Yesterday a landmark statement to be read by Pope Benedict XVI on January 1st 2010, the World Day of Peace, was made public. The message entitled “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation” is among the most important Vatican teachings on the environment, comparable to John Paul II’s message exactly 20 years ago on the same occasion. It can be read here.
Pope Benedict XVI, recognizing the work of his predecessor, emphasizes the moral dimension to the environmental crisis, and clearly recognizes the importance of the environment within Catholic teachings:
“Respect for creation… has now become essential for the pacific coexistence of mankind” and later “ The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction.”
I will comment on what I think are the key elements in the message. Please read the entire text here.
1. Environment and development. Following the approach from his latest Encyclical Caritas in veritate, the Pope highlights the close relationship between environment and human development. The global dimensions of the environmental challenge connect it to the issue of development, of helping the poor who are most affected by environmental degradation and the need of a “profound cultural renewal”.
“It should be evident that the ecological crisis cannot be viewed in isolation from other related questions, since it is closely linked to the notion of development itself and our understanding of man in his relationship to others and to the rest of creation. Prudence would thus dictate a profound, long-term review of our model of development, one which would take into consideration the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplication. The ecological health of the planet calls for this, but it is also demanded by the cultural and moral crisis of humanity whose symptoms have for some time been evident in every part of the world. Humanity needs a profound cultural renewal; it needs to rediscover those values which can serve as the solid basis for building a brighter future for all.”
2. A moral crisis. Echoing John Paul II, the fundamental understanding is that the environmental crisis is a moral crisis. A continuous thread through the message is the call to a personal transformation and that each person address how the live with regards to modern models of consumption. This moral transformation needs to be reflected in economic decisions, geopolitical debates and development models.
“It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”.
3. Intergenerational and Intragenerational solidarity. We are urged to live a “global solidarity”, and the international community especially is encouraged to place the common good above national and private interests.
“economic activity needs to consider the fact that “every economic decision has a moral consequence”  and thus show increased respect for the environment. When making use of natural resources, we should be concerned for their protection and consider the cost entailed – environmentally and socially – as an essential part of the overall expenses incurred. The international community and national governments are responsible for sending the right signals in order to combat effectively the misuse of the environment. To protect the environment, and to safeguard natural resources and the climate, there is a need to act in accordance with clearly defined rules, also from the juridical and economic standpoint, while at the same time taking into due account the solidarity we owe to those living in the poorer areas of our world and to future generations.”
4. The role of the Church. The importance of the environment for the Church is continually affirmed. Moreover, responding to this responsibility the Church’s role is to uphold the dignity of the human person and the value of creation. The ‘human ecology’ is continually emphasized as well as a patrimony of values and the “inviolability of human life at every stage”.
“The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction. The degradation of nature is closely linked to the cultural models shaping human coexistence: consequently, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits”. Young people cannot be asked to respect the environment if they are not helped, within families and society as a whole, to respect themselves.”
5. The place of humankind and philosophical misconceptions. The place of humanity within creation must be upheld as having a superior dignity and calling but at the same time with the serious responsibility of being stewards of creation. This avoids both the temptation of human beings to abdicate from their role of caring for creation on one extreme and exploiting nature despondently on the other.
“a correct understanding of the relationship between man and the environment will not end by absolutizing nature or by considering it more important than the human person. If the Church’s magisterium expresses grave misgivings about notions of the environment inspired by ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things. In the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the “dignity” of all living creatures, such notions end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms. The Church, for her part, is concerned that the question be approached in a balanced way, with respect for the “grammar” which the Creator has inscribed in his handiwork by giving man the role of a steward and administrator with responsibility over creation, a role which man must certainly not abuse, but also one which he may not abdicate. In the same way, the opposite position, which would absolutize technology and human power, results in a grave assault not only on nature, but also on human dignity itself.”
7. The positive role of technology. The Pope has given a lot of room encouraging the development and intelligent use of science and technology within the context of finding solutions for the environmental crisis. He specifically mentions solar power, a new approach to agriculture and places technology in context.
“A sustainable comprehensive management of the environment and the resources of the planet demands that human intelligence be directed to technological and scientific research and its practical applications… “technology is never merely technology. It reveals man and his aspirations towards development; it expresses the inner tension that impels him gradually to overcome material limitations. Technology in this sense is a response to God’s command to till and keep the land (cf. Gen 2:15) that he has entrusted to humanity, and it must serve to reinforce the covenant between human beings and the environment, a covenant that should mirror God’s creative love”.
8. Theological roots of the environmental crisis: Creation, Sin and Reconciliation. The deepest understanding of the problem, and the solution, comes from understanding the theological dimensions of the environmental crisis we see today. Christ is the ultimate hope, and the role of Christians is to live up to His calling.
The world “is not the product of any necessity whatsoever, nor of blind fate or chance… The world proceeds from the free will of God; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, in his intelligence, and in his goodness”…The harmony between the Creator, mankind and the created world, as described by Sacred Scripture, was disrupted by the sin of Adam and Eve, by man and woman, who wanted to take the place of God and refused to acknowledge that they were his creatures. As a result, the work of “exercising dominion” over the earth, “tilling it and keeping it”, was also disrupted, and conflict arose within and between mankind and the rest of creation (cf. Gen 3:17-19)… In the light of divine Revelation and in fidelity to the Church’s Tradition, Christians have their own contribution to make. They contemplate the cosmos and its marvels in light of the creative work of the Father and the redemptive work of Christ, who by his death and resurrection has reconciled with God “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20).”