Catholics, the Environment, and a “Culture of Waste”

Recent popes have highlighted the necessity of caring for the environment—but how does what they say differ from secular environmentalism?


On June 5, Pope Francis devoted his Wednesday general audience to the environment. Decrying the “culture of waste,” he linked disrespect for the environment to disrespect for human life:

This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful—like the unborn child—or are no longer of any use—like the elderly person.

Pope Francis’s concern about the environment is not novel: Venerable Paul VI reflected on the topic in Octogesima Adveniens (no. 21), his 1971 apostolic letter on the 80th anniversary of Pope Leo’s XIII’s landmark social encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Early in his pontificate, in his 1979 apostolic letter Inter Sanctos, Blessed John Paul II proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi the heavenly patron of those who promote ecology. At various points in his pontificate, John Paul directed his attention to ecological concerns, most significantly in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (nos. 26, 34), his 1990 Message for the World Day of Peace, and his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (nos. 37-40), in which he linked the environment to a “human ecology” whose “first and fundamental structure” is “the family founded on marriage” (no. 39).

It was Pope Benedict, however, who earned the nickname “the green pope,” in part because of the installation of solar panels above some Vatican buildings and in part because of the Vatican’s attempt, which proved ill-fated, to become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation.

Of more enduring significance is Pope Benedict’s teaching on the environment, most significantly his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (nos. 48-52) and his 2010 Message for the World Day of Peace. The pope emeritus reflected on ecology in a number of speeches as well, from his 2008 address to the Roman Curia, in which he discussed creation and gender, to his 2010 “state of the world” address to the diplomatic corps, in which he said that

concern and commitment for the environment should be situated within the larger framework of the great challenges now facing mankind. If we wish to build true peace, how can we separate, or even set at odds, the protection of the environment and the protection of human life, including the life of the unborn? It is in man’s respect for himself that his sense of responsibility for creation is shown.

“Today, more than ever, it appears clear to us that respect for the environment cannot fail to recognize the value and inviolability of the human person in every phase of life and in every condition,” he likewise said in a 2011 address. “Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one and the same, but they will both be able to develop and to reach their full dimension if we respect the Creator and his creature in the human being and in nature.”

In November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cosponsored “A Catholic Consultation on Environmental Justice and Climate Change: Assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s Ecological Vision for the Catholic Church in the United States.” Much of the conference, which was held at Catholic University in Washington, has been posted on YouTube.

One scholar at the conference, Brother Keith Douglass Warner of Santa Clara University and Franciscan School of Theology, discussed St. Bonaventure’s influence on Pope Benedict’s theology of creation. Another, Christiana Z. Peppard of Fordham University, “argued that the papal stance is prophetic and challenging in its specification that some goods are so vital as to transcend market value, and in its assertion that these are right-to-life issues.”

“The paper focused especially on fresh water in an era of climate change. These insights require that industrialized nations such as the United States fulfill various duties but, too often, such duties are unpalatable in the American context,” Peppard told CWR.

CWR asked scholars who spoke at the conference, as well as other Catholic writers who have reflected on papal environmental teaching, several questions, including: what are the most important ways in which Catholic teaching on the environment challenges, and even calls to conversion, the typical Catholic in the United States today? How, in their judgment, does Catholic teaching converge with, and diverge from, the concerns of the contemporary environmental movement in wealthy nations? And what are some practical steps that a Catholics in wealthier nations can take as they seek to heed Catholic teaching on the environment?

The challenge

“The challenge of living with the environment in mind is not something that Catholics must superimpose on our lives,” says CWR contributor William Patenaude, who blogs at Catholic Ecology. “It is contained within the very challenge of what we should be doing anyway: living a sober, temperate, virtuous, sacramental, incarnational, God- and neighbor-centered holy life.”

“When one first seeks one’s own sanctification—when one struggles to live a virtuous life—one is less inclined to behaviors that diminish human dignity and damage ecosystems,” he explains. “Excessive consumption by individuals is most often a symptom of a soul not at rest—of seeking fulfillment from worldly things. Our attempts to live the virtue of temperance help orient the soul towards holiness and at the same time reduce our burden on the world’s resources and waste-disposal systems.”

“Catholic teaching on the environment challenges both our thinking and our behavior. In terms of our thinking, the Church reminds us that the world is not ours to do with what we please, simply for short-term economic gain,” says Kyle Kramer, director of lay degree programs at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana and the author of A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt. “The world is God’s creation, and our role is care for it responsibly, for the sake of all people and other creatures—especially the poor, and especially future generations.”

“In terms of behavior,” he adds, “the Church challenges us to act in solidarity with creation and with the poor: by aiding those most affected by environmental problems, like climate change and drought, by simplifying our personal lifestyle and consumption, and by advocating for political and economic reform that will lead to long-term social and ecological sustainability.”

