Dangerously Green

Now that a global concern for the environment is the political flavor of the month, Catholics should heed well the moral instruction of their bishops. Having alerted the faithful to a global need for “food and energy policies that are socially just, environmentally benign, and economically efficient,” the bishops have called us to seek an environmental ethic that sustains a just economy. In so doing, however, Catholics must avoid a number of serious errors that plague popular environmentalism.

Since the early 1980s, the United States Catholic Conference, the policy arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has issued several wrong-headed social and political prescriptions for justice in the world. As a result, the USCC’s authoritative competence in matters of faith and morals has risked being weakened by specific policy recommendations that reach well beyond what is necessary for the salvation of souls.

Unfortunately, the same is now true for their pastoral activities concerning the environment. In its effort to promote environmental policies that are socially just, the Bishops Conference has flirted with language that is both theologically flawed and economically naive.

Our moral imperative to protect the world’s natural resources should not be confused with a call to paganism. Similarly, the global nature of ozone depletion should not be construed as a refutation of private property rights. Knowing this, the Bishops Conference should know that much of the environmental movement is simply not for Catholics.

The Person First

Catholics received their first serious instruction on the environment in January of 1990 during the Holy Father’s World Day of Peace Message entitled The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility. The pope’s message is clear and simple: Above all else our moral concern for the environment is founded upon the dignity of the human person. The destruction of the environment, however troubling, is only one aspect of a more profound moral crisis in the heart of man that lacks a due respect for life, and especially, human life.

The good of the environment will be served, therefore, when and only when we focus on the primary good of the human person. This is the first principle of an authentically Catholic environmental ethics.

Although all of creation celebrates the glory of God, the human person alone possesses the responsibility to preserve this creation for future generations. As the only rational animal, man is uniquely qualified to discern not only that there is order in the universe, but, given his freedom of choice, how he is to act within that order to the advantage of all.

The dignity of the human person is the essential starting point in all matters of environmental responsibility, because it is both for the common good of humanity that our environmental policy must be supremely directed, and it is from the ingenuity of individual human persons that appropriate solutions to our environmental problems will emerge.

Admittedly, this precis is only one possible reading of the Holy Father’s position on the environment. In the same document, Pope John Paul II calls for a more internationally coordinated approach to the management of the earth’s goods and, in general, formulates the Church’s concern for the environment in relation to her concern for world peace.

Stressing the need for a morally coherent world view in any peaceful society, however, the pope states emphatically that “respect for life, and above all the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.” To the extent that the looming environmental crisis is itself largely a byproduct of such progress, it seems fair to suggest that the human person must be the center of its solution.

A Different Tack

The Bishops Conference stresses a different line of thought. Taking the Holy Father’s message on the environment as a springboard for their own 1991 pastoral statement entitled “Renewing the Earth,” the U.S. Bishops Conference aims to link questions of ecology with a more general notion of social justice for the poor. In fact, the USCC’s most recently published handbook on Catholic theology and the environment entitled And God Saw That It Was Good makes it perfectly plain that “the link between care for the poor and care for the earth is central to the bishops’ approach to environmental concerns.”

The question at hand is whether this change of focus, from the dignity of the human person to a specific concern for the poor, brings anything of benefit to our moral reflections on environmental policy. It certainly looks logically backwards. Because the good of any social activity is founded on individual human actions, all social demands must be secondary to the good of the human person. Nothing can be good for the environment, in other words, that is not first good for people. Missing this simple point can introduce a disastrous political prejudice.

In this regard the bishops’ document exposes itself to any number of specific criticisms. Often moving without apology from the theoretical to the practical, “Renewing the Earth” is sometimes shocking for its naive depiction of immensely complicated situations. Perhaps the most unfortunate is its example of how population growth relates to the consumption of resources:

It is not so much population growth, but the desperate efforts of debtor countries to pay their foreign debt by exporting products to affluent industrial countries that drives poor peasants off their land and up eroding hillsides, where in the effort to survive, they also destroy the environment.

The example is obviously well meant: Poor people are not the cause of environmental degradation in poor countries. To this end population control advocates are chasing after a false cause of environmental ruin. The example, however, is equally loaded with tacit assumptions—debtor countries are poor in resources, resource collection requires environmental demise, and consumption is the root cause of environmental destruction.

