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A Long Essay presented

in partial fulfilment of the
requirements for the
Baccalaureate in
Sacred Theology.
Prof. Clemens Sedmak Presented by Richard Nesbitt


I would like to dedicate this long essay to my grandfather, Hugh Baird, who first taught me to see
the hand of the Creator in nature and to appreciate His sacred presence in all things.

I would like to express my thanks to Professor Clemens Sedmak, the promoter of this essay, for
his enthusiasm and wisdom. I would also like to thank Dr Paul McPartlan for his encouragement
and for being the first priest, besides Pope John Paul II, who I had ever heard speak with passion
about the great riches which the Church has to bring to the environmental debate.

Finally I would like to thank Sister Bernadette Hunston SCJA for her prayerful and practical
support and Canon Charles Acton for his patience and proof reading.




INTRODUCTION – A Silent Spring and a Silent Church? v

The Development of an “Ecological Awareness” in the modern Tradition of the Catholic
Social Teaching

LEO XIII, Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of the Working Classes (1891) 1
PIUS XI, Quadragesimo Anno: On the Reconstruction of the Social Order (1931) 2
JOHN XXIII, Mater et Magistra: Christianity and Social Progress (1961) 3
PAUL VI, Populorum Progressio: On the Development of Peoples (1967) 5
PAUL VI, Octogesima Adveniens: A Call to Action on the Eightieth Anniversary of
Rerum Novarum ( 1971) 7


The Contribution of Pope John Paul II to the Catholic Church’s response to the 0
Environmental Crisis


Redemptor Hominis (1979) 1
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On Social Concern (1987) 1
The Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace 1
Centesimus Annus: On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (1991) 2
Ecumenical Declarations and the Call to Ecological Conversion 2

CARSON, R., Silent Spring, New York, 1962.

DENT, A. OSB (ed.), Ecology and Faith – The Writings of Pope John Paul II,
Berkhamsted, 1997.

ECHLIN, E., Earth Spirituality – Jesus at the Centre, Berkhamsted, 1999.

ECHLIN, E., The Cosmic Circle – Jesus and Ecology, Blackrock, Co. Dublin,

FLANNERY, A. OP (ed.), Vatican Council II – The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents,

Volume 1, Dublin, 1975.

GRANBERG- Redeeming the Creation – The Rio Earth Summit, Challenges for
MICHAELSON, G., the Churches, Geneva, 1992.

HESSEL, D., and Earth Habitat – Eco-Injustice and the Church’s Response,
RASMUSSEN, L., (eds), Minneapolis, 2001.

HOUGH, A., God is not ‘Green’ – A Re-examination of Eco-Theology,

Leominster, 1997.

JOHN PAUL II Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Hominis, London, 1979.

JOHN PAUL II Gift and Mystery, London, 1996.

JOHN PAUL II Memory and Identity, Personal Reflections, London, 2005.

JOHN PAUL II Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,

London, 1984.

JOHN PAUL II Roman Triptych – Meditations, London 2003.

McDONAGH, S., The Death of Life – The Horror of Extinction, Blackrock, Co. Dublin,

McDONAGH, S., The Greening of the Church, London, 1990.

McNEILL, J., Something New Under The Sun: an environmental history

of the twentieth-century world, London, 2000.

MOLTMANN, J., God in Creation, An Ecological Doctrine of Creation, London, 1995.

NORTHCOTT, M., The Environment and Christian Ethics, Cambridge, 1996.

O’BRIEN, T. and Catholic Social Thought – The Documentary Heritage, New York,
SHANNON, A., 1992.

PONTIFICAL COUNCIL Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, London, 2004.

SCHAEFFER, F.A., Pollution and the Death of Man – The Christian View of
Ecology, Wheaton, Illinois, 1970.

All Scripture quotations are taken from The Jerusalem Bible, London, 1966.


BENEDICT XVI The Human Family, A Community of Peace – Message for the 2008
World Day of Peace, L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican, 19 December,
pp.8 – 9.

JOHN PAUL II And God Saw That It Was Good – Message for the 1990 World Day
of Peace, reproduced in The Pope Speaks, Vol. 35, Vatican, 1990.
pp. 200 – 206.

JOHN PAUL II and Common Declaration on the Environment, June 10, 2002.

MEANS, R., Why Worry about Nature?, Saturday Review, December 2, 1967
reproduced in F.A. SCHAEFFER, Pollution and the Death of Man –
The Christian View of Ecology, Wheaton, Illinois, 1970, pp. 117-125.