Echoing these views, Cecilia Calvo of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Environmental Justice Program told CWR that

our Catholic faith challenges us to think of how our actions, choices, and lifestyles affect our brothers and sisters at home and around the world. The earth is our home, and we are called to care for God’s creation by living more simply, using the earth’s resources wisely, and reducing our consumption and impact on the environment. Intuitively, we know that if we are taking care of our planet, our home, we are taking care of ourselves.  We are also called to lift up the voice of the voiceless and to advocate for public policies that protect the environment and the human family, especially the least among us.

David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, says Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate challenges Americans to renounce hedonistic and materialistic lifestyles (no. 51). “How challenging these words are to Americans, because of our devotion to large homes and large cars—that is, to what we usually call the suburban lifestyle,” he says. “This lifestyle, I suggest, is the primary reason why Americans use about twice as much energy per person [as] other developed countries, and are in much more debt, because we buy so much stuff to fill these houses.”

“The main challenges are driving habits and housing,” he adds. “We need smaller, denser, more efficient housing and smaller cars which we can use less often. We also simply buy too much unnecessary stuff, but this is the moral problem of consumerism, which is against Catholic teaching for more reasons than its environmental impact.”

Moreover, “the Church’s teachings on the environment ask us to take embodiment seriously,” says Christopher Thompson, academic dean of St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Minnesota. Thompson, whose environmental writings can be found at, adds that “one cannot profess to protect the dignity of the human person while at the same time ignore the very conditions that allow for his or her flourishing—healthy food, water, soil, and the like.”

Papal teaching on the environment, says Andrew Casad, director of the Office for Liturgy of the Archdiocese of Seattle and a writer on environmental issues, also challenges Catholics to be more grateful.

“What I think we can take away from this first and foremost is an understanding of the natural order as good, as something for which we give God thanks and praise, and which we need to respect as we would any gift entrusted to our stewardship,” he says. “As we are constantly called to conversion, to conform our way of living with the plan of God for us, we recognize that we need less. But this need for less has its origins in a thankfulness for the superabundance of God, not some sense of fearful scarcity.”

Contemporary environmentalism

While similar in some ways to the concerns of the contemporary environmental movement, papal reflections on the environment differ both in their substance and in their philosophical presuppositions.

“The contemporary environmental movement and Catholic teaching both recognize the inherent value of the environment; the Catholic faith distinctively places the human family at the center of its response to environmental concerns,” says Calvo. “The environment is a gift from God to humanity, and this relationship is central to a Catholic approach to environmental concerns.”

“Concern for the common good of society and the life and dignity of the human person is central to a Catholic approach to environmental concerns,” she adds. “In particular, Catholic teaching requires special attention be placed on the needs of the poor and vulnerable who are often most affected by environmental harm.”

“I think there is far more common ground between Catholic teaching and the contemporary environmental movement than either side realizes,” says Kramer. “This is especially true in terms of action, like the call to reduce consumption and advocate for the world’s poor, who are least responsible for environmental harm but most vulnerable in the face of it.”

“Catholics cannot, like at least some modern environmentalists, simply equate nature with God,” he adds. “And although Catholic teaching places great responsibility on human beings as co-creators with God, we believe that the job of saving the planet doesn’t rest entirely on our shoulders: we cooperate with the grace of God, who is drawing all of creation toward its fulfillment.”

“An authentic environmentalist cannot support abortion or artificial contraception,” observes Patenaude. “But many environmentalists do, and this is the central point where Catholics diverge from so many secular ecologists.”

Patenaude adds:

Catholics possess a full understanding of ecological stewardship because we possess an unwavering respect for all life, especially human life. Human life is inextricably linked to the ecosystems that support it, and vice versa. This is, in part, what Benedict XVI taught us in Caritas in Veritate and elsewhere: that our “duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward the human person.”

Like our secular counterparts, Catholic ecologists proclaim that humans must practice self-control to curb our environmental impacts. What Catholics add is that this need for self-control is also central to matters of human reproduction and sexuality—this latter self-control is what we call the virtue of chastity. All people can, with the grace of God, freely adopt virtuous, chaste lifestyles that control our consumption of resources as well as control our sexual instincts. Any call to suppress the human population through artificial means or through murder assumes that people are incapable of controlling their desires, of living virtuously.

“Pope Benedict himself saw the environment as a key issue for the new evangelization in Europe, because environmentalists acknowledge something larger than themselves, which they need to serve and protect,” notes Cloutier.

“For the Catholic tradition, respect for the nature of our bodies and of our world is linked together,” he adds. “In response to secular concern about contraception and population, it is important to say two things. One, the Church favors responsible natural family planning. Any environmentalist should be in favor of something that is natural! Two, nearly all sources I know agree that the earth could support at least our present population, and probably a lot more, but only if we reduce our consumption. The problem is not too many people. The problem is too many greedy and over-consuming people.”

Michael Baur, director of the Natural Law Colloquium at Fordham University, observes differences in philosophical approaches between Pope Benedict and some contemporary environmentalists.