Each of these propositions misrepresents complicated economic and political circumstances that vary from place to place. It is simply not the case that environmental protection always comes with an economic penalty.

The bishops fail to consider, for example, whether industrial nations could forgive certain foreign debts in exchange for progressive environmental policies. Armed with these policies, developing countries could then learn to identify and favor the collection of alternate goods that, when brought to market, could further eliminate their status as debtor nations. Sound environmental policies, in other words, can be the origin of new financial resources.

In short, the bishops correctly instruct us “to care for the poor and to care for the earth.” How we best go about doing such a thing, however, is perhaps very different from what they imagine.

Poverty and Progress

It is not the place of the bishops to argue for specific environmental policies. As it has often been noted in these pages, the bishops themselves once wrote, “it does not belong to the Church, insofar as she is a religious and hierarchical community, to offer concrete solutions in the social, economic and political spheres for justice in the world.” And in all fairness, “Renewing the Earth” does not read like a party platform. Rather, the problem here is one of emphasis. In specifically framing their concern for the environment within the standard language of social justice for the poor, the Bishops Conference once again employs language sadly reminiscent of some large-scale governmental welfare program.

The bishops speak of “the painful adjustments we have to undertake in our economies for the sake of the environment.” Although they mention that “solutions must be found that do not force us to choose between a decent environment and a decent life for workers,” we must always keep in mind that “where jobs are lost, society must help in the process of economic conversion, so that not only the earth but also workers and their families are protected.”

As a wholesome consequence of all these “painful adjustments” and “economic conversions,” the bishops observe that “the poor of the earth offer a special test of our solidarity.” Unfortunately, the bishops might as well have written—lands will be reclaimed, men will be put out of work, and all together you’ll be asked to pay the unemployment. This is not a matter of faith.

It is hard to know which is the bishops’ guiding principle—their basic hope in more centrally-organized environmental programs, or their complete innocence of market solutions—in either event, they seem totally unaware that our “care for the earth,” that is, our sound management of natural resources, could itself actively lift the poor out of their poverty.

It is not by “equitable and sustainable development”—or cash hand-outs—that poor nations will learn to curb the worst of their environmentally deleterious activities. Rather, all nations, rich and poor alike, need economic reasons to inspire their sound ecological practice.

We can say it another way: Incentives matter!

Environmental policies that make polluters pay while turning the environment into an asset, both deter environmental abuse and inspire sound resource management. Chances are a rainforest will not be burnt to the ground, if it is worth more to a people while standing. In fact, the poor are given the means to wealth when we care for the environment in this way. When marketable goods are extracted from a rainforest without harming its delicate ecosystem, not only is the environment protected, but an economy is advanced.

Neither is the bishops’ censure of the industrial world’s “overdevelopment” and “overconsumption” even meaningful apart from a discussion of the industrial world’s production and efficiency. It is hardly an indictment of U.S. environmental policy that the average American, as the bishops say, uses twenty-eight times the energy of a person in a developing country. In some cases the average American also produces thousands of times the work. More to the point, consumption is not directly related to either pollution or waste. Some of the most devastating waste of the world’s natural resources is caused by the world’s poorest countries. Poverty, in this case, is a function of bad management, not bad lands.

We can say it another way: Income matters!

If it means the difference between life and death, it is too much to ask someone not to destroy his environment. Only after an economy provides potable water and the basic means to nourishment is the good of the environment even a good to be sought. Seen in this way, only wealthier nations can even afford the luxury of a clean environment.

If you want to improve the environment, then you have to improve the economy first. Environmental policies that promote economic development are obviously the most efficient means to this end. If the bishops call for an environmental ethic that sustains a just economy, then they must promote justice in all aspects of that economy. There is no free lunch, as they say, even for the environment.

Moral Guidance

The bishops are at their very best when they use their episcopal authority to guide the Church away from moral error and toward what is best for human happiness. Writing not as policymakers but as pastors, the bishops provide an invaluable service when they call our attention to some areas of potential conflict with others who share our concern for the good of the environment.

