Papal concern for the environment


By Fr. Bud Grant

Sometime soon, Pope Francis is expected to publish an encyclical on the environment. This is the most anticipated papal teaching since Centesimus Annus. Papal concern for the environment has a very long history, going back to May 15, 1891. That was when Pope Leo XII wrote Rerum Novarum, the first social encyclical. (Papal documents typically get their title from the first words of the Latin text.) As is clear from the first sentence, Rerum Novarum was not about the environment, but justice for the working class.

Fr. Grant

Nonetheless, he makes several relevant points. Private property is a natural right (5). Natural resources are intended for the common good with special attention to the “interests of the poor” (27). Land is not for “temporary and momentary use,” but rather “a stable and permanent possession … for use in the future” (5). Leo’s fundamental understanding of nature is familiar: it is an unfailing “warehouse” that “owes” us “profit and advantage” (32). In short, nature is a set of resources with no intrinsic value to be used prudently for the common good. Environmentalists call this anthropocentrism.

This position is ratified — and delicately amended — on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, in Quadragesimo Anno (May 15, 1931). Here, Pius XI says that private land ownership is not an absolute right but must serve the common good (49) which itself is terraced in layers. This is known as subsidiarity: decisions ought to be made at the lowest level possible (76-87). One can, though Pius XI did not, apply this to ecosystems. This is still a “wise use” ethic.


A change begins with John XXIII. Mater et Magistra (1961) includes the striking statement that agriculture is “most noble because it is undertaken, as it were, in the majestic temple of creation; because it often concerns the life of plants and animals, a life inexhaustible in its expression, inflexible in its laws, rich in allusions to God, Creator and Provider (144). Can you sense the shift? Nature is more than a storeroom of resources. It obeys natural laws. It is a temple of God. It reveals God. Pacem in Terris (1963) and Gaudium et Spes (1965) continue this new angle.

Octogesima Adveniens (May 14, 1971), as the title suggests, commemorates the 80th year since Centisimus Annus. Paul VI prophetically warns of ecological crises caused by over-consumption and sinful appropriation of resources which will make life for future generations “intolerable” (21). This extension of the common good to include the future is new. Otherwise, Paul VI’s ethical position, insofar as he reveals one, is still solidly anthropocentric.

All of these documents reference nature only tangentially. Their main thrust is social, not ecological, justice. John Paul II is the first pope to write extensively and deeply about the environment. Arguably, in fact, Catholic environmentalism was born on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4, 1979, at Living History Farms outside of Des Moines, Iowa.

In his homily on that day John Paul offers three points: gratitude to God for the gifts of nature upon which we are dependent; stewardship of Creation for future generations; and just and charitable distribution of the earth’s goods. His “stewardship” ethic is an explicitly environmental extension of his predecessor’s anthropocentrism.

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), he broadens that perspective to emphasize nature’s intrinsic value. We “must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system (34). Yet, with Centesimus Annus (May 1, 1991) he echoes the 100-year tradition of anthropocentrism, arguing for sustainable use of resources and concern for the poor and future generations. Perhaps this is why Benedict XVI, and not John Paul II, has been dubbed “the Green Pope.” His wisdom will be explored next month unless, of course, Pope Francis decides to publish on May 15, the anniversary of Rerum Novarum. I can’t wait.

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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