What Should the Pope’s Ecology Encyclical Say?

There has been some discussion of news reports that Pope Francis plans to write an encyclical letter on ecology and the environment. In anticipation of a possible papal letter on those subjects, two recent articles struck my attention.

Robb Willer, in the New York Times opines that one reason for the divergent political responses over how to handle environmental issues is moral: “[w]here liberals view environmental issues as matters of right or wrong, conservatives generally do not.” He also argues that, absent that moral factor, one lacks the critical mass necessary and sufficient to jumpstart political action. When facing a complex and costly problem such as those environmental issues pose, the temptation towards inertia will prevail absent some moral catalyst to action.

Michael Peppard, over at Commonweal, thinks he has a preview of what Pope Francis might say in his encyclical. He draws on a speech on “integral ecology” recently given at Maynooth by Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council Justitia et pax.

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Given the chance that such an encyclical may be in the offing, this author would like to offer some reflections.

Peppard thinks, from Turkson’s text, that the Pope may formulate his document by framing an “integral ecology,” drawing on the recent Magisterium of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. After first doing this, he would then move to specific issues.

That could be a critical, make-or-break point for the reception of the letter. Papal teaching sets a direction for the Church, a direction for the faithful to shape their vision. No encyclical should be cherry picked for temporary political alliances, e.g., by putting emphasis on prudential judgments about concrete solutions to specific issues such as climate change, at the expense of a more holistic vision. The encyclical should provide a holistic view of how to look at ecology and environmental issues from a Christian anthropological standpoint.

Willer’s text suggests to this author that a certain segment of society is prone to make ecology a religion and, while that group is generally averse to morals in the public square, they readily do a volte face when it comes to investing environmental issues with moral significance. “We found that conservatives were less likely than liberals to describe pro-environmental efforts in moral terms, or to pass moral judgment on someone who behaved in an environmentally unfriendly way, for example, by not recycling.”

To put it mildly, the moral question of what to do with your empty Coke can is a consideration quite remote from the central doctrines of the faith. Because environmentalism has acquired a quasi-religious, often pantheistic, character in some circles, it seems imperative that any encyclical on the environment necessarily articulate a Christian perspective of the overall question, consistent with the Christian vision of man’s place in the universe as imago Dei, responsible for, part of, yet qualitatively different from all other creation.

I stress these elements—responsible for, part of, yet qualitatively different from the rest of creation—because I recall the barbaric conclusions of South African philosopher David Benatar—once upon a time expounded in the Times’ pages (by Peter Singer, of course). Benatar, in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence mulls, among other things, that the extinction of humanity would not necessarily be a bad thing for the planet. While joining forces to address responsibility for creation, no Catholic environmental action could accept the notion that the extinction of humans—“the one creation God wanted for himself” as St. John Paul II, quoting Vatican II, constantly reminded us—is in any way a “good” for creation.

Clear articulation of an “integral theology” that sees man as part of creation but still a qualitatively different part of it is imperative. It needs to be explained, taught, and catechized. Absent that, this writer fears that the Church may often find herself co-opted into projects whose ultimate consequences are alien to a Catholic vision of a humane world. There will be a temptation—as in some strains of ecumenism—to shortcut the heavy lifting of addressing doctrinal disagreement by rushing towards the “practical” (e.g., something practical to do, like intercommunion, before we even agree on what the Eucharist is). Absent a common why we are doing what we are doing, the what may lead us where, in the end, we do not and should not want to go.

An ecology encyclical should also not disconnect ecology from the family. Antipathy to the human in general often finds concrete expression in antipathy to the family, especially children. It is also a paradox that so many “green” advocates who will pay quadruple the price to swallow a free range egg or organic spinach seem also capable of digesting the gross environmental assault on the human body through chemical suppression of the very natural human good of … fertility. Man and woman are naturally fertile, and the artificial, externally induced hormonal alteration (often carried out long term) of one’s endocrine system to eliminate natural fertility is a fundamental contradiction. This is also part of ecology.

Given the presence of a significant anti-human crowd in the environmental movement—those convinced that the way to eliminate human problems is to eliminate humans—these family aspects of “living with nature and creation” ought not to be omitted from the letter, especially because they might be “controversial” or rather “a matter of sexual ethics.” They are very much at the heart of an integral—and humane—ecology.

Articulation of the moral cause for the environment is imperative, and it can be done. Catholic theology has the resources to build an “integral ecology” true to the Genesis vision of man as creature, as imago Dei, and as vice regent of creation. But it is also a stretch from there to mandating “moral causes” in pursuit of political agendas or to ascribing “moral judgment” to what I did this afternoon to my Coke can.

Editor’s note: In the image above, Pope Francis is enlisted, perhaps unenthusiastically (given his expression), in a South American anti-fracking campaign.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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