The Church and Her Conservation Legacy
Conserving God’s Creation
“God saw that it was good.” Genesis 1:10
From its beginning the Church has taught God’s creation is good and worthy of protection (Pope Benedict XVI, 1) and that, “Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 15)
“Nature, in a word, is at our disposition and we are called to exercise a responsible stewardship over it.” (Pope Francis, 9)
A Brief History of the Church and Conservation
The Psalms declared how the earth and heavens proclaim the glory of God:
“All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to thy name.” Psalm 66:4
“You crown the year with your bounty…the hills are clothed with gladness…they shout for joy and sing.” Psalm 65:10-13
In the 2nd century Church Father Saint Irenaeus defended God’s creation – writing: “For even creation reveals Him who formed it…the world manifests Him Who ordered it. The Universal Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this understanding from the Apostles themselves.” (Against Heresies, IX, 1)
In the 4th century Saint Athanasius tells how “the renewal of creation has been the work of the selfsame Word that made it at the beginning.” (On the Incarnation of the Word, 1)
The early Benedictines (6th century) cultivated the idea that one should be grounded in a community and a place and develop a relationship of care and connection to it.
St. Hildegard, one of only four women doctors of the church, writing in the 12th century developed an ‘ecological theology’ where she entwines physical reality with its spiritual animation.
Then there is, of course, the 13th century patron saint of ecology – St. Francis of Assisi who saw creation as a celebration of God.
“Saint John of the Cross [16th century] taught that all the goodness present in the realities and experiences of this world ‘is present in God eminently and infinitely, or more properly, in each of these sublime realities is God’.” (Pope Francis, 234)
The father of modern Catholic social teaching, Pope Leo XIII, wrote [19th century], “God has granted the earth to mankind in general” and, thereby, creation ministers “to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces.” (Rerum Novarum, 8)
Pope Benedict XV, in 1921, recalled “the fundamental principle remain[s] that the universe, whatever be the order that sustains it in its parts, is the work of the creating and preserving sign of Omnipotent God“. (In Praeclara Summorum, 4)
Long before most conservation and environmental agencies and movements sprung up, Pope St. Paul VI  wrote “To rule creation means…to transform the world…into a beautiful abode where everything is respected.” (Letter to the Secretary-General of the U.N. Conference)
And Pope St. John Paul II wrote , “Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth…as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray.” (Centesimus Annus, 37)
In 1970, Pope St. Paul VI warned how a “progressive deterioration [is creating]…risks provoking a veritable ecological catastrophe”. (Pope St. Paul VI, 3)
“[M]an is warned of the necessity of replacing the unchecked advance of material progress…with new-found respect for the biosphere”. (Pope St. Paul VI)
The Catholic Church has never let up on this point. Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed “[T]here is an order in the universe which must be respected, and…I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue”. (World Day of Peace Message, 15)
His successor, the “Green” Pope, Benedict XVI, made clear “The earth is a precious gift of the Creator, who has designed its intrinsic order, thus giving us guidelines to which we must hold ourselves as stewards of his creation”. (General Audience)
While Pope Francis insists the earth is crying “out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her”. (Laudato Si, 2)
The Church’s Deeper Understanding
Both our human environment and natural environment are threatened, and they are linked. “Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person“. (Pope Benedict XVI, 51)
In fact, it is the threat to our human environment that creates the threat to our natural environment! “If an appreciation of the value of the human person and of human life is lacking, we will also lose interest in…the earth itself.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 13)
“When man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 5)
The Church Has Solutions
Our “common home” needs a human ecology. “I readily encourage efforts to promote a greater sense of ecological responsibility which…would safeguard an authentic ‘human ecology’… where one is trained in love of neighbor and respect for nature.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 12)
“To seek only a technical remedy is…to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” (Pope Francis, 111)
“We require a new and universal solidarity.” (Pope Francis, 14)
Society must undertake “a serious review of its lifestyle, which in many parts of the world is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 51)
We need to ask ourselves: “Do I really need all these material objects and complicated recipes for living? Can I manage without all these unnecessary extras and live a life of greater simplicity?” (Pope Francis)
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.
Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)