Since the weather turned brutal this winter, I have been thinking about debates over global warming and the idea of care for creation as a principle of Catholic social teaching. This post is obviously a bit outside my main area of research, but in honor of Earth Day I would like to post some quick thoughts on the topic.
This winter was bad. Really bad. Bitterly cold in many places. We had to add “polar vortex” into the vocabulary we use to talk about the weather. Of course, what the cold inevitably led to is a lot of denial of the concept of global warming on the part of the politically conservative (you can just go read the comments to any online news article about the weather over the winter to verify that fact).1
What concerns me is when I see Catholics arguing about whether or not global warming is real because it seems they are ignoring the real issue.
The real issue for Catholics should not have anything to do with whether or not global warming is real or whether or not humans are contributing to global warming. The issue is that the concept of environmental stewardship is part of Catholic tradition, based ultimately in our understanding of creation, and so we should be doing our best to care for our shared environmental resources in whatever way we can. As a principle of Catholic social teaching, we have been tasked to “care for creation” and this should be a good in and of itself, without necessitating any reference to climate change as a source of motivation.
In the introductory theology course here at SLU, Theological Foundations, I have spent some time on social justice with my students and one of the principles that we discuss is care for creation. The textbook for the course2 talks about care for creation under the heading of the principle of stewardship, saying:
The principle of stewardship, that is, the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to you, is related to the principle of solidarity. Followers of Christ are called to relate respectfully not only to people as their neighbors and to the interdependent world of peoples and nations but also to the shared space of the earth, the air above, and the resources below. Interdependence applies also to the entire ecosystem. Each creature, every being of the planet, is profoundly implicated in the life and existence of every other being. This is because Christians believe that each creature and creation itself taken together as a harmonious whole was spoken by God. Human persons are created in the image of God, but every created being is a manifestation of the glory of God. The beauty of the earth invites awe, reverence, and wonder (263).
Catholic social teaching thus does not just include care for other people in terms of just working conditions and the morality of our economy, but also includes a concern for our environmental resources. Concerns related to economic justice and those related to the environment are clearly linked in the pollution that went along with industrial development before we started caring enough about the chemicals being let out into our air and water. But today this can be brought down even to the level of the individual. What are you doing to care for creation? Do you reduce, reuse, and recycle?3 How much time do you spend in your car?
Those not in SLU’s Theological Foundations course can find a discussion of care for creation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here, the concept is discussed in reference to the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15; Deut 5:19), before continuing to talk about the social teaching of the Catholic Church. It says:
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. (CCC 2415, emphasis is my own… please also ignore the gendered language of the Catechism)
Care for the environment in general falls under care for the shared natural resources that are destined for the common good and quality of life of humanity. We need to think more carefully about everything that we do that has an effect on the environment and ask ourselves if we are acting in such a way that we are caring for the natural resources that are used by our neighbors, both those alive today and our children — those who will be here dealing with our environmental legacy (be it good or bad) in the future. Thus, as Catholics, our commitment to care for the environment should not rise or fall based on the facts of global warming. Since care for our shared natural resources is part of the task given to humanity by our Creator (cf. Gen 1:28-31), we should be doing our best to minimize the impact that we have on the environment and maximize our efforts to clean up whatever pollution our ancestors have left to us.
Though even the debate over climate change, even the possibility that it might be caused by humans, should motivate us more in this area because if it turns out that we are the cause of climate change, we are clearly not caring for the creation that is “destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”
- Of course, here’s a recent article describing research that shows that “global warming” or “climate change” (though using these terms interchangeably can be misleading) can be blamed for more extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, and for the drought in California. ↩
- J.J. Mueller, ed., Theological Foundations: Concepts and Methods for Understanding Christian Faith, rev. ed. (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2011). ↩
- Having lived in different parts of the country, I know that this can be a problem on the individual level where good recycling programs do not exist. But that is why we should all be fighting for good recycling programs to be implemented everywhere! ↩