The following directives provide the highlight of the USCC’s original pastoral statement on the environment, and it is with these in mind that we should guide our own moral reflections:

  1. God surpasses all created things and so an ordered love for creation is ecological without being ecocentric.
  2. Reverence for nature must be combined with scientific learning. God entrusted the earth to human stewardship and so it is for human reason to find remedies for nature’s ills.
  3. Christian love forbids choosing between people and the planet.

This last proposition obviously requires a short amendment.

Only man was made in God’s image. And of all earthly beings, man alone is destined to live forever in the glory of the beatific vision. There is, in other words, a very basic difference between people and the planet. To the extent that each is caught up in the fate of the other is the extent to which Christian love forbids a choice between the two. But as the planet was made for people, so man was made for God.

If the bishops had kept their focus on the dignity of the human person, they might not have made this mistake. As it stands, however, this one passage rather neatly aligns the bishops’ document with those forms of radical environmentalism that place an absolute priority on the good of the environment.

It is precisely in making people equal to the planet, that ecological policies are made ecocentric. Rainforests, everglades, and endangered species, while good in themselves, are not ends in themselves: They are ordered to the good of the human person. When we speak of the good of the environment as an end in itself, we expose ourselves to all of the errors for which radical environmentalism is famous.

That God is in all things, does not make all things into God. This simple error, however, makes paganism possible. That man is called to protect the planet, does not make the protection of the planet the singular calling of man. Yet, it is precisely this move that makes environmentalism at home with certain forms of religious language. It would be good if the Bishops Conference spent its time dispelling, rather than adding to, this confusion.

The Dangers of Green Theology

In the concluding section to “Renewing the Earth,” the U.S. bishops reiterate the Holy Father’s call upon Catholic scholars to “explore the relationship between this tradition’s emphasis upon the dignity of the human person and our responsibility to care for all of God’s creation.” Since this time, a sort of toxic leakage, borne from the inaccuracies of the bishops’ statement, has caused some unwelcome mutations among various efforts at Catholic environmentalism. Having removed the human person from the center of Catholic environmental concern, Catholic environmentalism is risking serious secular contamination.

Since the release of the bishops’ pastoral statement on the environment in November of 1991, they have initiated an environmental justice program also called “Renewing the Earth.” This program consists of four parts. First, the USCC prepares educational materials and provides small grants to seedling environmental programs on the local level. Secondly, larger sums are spent on leadership development. Thirdly, the program studies the relation between ethics and environmental policy. And finally, the program seeks to “ground this entire effort in the Church’s theology, spirituality, and social teaching.”

All of this can be found in the USCC’s book And God Saw That It Was Good. And the overall program, both in intention and design, it must be said, is very good. Again, however, it is the instantiation of that program that leaves much to be desired.

In this handbook, specialists were invited to extend “the disciplines of systematic theology, scriptural exegesis, liturgical study, and ethical analysis to the concern for creation and ecology.” Although this invitation did not produce a work of raw syncretism, revisionist exegesis, occult practice, and moral equivalence, its findings are bound to be misunderstood.

Take, for example, the radically Green complaint that the creation narrative in Genesis first sanctions the human domination of nature that leads to environmental degradation. In the USCC’s book, Sister Anne M. Clifford parries this claim by emphasizing “the transformative nature of Christ’s saving activity” that “recognizes both the interconnectedness of all creatures and the fundamental continuity of creation and redemption.” Whatever the good of this observation, Sr. Clifford fails to explain what it means for human stewardship that God delivered all the creatures of the earth into the power of man.

Elsewhere, Kevin W. Irwin looks to the “anthropological substratum” of the liturgy to identify the symbolic importance of the Eucharist in our understanding of Creation. Human hands make wheat and grapes into the bread and wine that Christ makes into his own body and blood. True enough, but the miracle of the Eucharist is not the work of human hands. Whatever the liturgy teaches about creation should not confuse us about the means to redemption.

Catholic theology and Catholic social teaching speak to all aspects of authentic human action. And the good of the environment demands a Catholic environmental ethic. Looking to environmentalists for the language of that ethic, however, is nowhere for Catholics to begin. As the Holy Father himself has said, our concern for the environment begins in the heart of man. Given some of their most recent work, it would be good if Catholic environmentalists were to begin again.


  • Samuel Casey Carter

    Samuel Casey Carter, formerly the associate editor of Crisis, is the president of Carter Research.

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