WHITE, L. Jr, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, reproduced in F.A.
SCHAEFFER, Pollution and the Death of Man – The Christian View
of Ecology, Wheaton, Illinois, 1970, pp. 97-115.




In 1962, as the Catholic Church was preparing for the inauguration of the Second Vatican
Council, another event of radical importance took place across the ocean in the United States.
This was the year when Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and respected American science
writer, published Silent Spring – a book which exposed the catastrophic effects of the use of toxic
pesticides such as DDT on the entire ecosystem, including humans.
Although a scientist herself, Carson challenged the uncritical post-war attitude which saw
human progress in terms of scientific and technological dominion over nature. She argued, by
presenting detailed case studies of the damage to the environment caused by toxic chemicals, that
man in his arrogance had forgotten that he was a part of nature and not above nature. Intoxicated
with his own sense of power, man, Carson argued, was blindly and arrogantly engaged in the
destruction of his world and ultimately himself as technology was allowed to move on a faster
trajectory than mankind’s sense of moral responsibility. The central symbol in Carson’s book of
this human destruction of nature is the eerie silence of a Spring with no birdsong or fish leaping
in the streams – all silenced by a barrage of poisons indiscriminately released into the ecosystem
for the purpose of killing a few weeds or troublesome insects. As Carson writes in her
The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of
air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. The chain of evil it
initiates is for the most part irreversible...chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or
gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in
a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams
until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new
forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink
from once pure wells.1

Carson was able to prove this last point – the contamination of the human body by what
were meant to be programmes of pesticide control – by presenting research results showing that
the milk of breast-feeding mothers in the USA was contaminated with DDT. Silent Spring
sparked a national debate on the use of chemical pesticides – a debate which resulted in a ban on
1 R. CARSON, Silent Spring, New York 1962 (revised ed. 2002), p. 6.
the domestic production of DDT and the creation of a grass-roots movement demanding
protection of the environment through state and federal regulations. Her writing stirred an
awakening of public environmental consciousness by highlighting the disastrous consequences of
human disregard for the interdependence of all life. The publication of Silent Spring is now seen
as a defining moment in the launch of the modern environmental movement – a cause for which
Carson was not only a prophet but also a martyr, dying from breast cancer just over a year after
publishing Silent Spring.
Yet to use such religious imagery to describe Carson’s work is not to suggest that hers
was a voice which spoke from the Christian tradition. She wrote and campaigned with an
evangelist’s zeal but without in any way rooting her arguments in a Christian understanding of
man’s God-given responsibility to act as a steward of creation. Carson based her argument on
empirical evidence of case studies detailing the damage caused by pesticide programmes over a
number of years in the USA and beyond, combined with her own eloquent love of nature. For a
Christian reader, Silent Spring is a humbling and challenging book – a reminder that not only
does Christianity not have a monopoly on ideas such as communion, examination of conscience
and reverence for creation but that also it has much to learn from the prophetic voices of others.
It can at least be said that Carson is not opposed to Christianity – it simply does not
feature explicitly in her landscape. The same cannot be said for another American environmental
campaigner writing in the 1960’s, Lynn White Jr., a professor of history at the University of
California. In an influential and much-discussed article published in Science magazine in 1967
entitled The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis White argued that the environmental crisis is
Christianity’s fault. Ironically, just as Carson is critical of the scientific community while herself
being a scientist, so White condemns Christianity while describing himself as “a churchman”. He
argues that although we no longer live in a Christian world, but a post-Christian one, nevertheless
we still retain a “Christian mentality” in our attitudes and behaviour towards the environment.
White traces the Christian burden of guilt back to the Creation stories of Genesis in which,
according to White’s interpretation, God is seen as creating nature:
...explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any
purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he
is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image.2

White describes Christianity, as a consequence of these founding attitudes, as “the most

anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”3 This has established at the heart of Christianity,
White argues, a dualism of man and nature in which it seems to be God’s will that man exploit
nature for his own ends. White points to the reverence for nature which is at the heart of ancient
paganism, whereby every tree, spring, stream and hill was believed to have its own sacred spirit.
Christianity’s destruction of pagan animism, White argues, made it possible for ‘Christian

cultures’ to “exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” 4 White
concludes that modern science and technology, especially in the West, developed out of the
tradition of Christian natural theology and therefore their fundamentally exploitative and
ecologically-destructive attitudes are informed by this Christian contempt for nature. If this
argument is accepted, it means that, in White’s words, “Christianity bears a huge burden of

guilt.”5 White sees little difference between those logging companies which in our own times are
destroying tropical rainforests for profit and Christian missionaries who “for nearly two
millennia... have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume

spirit in nature.”6

This is a damning indictment of Christianity. The only path of redemption which White is
able to offer to a Christian reader is his identification of an alternative attitude towards nature
within the Christian tradition. This tradition, White argues, finds its greatest expression in the
example of St Francis who, in contrast to the dominant Christian attitudes described above, rooted
his life in the virtue of humility, not only for the individual but for man as a species:

