|A Christian Vision of the Environment
ROME, 12 FEB. 2005 (ZENIT)
The new Compendium of the Social Doctrine
of the Church dedicates an entire chapter to environmental issues, in
recognition of the subject's increasing importance. The opening numbers
urge Christians to view the environment with a positive attitude, to
avoid a gloom-and-doom mentality, and to recognize God's presence in
We should look to the future with hope, recommends the Compendium,
"sustained by the promise and the covenant that God continually renews"
(No. 451). In the Old Testament we see how Israel lived its faith in an
environment that was seen as a gift from God. Moreover, "Nature, the
work of God's creative action, is not a dangerous adversary."
The Compendium also calls to mind the opening of the Book of Genesis, in
which man is placed at the summit of all beings and is entrusted by God
with caring for all of creation. "The relationship of man with the world
is a constitutive part of his human identity. This relationship is in
turn the result of another still deeper relationship with God" (No.
In the New Testament Jesus makes use of the natural elements in some of
his miracles and reminds the disciples of his Father's providence. Then,
in his death and resurrection, "Jesus inaugurates a new world in which
everything is subjected to him and he creates anew those relationships
of order and harmony that sin had destroyed" (No. 454).
Science and technology
The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the progress made by science and
technology in extending our control over the created world. Bettering
our lives in this way is in accord with God's will, concluded the
Council fathers. They also noted that the Church is not opposed to
scientific progress, which is a part of a God-given human creativity.
But, adds the Compendium, "A central point of reference for every
scientific and technological application is respect for men and women,
which must also be accompanied by a necessary attitude of respect for
other living creatures" (No. 459). Therefore, our use of the earth
should not be arbitrary and needs to be inspired by a spirit of
cooperation with God.
Forgetting this is often the cause of actions that damage the
environment. Reducing nature to "mechanistic terms," often accompanied
by the false idea that its resources are unlimited, leads to seeing
development in a purely material dimension, in which first place is
"given to doing and having rather than to being" (No. 462).
If we need to avoid the error of reducing nature to purely utilitarian
terms, in which it is only something to be exploited, we also need to
avoid going to the other extreme of making it an absolute value. An
ecocentric or biocentric vision of the environment falls into the error
of putting all living beings on the same level, ignoring the qualitative
difference between humans, based on the dignity of the human person, and
The key to avoiding such mistakes is to maintain a transcendent vision.
Acting responsibly toward the environment is more likely when we
remember God's role in creation, explains the Compendium. Christian
culture considers creatures as a gift from God, to be nurtured and
safeguarded. Caring for the environment also falls within a
responsibility for ensuring the common good, in which creation is
destined for all. The Compendium also notes that we have a
responsibility toward future generations.
A section of the chapter focuses on the issue of biotechnology. The new
possibilities offered by these techniques are a source of hope, but have
also raised hostility and alarm. As a rule, notes the text, the
Christian view of creation accepts human intervention, because nature is
not some sort of sacred object that must be left alone.
But nature is also a gift to be used responsibly and, therefore,
modifying the properties of living beings must be accompanied by a
careful evaluation of the benefits and risks of such actions. Moreover,
biotechnology needs to be guided by the same ethical criteria that
should orient our actions in the social and political spheres of action.
And the duties of justice and solidarity are also to be taken into
Regarding solidarity the Compendium asks for "equitable commercial
exchange, without the burden of unjust stipulations" (No. 475). In this
sense it is important to help nations to achieve a certain autonomy in
science and technology, transferring to them knowledge that will help in
the process of development. Solidarity also means that, along with
biotechnology, favorable trade policies are needed in order to improve
food and health.
The Compendium also reminds scientists that while they are called upon
to work intelligently and with perseverance to resolve problems of food
supply and health, they should also remember that they are working with
objects that form part of humanity's patrimony.
For entrepreneurs and public agencies in the field of biotechnology the
text recommends that along with a concern for making a legitimate profit
they also keep in mind the common good. This is particularly applicable
in poorer countries, and in safeguarding the ecosystem.
A section of the chapter is also devoted to the question of sharing the
earth's resources. God created the goods of the earth to be used by all,
notes the Compendium, and "They must be shared equitably, in accordance
with justice and charity" (No. 481). In fact, international cooperation
on ecological issues is necessary, as they are often problems on a
Ecological problems are also often connected with poverty, with poor
people unable to cope with problems such as the erosion of farming land
because of economic and technological limitations. And many poor people
live in urban slums, afflicted by pollution. "In such cases hunger and
poverty make it virtually impossible to avoid an intense and excessive
exploitation of the environment" (No. 482).
The answer to these problems is not, however, the policies of population
control that do not respect the dignity of the human person. The
Compendium argues that demographic growth is "fully compatible with an
integral and shared development" (No. 483). Development should also be
integral, continues the text, ensuring the true good of people.
The universal destination of goods is to be kept in mind regarding
natural resources, and particularly so when it comes to water.
Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects a large number of
people and is often the source of disease and death.
For the developed world, the Compendium offers some words on appropriate
lifestyles. At the individual and community level, the virtues of
sobriety, temperance and self-discipline are recommended. We need to
break with a mentality based on mere consumption, as well as being aware
of the ecological consequences of our choices, the text urges.
The Compendium concludes its chapter calling for our action toward
creation to be characterized by gratitude and appreciation. We should
also remember that the world reveals the mystery of God who created and
sustains it. Rediscovering this profound meaning of nature not only
helps us to discover God, but is also the key to acting responsibly
regarding the environment. ZE05021202