it on a worldwide level, since all beings are interdependent in the universal order established by the Creator. “One must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the ‘cosmos’ ”.


This perspective takes on a particular importance when one considers, in the context of the close relationships that bind the various parts of the ecosystem, the environmental value of biodiversity, which must be handled with a sense of responsibility and adequately protected, because it constitutes an extraordinary richness for all of humanity. In this regard, each person can easily recognize, for example, the importance of the Amazon, “one of the world’s most precious natural regions because of its bio- diversity which makes it vital for the environmental balance of the entire planet”. Forests help maintain the essential natural balance necessary for life. Their destruction also through the inconsiderate and malicious setting of fires, accelerates the processes of desertification with risky consequences for water reserves and compromises the lives of many indigenous peoples and the well-being of future generations. All individuals as well as institutional subjects must feel the commitment to protect the heritage of forests and, where necessary, promote adequate programs of reforestation.

In the footsteps of St. John Paul, Pope Benedict XVI spoke often of this subject. On two occasions, he said;

The order of creation demands that a priority be given to those human activities that do not cause irreversible damage to nature, but which instead are woven into the social, cultural, and religious fabric of the different communities. In this way, a sober balance is achieved between consumption and the sustainability of resources.” (Message to the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization for the Celebration of World Food Day, October 16, 2006.)

“Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.” (Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the Occasion of the Seventh Symposium of the Religion, Science and the Environment Movement, September 1, 2007)

The cause of these concerns for the environment comes down to the vice of avarice dethroning the virtue of prudence in its essence, that is, the disproportionate desire to have more in order to be fulfilled, or the purpose of business is profit or worse, greed is good. St. Thomas Aquinas gives a clear definition of this vice:

…[M]aterial goods have the quality of usefulness towards an end.  Consequently the human good in them consists in a determinate measure, namely that a person seek to possess material wealth to the degree that it is necessary to a life suited to his station. The sin is to go beyond this measure, namely the will to acquire or to hoard material goods excessively.  The meaning of avarice, defined as unchecked love to possess, involves this and so avarice clearly is sinful.1

Following the teaching of St. Gregory the Great, he agrees that the daughters of avarice, treachery, fraud, falsehood, perjury, restlessness, violence and callousness to mercy lead to a host of personal and social moral problems undermining human dignity. One can use the imagination and see how this plays out in terms of a state or a corporation not wanting to think of the environment but rather wanting either profits or savings in this area in order to spend it in other areas for stockholders or for the government itself.

It becomes very difficult to think of the common good of a nation in terms of the habitat if its leaders and heads of companies are corrupted by the sin of avarice in their personal lives. So the Catechism also clearly admonishes believers and to some extent unbelievers that

339…Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.

2415 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. 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; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

2432 Those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits. Profits are necessary, however. They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment.

With such a serious background theologically to draw from, it is in keeping with the recent tradition of the Magisterium to theologically protect the people of God from false thinking about the role of the environment and the importance of not simply being “green.” This is not per se a “leftist” movement but integral to the Social Teaching of the Church since it all touches upon what constitutes the dignity of the human person and keeps that sense of dignity held high. We are bodies as well as souls in need of material things and animals to continue to maintain our existence in order to grow in virtue. When a vice becomes a virtue in a society, then living in that kind of atmosphere makes virtue all the more difficult due to bad example. If the earth becomes permanently damaged, it affects the body deleteriously, taking examples from polluting the air or devastating the ocean with mercurized fish necessary for survival in some countries.

All the vices have negative consequences for the common and personal good of the human persons.  It is incumbent on the Magisterium, priests and deacons to warn against the vices often by appealing to negative consequences in order to motivate the people of God’s true dignity and identity and its moral compass. Without this compass, solidarity, the civilization of love, civic friendship and the like become a mush of rhetoric having no practical effect.

The purpose of the next encyclical will not be to offer technical solutions to the wounded environment we have but to incite business leaders and governments to think of the future generations when using the good earth for products and at the same time try to turn exploiters to put people over profits and the preservation of the earth over its devastation. Political corruption, oppressive governments, underdevelopment and mediocre administration of a country’s physical assets cause undue harm to the common good of the present and future generations. Will the people of the world listen to Pope Francis or be like the high priests of the Sanhedrin when told by the soldiers about the risen Christ bribed them to tell a different story?

1 Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas, II-II 118, 1, Virtues of Justice In The Human Community, T. C. O’Brien (tr. & ed.), Vol. 41 (New York: McGraw-Hill Company, 1972).

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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