2 WHITE, L. JR, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, reproduced in SCHAEFFER, F.A., Pollution and the
Death of Man – The Christian View of Ecology, Wheaton, Illinois, 1970, p 107.

3 WHITE, L. JR, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, reproduced in SCHAEFFER, F.A., Pollution and the
Death of Man – The Christian View of Ecology, Wheaton, Illinois, 1970, p 107.
4 Ibid. p.108.
5 Ibid p.111.
6 Ibid. p. 112.
Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy
for all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer a homily for the lazy, flames a
sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and
Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.7

White portrays Francis as a spiritual revolutionary, a rebel against the forces of

technological domination over nature which were beginning to take hold in the Western medieval
world. Yet Francis’ alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it is one which,
White argues, has been largely suppressed by the Church. This forces White to conclude:

We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian
axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man... Both our present
science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance
toward nature that no solution for our ecological crisis can be expected from them

Yet White does concede that just as the causes of the crisis are religious so the remedy
must also embrace a religious dimension as the way we behave is rooted in what we believe about
ourselves and the world around us. This means that there is a need for a fundamental
transformation in human thinking. For this, White suggests a return to the spirituality of St
Francis, whom he proposes as the most worthy patron saint for ecologists.

White’s argument is undoubtedly an over-simplification and caricature of the Christian

tradition. He completely ignores, for instance, the beneficial influence of monasticism on the
agricultural development of Medieval Catholic Europe, which Sean McDonagh describes as “a
social and agricultural system reflecting a spirituality of nature and land which was marked by

gratitude for creation as the gift of God, and a careful quest to nurture its natural fruitfulness.”9
However, there is much in White’s provocative article which demands of the Church a soul-
searching examination of conscience as regards her contribution to the ecological crisis.
Just as Silent Spring was published on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, so White’s
article was published just after the close of the Council. If we are looking to repudiate the validity
7 Ibid. p. 113.
8WHITE, L. JR, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, reproduced in SCHAEFFER, F.A., Pollution and the
Death of Man – The Christian View of Ecology, Wheaton, Illinois, 1970, p 114.
9 S. McDONAGH, To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology, London, 1986, p.130.
of White’s thesis, surely the Council documents themselves are an appropriate representation of
the Catholic voice of that decade in which to search for what the Church herself says about the
environment. What a reading of the Council documents reveals is that rather than promoting a
theology of man’s exploitation of the environment for his own ends, as White would have us
believe, the Church simply has little or nothing to say about humanity’s relationship to the rest of
creation. The one explicit reference to creation is found in The Pastoral Constitution on the
Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, in which we read:
By the work of his hands and with the aid of technical means man tills the earth to bring
forth fruit and to make it a dwelling place fit for all mankind; so doing he is realizing
the design, which God revealed at the beginning of time, to subdue the earth and perfect
the work of creation, and at the same time he is improving his own person.10

There is no sense here of a mutually sustaining relationship between humanity and the rest
of creation or of the need to protect the environment from irresponsible human behaviour. The
“world” in Gaudium et Spes and in the Council documents in general means the human world – a
profoundly anthropocentric attitude indeed. There is a silence within the Church at this time about
the environment. Yet it is an omission in what otherwise is a sincere attempt by the Church to
face up to the challenges of the day, as is expressed so eloquently in the famous opening words of
Gaudium et Spes:
The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who
are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the
followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their