“Benedict XVI’s environmental vision includes his endorsement of three metaphysical premises involving (a) the convertibility of being and goodness; (b) the convertibility of being and order; and (c) the uniquely intellectual nature of the human being,” he says. “It is because of these three theoretical commitments that Benedict XVI can offer an environmental vision that is at once continuous with, and yet distinct from, certain contemporary accounts.”

“Benedict XVI’s ‘natural law’ vision allows him to assert that the human being—by virtue of its unique intellectual nature—is able to apprehend the immanent orderliness and goodness of any aspect of the natural world, and thus is more capable than any other terrestrial being of reflecting God’s wisdom and goodness,” he adds. “Since the perfection of the created universe requires the manifestation or reflection of God’s wisdom and goodness, it follows for Benedict XVI that the perfection of the created universe is made possible uniquely through the intelligent activity of human beings.”

“At its best, the rise of environmental awareness can be seen as the unthematic pushback, if you will, against the mechanistic and materialistic understanding of the natural order that we inherited from the Enlightenment and continues to pervade modernity—and postmodernity,” says Thompson. “Though few use the language directly, at its best the movement seems to be an effort to retrieve the insights of formal and final causality which were so central to the Aristotelian and Thomistic views of the natural order. The living whole, the organic creature flourishing in its native habitat is the basic unit of analysis, not disembodied parts considered in abstraction from its natural setting.”

“According to Catholic social teaching, the reasons we are to be stewards of creation are twofold: creation is meant to give glory to God and it is meant to sustain the entire human family,” says Marie George, philosophy professor at St. John’s University and author of Stewardship of Creation: What Catholics Should Know about Church Teaching on the Environment. “This view in many contemporary environmental movements often takes a watered-down form in a concern to preserve biodiversity, which is intuited as good, though often in detachment from its reflection of divine wisdom. Indeed, some groups go so far as to deny divine transcendence.”

Catholic teaching on the universal destination of goods, says George, “overlaps with the sustainability advocated by most groups, with the exception of the ones that hold that human beings are a pox on the earth and that the world would be a better place with fewer of them.” She adds:

It is ironic that those who voice concern about the effects of herbicides on frog reproduction often sterilize themselves through various forms of contraception. In developed countries, the population size does not pose a direct threat to the well-being of other humans in the area and in virtually all developed countries it has leveled off.

The environmental problems population poses in these countries are rooted in habits of consumption and greed, along with the failure to alleviate poverty worldwide (poverty often results in poor utilization of the goods of the earth). Individuals in developed countries too often take more than their fair share of the earth’s resources and fail to maintain soil, water, and air needed by future generations. They do not need to reduce the size of their population, but rather to exercise the virtues of moderation, self-discipline, simplicity, generosity, and prudence.

Practical steps

Asked what practical steps Catholics in wealthier nations can take in response to Catholic teaching on the environment, Patenaude says that “one must reduce one’s consumption. One particular way is to return to the practice, for those who no longer do this, of abstaining from meat and making other sacrifices on Fridays. It’s important to remember that Catholics were preaching sacrifice long before the modern ecologist!”

Father Bud Grant of St. Ambrose University says that “beyond reducing our consumption, Catholics can respond with assistance to environmental refugees, as we always have so generously to other victims of anthropogenic and natural disasters. We can infuse care for God’s creation into our prayer lives, our liturgies, and our youth education programs.”

“As individuals and families, we must examine our energy consumption and water usage, our garbage and recycling practices, and our lifestyle choices and decisions as consumers,” Stephen Binz, author of Stewardship of the Earth, told CWR. “We should consider how we pass on a respect and appreciation for God’s creation to the next generation and how we can instill hope in young people that a more sustainable world is worth struggling to achieve. “

“Catholics in First World countries can take practical steps with their lives, their voices, and their pocketbooks,” adds Kramer. “In terms of lifestyle, since agriculture is responsible for many of our environmental problems, Catholics can look carefully at their food choices, for example growing gardens, eating fewer resource-intensive meat products, and seeking out foods grown in a responsible manner and closer to home.”

“The practice of tithing seems appropriate,” says Thompson. “If we could adjust our lifestyles simply by 10 percent, it would have a tremendous impact and provide a powerful witness. Dedicate 10 percent of your spending to sustainable agriculture, locally produced foods. That seems to be within reach for most people and would have an important impact.”

“The traditions of fasting and abstinence, embedded in our liturgical and ascetical practices, are important to renew as well,” he adds. “Not only is there a long tradition surrounding such practices from a spiritual vantage, but a more simple lifestyle of consumption is also an effective witness in the evangelization of our culture of consumerism.”

“It is my sincere concern that unless this generation, which is so environmentally sensitive—a sensitivity which I deeply share—embraces the Gospel, the allure of the natural will ultimately end in despair,” observes Thompson. “Nature, after all, despite its capacity for tremendous beauty and inspiration, is as much about death as it is anything enduring.  Without a new evangelization, the environmental movement is likely to devolve into a new Stoicism, along with its despair.”

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About J. J. Ziegler 61 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.