Ecology in the Light of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church: Man in Relation to the World

Author: Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino

Ecology in the Light of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church: Man in Relation to the World

Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino
President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

An International Expo on Water and Sustainable Development is being held in Zaragoza, Spain, from 14 June to 14 September [2008]. To celebrate the International Expo, the Archdiocese of Zaragoza and the Holy See held a congress (10-12 July) on the theme "The Ecological Question; the Life of Man in the World", focusing on water as an integral part of the Catholic faith and celebrated as a life-giving sign of God's presence in Creation, thus recalling the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, adopted by world leaders in 2000. Printed below are excerpts of the concluding reflection, "Ecology in the Light of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church: Love and Rationality of Man in Relation to the World", presented on 12 July, by Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Taking part were experts on environmental issues from various nations and from more than 15 universities and international institutions.

The author of the Book of Genesis thought it necessary to remind us of the presence of God in creation: "And the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters" (1:2). As each day unfolds, in the account of Creation, the world draws closer to its completion. At the end of each day God places a value on his work and in the end it is not only good but it is very good.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s a new awareness began to take root as the environmental movement began to gather more support and people began to better understand the impact that human activity was having on nature. In the past few years we have begun to pay more attention to the earth and the natural environment that sustains our lives. Thus, the movement that began some 40 years ago continues and is even stronger today.

Unfortunately, in many ways the early movement ran contrary to the teachings of the Church and took on an "earth centeredness" that frequently bordered upon neo-paganism. At the same time, even though the Church often found herself excluded from or sometimes at odds with certain aspects of the environmental movement, she continued to address the environmental movement within the context of Her social teaching.

The author of Genesis tells us that God viewed each aspect of the created world, each aspect of his work, the heavens, the sea, the earth and all that is and lives upon it, as "good". However, God viewed the creation of man and woman, as the "summit" of his Creation, as "very good", setting mankind in a position of trust over the rest of Creation. It was only after entrusting the care of the earth to mankind that God rested on the seventh day.

In his Message for the 41st World Day of Peace, 1 January 2008, Pope Benedict XVI placed his understanding of peace, Creation, responsibility and love into the context of the family and the environment. He wrote: "The family needs a home, a fit environment in which to develop its proper relationships. For the human family, this home is the earth, the environment that God the Creator has given us to inhabit with creativity and responsibility. We need to care for the environment: it has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with, the good of all as a constant guiding criterion" (n. 7, L'Osservatore Romano English Edition [ORE], 19/26 December 2007, p. 8).

The Social Doctrine of the Church

Beginning in 1891 with what is recognized as the first "Social Encyclical", Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII addressed the world situation. The Encyclical Letter conveyed not only the concern of the Church for society, for the poor and the misery of increasing numbers of people; it also established the Church as the true voice in dealing with issues surrounding social justice — including protection of the natural environment.

The Popes of the 20th century continued to address social justice issues applying Church teachings to a variety of subjects, thus continuing to prove her concern for the people of the world.

In the Second Vatican Council, The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (1965) also pointed out the value of Creation, noting that in carrying out everyday tasks, mankind cooperates in and completes the work of the Creator.

In Gaudium et Spes there is a solidification of the Church teaching on the centrality of mankind within creation and also within human development. This understanding of the centrality of the human person continues to be essential, not only in light of the social teaching of the Church but also with regard to the role and relationship of mankind with the environment.

Following the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI turned his attention to the need for cooperation and development. In his Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, (1967) he addressed the role of mankind within creation. He also addressed the right which is possessed by all the people of the world to access and use the goods of the earth.

By 1971 and the publication of Octogesima Adveniens, the environmental movement had gained significant strength. This did not go unnoticed by Pope Paul VI who responded to the environmental situation in much the same way that Pope Leo XIII, with Rerum Novarum, responded to the labour situation of 1891: "Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace — pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity — but the human framework is no longer under man's control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family. The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all" (n. 21).

Following the themes of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II took up the call for development and the eradication of poverty while calling attention to environmental issues. In his understanding of "solidarity" he showed the interdependence that exists among all people and that exists among peoples and the world around them.

In his three great social Encyclicals, Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991), Pope John Paul II continued to teach the need to safeguard the natural environment while striving for social and economic development.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis emphasized the urgency that exists to care for the earth and protect its resources if development is to become a reality.

Returning to the 41st Message for the World Day of Peace, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI continued the call for cooperation in dealing with man's impact on the environment: "Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man. Rather it means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.

"Nor must we overlook the poor, who are excluded in many cases from the goods of creation destined for all" (World Day of Peace Message, 1 January 2008, n. 7, ORE, 19/26 December 2007, p. 8.).

According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, there must also be a consideration of the relationship between development and exploitation of natural resources and it states that Catholic social teaching calls for "economic activity" to reconcile "the needs of economic development with those of environmental protection" (n. 470).

Man - environment relationship

A reductionist attitude which moves toward unsustainable consumption and development which disregards the fragile balance within the natural environment not only puts the future at risk but it also leads to a denial of the relationship between man and God the Creator.

The reductionist attitude toward Creation, the idea that the world's resources were inexhaustible and that the earth had the ability to "heal itself" from man's exploitation was directly opposed to the true understanding of the relationship between man and Creation.

As the relationship between mankind and the environment breaks down, his relationship with God also suffers. It is for this reason that the Church reminds us that the natural environment and every living thing in it is a gift from God.

In the Book of Daniel we read:

"Let the earth bless the Lord. Praise and exalt him above all forever. Mountains and hills, bless the Lord. Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord. You springs, bless the lord. Seas and rivers, bless the Lord. You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord. Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord. All you birds of the air, bless the Lord. All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord, you sons of men, bless the Lord" (Dan 3:52).

These gifts are to be safeguarded and nurtured with a sense of gratitude toward the Creator. Again, that understanding of dominion rather than domination is seen as a guiding principle in man's relationship with the world around him.

As, has been and continues to be seen within the environmental movement, there is a close if not inseparable relationship between the environment and religion, whether formal or informal. It is not by accident that the relationship between religion and ethical behaviour has developed by an understanding of the presence in the universe of an order that must be respected. It is that "order" which has helped to guide the spiritual and intellectual development of mankind through the ages and has placed limits on our behaviour and activities.

Indeed, it is this order which has also shown that the human person occupies the central place in Creation. Without the conviction of this human centeredness, man's humanity is lost and development becomes a sort of soulless mechanism. Man becomes a means toward an end rather than the reason for striving toward a better life for all.

With the understanding of mankind's centrality comes the recognition of the human dignity. Although recognition of that dignity is often denied, it is, nevertheless, the guiding principle of the Church's social teaching.

However, an incorrect notion of our centrality inclines the individual to see everything in relation to his or her personal needs and the meeting of those needs, no matter the cost. It is this misdirected understanding that endangers the future by over-consumption and abuse of the earth's resources.

The principle of solidarity defines our social nature. It calls upon each one of us to realize the equality that we share through our human dignity and our human rights that develop from it.

Jesus told his listeners of their obligation toward one another : "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me" (Mt 25:35-36).

An understanding of the relationship of mankind to the earth comes through an understanding of solidarity.

We share a common bond that unites individuals and societies. This bond calls us to be concerned for the life and welfare of others. It reveals itself as a commitment to go beyond individual interests and offer oneself for the good of our neighbour.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 July 2008, page 9

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