The Council Fathers did explicitly consider the relationship between the wholeness of the
human person and the rest of creation. The Church’s silence is not of the same nature as the
intentional contamination of the ecosystem as chronicled in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring but
one which is simply caused by a blindness – a failure to see that the destruction of the natural
world by human activity will inevitably cause grief and anguish not only to the rest of creation
but to humanity itself and therefore should be of real concern to “the followers of Christ.”
There is one observation which needs to be made at this point. While the Church in its
understanding of the world as revealed in the Council documents is undoubtedly deeply
10 VATICAN II, Gaudium et Spes, n. 57.
11 Ibid, n. 1.
anthropocentric, as White would subsequently argue, this tendency does need to be seen within
the context of a wider failing of human thinking at this time. In an article published in the
Saturday Review of December 2, 1967, Richard L. Means, an associate professor of sociology at
the University of Michigan, responded to Lynn White’s article with the following observation:
Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “The greatest fault of all ethics hitherto has been that they
believed themselves to have to deal only with the relation of man to man.” Modern
ethical discussion does not seem to have removed itself very far from this fallacy.12

This is an important insight – the anthropocentric focus of the Church in the 1960’s was
one shared by society in general at the time, including the worlds of politics, ethics and
economics. Voices such as that of Rachel Carson were isolated prophetic appeals to society to
expand its understanding of what it means to be fully human and of the immense responsibility
which humanity bears to protect the natural world or otherwise be destroyed by its own
selfishness and arrogance.
During the almost half a century since the work of Carson and others to awaken humanity
to its ecological failings, the true extent of the environmental catastrophe facing the planet has
become more widely understood and accepted. The accelerating and interrelated problems of
global warming and climate change, the depletion of the world’s natural resources and pollution
of the atmosphere as well as the daily destruction and extinction of whole ecosystems and
plant/animal species are now matters of urgent political, social and economic concern. Humanity
is finally having to face up to the fact that in its greed and desire to control nature, man is
increasingly at the mercy of natural forces in an environment which is rapidly spinning out of
control. This is a critical moment for humanity and all of creation. There is also a growing
understanding that the crisis is essentially a moral crisis and therefore it is through a change of
attitudes and not through scientific and technological advances that a solution will be found. This
therefore is a time for the Church to redeem herself by contributing her moral voice to the debate
and thereby assuming a prophetic role in a situation in which politicians, business leaders and
scientists seem unable to go beyond the limitations of self-interest in their responses to the
ecological crisis.

12 R. L. MEANS, Why Worry about Nature?, Saturday Review, December 2, 1967 reproduced in F.A.
SCHAEFFER, Pollution and the Death of Man – The Christian View of Ecology, Wheaton, Illinois, 1970, p.117.
This paper will therefore explore how the Church’s teaching on the environment has
developed in recent years and to what extent she has indeed redeemed herself for the silence and
anthropocentricity of her past.



If we are to trace the development of the Church’s response to environmental issues, then
it is within the Church’s tradition of social teaching that this development will be most clearly
seen. Modern Catholic Social Teaching (CST) originates from the late nineteenth century – the
era when the full impact and consequences of the Industrial Revolution on society and
individuals began to be felt. It will be interesting to explore at what point CST began to recognise
that industrialisation had damaging consequences not only for humanity but also for the rest of
the natural world.

LEO XIII, Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of the Working Classes (1891)

Described as “the Magna Carta upon which all Christian activity in the social field ought to
be based”13, Leo XIII’s encyclical marked the first major step by the Magisterium in the post-
Industrial Revolution era towards putting the Church on the side of the poor and the working
class. Written at a time of political, economic and social unrest, Rerum Novarum (hereafter RN)
sets out to defend the dignity and fundamental rights of the working classes, principally by
rejecting the false theories of socialism and appealing for a return to Christian morals. RN argues
that socialism degrades and enslaves the working classes and the poor, yet there is no suggestion
that the earth’s environment has been similarly despoiled by the rise of industrialism and modern
economic practices. Nature instead is presented as an ever-dependable and ever-renewable
resource in a treacherous and unstable world:
…dominion not only over the fruits of the earth, but also over the earth itself, ought to
rest in man, since he sees that things necessary for the future are furnished him out of the
produce of the earth. The needs of every man are subject, as it were, to constant
recurrences, so that satisfied today, they make new demands tomorrow. Therefore nature
necessarily gives man something stable and perpetually lasting on which he can count for

13 PIUS XI Quadragesimo Anno, n. 39, in D O’BRIEN and T. SHANNON (eds), Catholic Social Thought – The
Documentary History, Maryknoll, N.Y., 1992, p.50.
continuous support. Nothing can give continuous support of this kind save the earth with
its great abundance. (n.12)

