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Our duty to the earth

30 November, 1999

In 2005 The Compendium of the Social doctrine of the Church was published. It included a chapter on “Safeguarding the Environment”. Cathy Molloy introduces us to this comparatively new aspect of Church teaching and the issues involved.

Our local recycling centre is a hive of activity. People come with everything from a few newspapers to car-loads of bottles and glass, cans and plastic containers, cardboard boxes full of clothes and shoes. We are learning that the resources of planet earth are not infinite and that attention needs to be paid to the use of those that are non-renewable.

Schools are doing a great job in educating students about the necessity of recycling material that would simply have been dumped in the recent past – and without particular questions as to where or how. Considerable awareness has been raised about the difference individuals can make in our use of electricity, water, petrol, oil and so on. Bring your own shopping bag, switch off a light, turn the tap off, walk instead of drive where you can, are some of the ways we are encouraged to make a small impact on the big picture.

Recently RTE showed a wonderful programme tracking Charlie Bird in the Amazon region of South America. Many of our young people have taken time out to visit these exotic locations but for the majority, this was as near as we are likely to get. Charlie made it all the more real by sharing his wonder at the more amazing features of the landscape, the exotic birds and fish and not least the stamina and resilience of the people who live at high altitudes.

It was incredible to see the source of the Amazon and follow his journey with it until it entered the ocean. Mountains, rainforests, and, of course, the river itself all spoke of the beautiful planet we inhabit and share with the birds, animals, plant-life. The words of Karl Rahner ‘all of creation is animated by God’s own self-communication’ – take on new meaning.

Seeing it in its glory must make us pause. Would reasonable human beings really be capable of knowingly destroying such beauty, allowing rain forests to disappear, and rivers – so essential for our survival- to dry up?

Greening of the Church
Global warming, pollution, exploitation of finite resources, the over-fishing of the seas and so on have become matters of urgency. The Irish Columban priest Fr. Sean McDonagh, in his book, The Greening of the Church (1990), was among the first to propose environmental issues as something the Church ought to be more concerned about.

The social encyclicals of the second half of the twentieth century such as Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) of Pope John XXIII, refer to the relationship of humankind to creation, and also to the lack of due respect for nature. More recently the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2005) in a chapter entitled ‘The Safeguarding of the Environment’, acknowledges the interdependence of all life on the planet. It sets this interdependence in the context of the belief that in Jesus, the reconciliation of humans and the world with God has been brought about.

The dignity of the human person and the belief that the goods of the earth are for everyone are fundamental in all areas of social doctrine. The environment is a collective good and its care a challenge for all humanity and particularly for Christians.

Advances and ethics
The teaching recognizes the benefits of modern biotechnologies – medical advances, agricultural methods and so on – but highlights the need for ethical criteria in evaluating them. In this, justice and solidarity must be taken into account especially in relation to research and commercialization.

Human interventions that damage living beings or the environment are unacceptable and responsibility is called for in relation to technological interventions that may have long-term repercussions. Issues such as stem cell or embryonic research, human cloning, the patenting of seeds and the genetic modification of food come to mind here. A spirit of international solidarity is needed – with future as well as present generations. Promoting the development of disadvantaged peoples must include fostering ‘the development of necessary scientific and technological autonomy’.

Solidarity demands that the problems of food security and health care be addressed in such a way that not only legitimate profit but also the common good be taken into account by all involved in research, production and selling of products. (An example would be antiretroviral drugs so necessary in the treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS.) Non-renewable energy resources, and the relationship of indigenous people to their lands and resources require the political responsibility of States, the international community, and business, guided by reference to the universal common good.

The goods of the earth were created by God to be used wisely and shared equitably in justice and charity. The environmental crisis and poverty are connected in that, in this too, the poorest are most affected, whether because they live in lands subject to erosion and desertification, or in polluted suburbs of large cities. Hunger and poverty make it virtually impossible to avoid an intense and excessive exploitation of the environment in countries penalized by unfair trade regulations and the burden of foreign debt.

The teaching urges that the link that exists between demographic changes – the increased birth rate in some countries and the increasingly aged population in others – and a sustainable use of the environment must not lead to policies at odds with the dignity of the human person.

A sustainable environment means changes in lifestyle will be necessary – there must be a break with ‘the logic of mere consumption’. Forms of agricultural and industrial production that respect the order of creation and satisfy the needs of all must be promoted. Attitudes such as these, with a mindfulness of the interdependence of all the inhabitants of the earth, will help to eliminate some of the causes of ecological disasters.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.