RN does at least recognise that there is a mutuality in the relationship between nature and
humanity – nature can “preserve and perfect life” but it, in turn, depends on human cultivation
and care in order to achieve its true potential:
The earth produces in great abundance the things to preserve and, especially, to perfect
life, but of itself it could not produce them without cultivation and care. Moreover, since
man expends his mental energy and his bodily strength in procuring the goods of nature,
by this very act he appropriates that part of physical nature to himself which he has
cultivated. On it he leaves impressed, as it were, a kind of image of his own person, so
that it must be altogether just that he should possess that part as his very own. (n.15)

Strikingly, there is in the above words an early echo of the modern idea of humanity’s
“ecological footprint”, yet in RN this imprint is seen as being entirely benevolent for human
activity is seen as perfecting nature:
The land, surely, that has been worked by the hand and the art of the tiller greatly changes
in aspect. The wilderness is made fruitful; the barren field, fertile. (n.16)

It is clear that RN simply does not recognise the damage which ever-expanding
industrialisation had begun to have on the environment. Yet this is not so much a failing of the
encyclical itself as a blindness of the times in which it was written when people were unable to
look beyond a purely anthropocentric view of the world. The focus of RN is on the dignity of the
human person with little or no reference to the natural environment. However the encyclical does
establish an approach to issues of social justice which will later become central to the ecological
debate. This approach is to be found in RN’s insistence on stressing the connection between
economic/political development and morality and on the need for a return to Christian virtues:
The Church calls men to and trains them in virtue. For when Christian morals are
completely observed, they... restrain the twin plagues of life – excessive desire for wealth
and thirst for pleasure – which too often make man wretched amidst the very abundance
of riches, and because finally, Christian morals make men content with a moderate
livelihood and make them supplement income by thrift… (n.42)

PIUS XI, Quadragesimo Anno: On the Reconstruction of the Social Order (1931)
Written on the fortieth anniversary of RN, Quadragesimo Anno (hereafter QA) reiterates
many of the basic principles of its predecessor as well as its condemnation of communism and
socialism. However Pius went much further than Leo had done in his criticism of capitalism, the
worst excesses of which he describes as “despotic economic dictatorship” (n.105). This criticism
is undoubtedly informed by the contemporary context of the Wall Street crash and ensuing
economic depression with its unprecedented levels of unemployment. In the face of this apparent
near-social breakdown, Pius went beyond the call for mere economic reform to press for social
and political change. In this he focused on the basic causes of injustice and poverty rather than
merely expressing outrage at their effect and thus called for the Church to assume a prophetic
role in society by fulfilling the role of moral guide.
Pius also expressed a more developed concern for the common good, by which private
property is not to serve personal greed but is to be held in stewardship for the benefit of all.
Crucially Pius recognised that unjust structures play a significant role in the suffering of the poor
(e.g. nn. 77-8) and so individual conversion and charity by themselves will not bring about a
“Christian reconstruction of human society” (n.147). The changes necessary to bring about this
reconstruction are the “reform of institutions and correction of morals” (n.77). Such reforms, both
individual and institutional, will ensure that:
The sordid love of wealth, which is the shame and great sin of our age, will be opposed in
actual fact by the gentle yet effective law of Christian moderation which commands men
to seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, with the assurance that by virtue of
God’s kindness and unfailing promise, temporal goods also, in so far as he has need of
them, shall be given him besides. (n.136)

Thus Christianity is seen as offering an antidote to both institutional and personal greed, an
antidote which through the promotion of virtues such as moderation, thrift and prudence would
logically have obvious benefits for the environment. However, as in RN, the need to protect the
environment is not yet identified in QA as a concern of Catholic social teaching.

JOHN XXIII, Mater et Magistra: Christianity and Social Progress (1961)

Given the events which had shaken the world during the thirty years since QA, Mater et
Magistra (hereafter MM) addressed a radically altered political, social and economic landscape.
Yet despite the new challenges of the 1960’s – the end of colonialism and the rise of the
ideological divisions of the Cold War – John XXIII speaks with an optimistic voice, confident
that the technical and scientific advances of the modern world could transform society:
In the field of science, technology and economics we have the discovery of nuclear energy,
and its application first to the purposes of war and later, increasingly, to peaceful ends; the
practically limitless possibilities of chemistry in the production of synthetic materials; the
growth of automation in industry and public services; the modernisation of agriculture; the
easing of communications, especially by radio and television; faster transportation and the
initial conquest of interplanetary space.(n.47).

The dangers of this unquestioning trust in scientific and technological advances of a

power never previously known to humanity would be exposed by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring
just a year later. Certainly today there would be a much more ambivalent attitude to the above
developments - indeed many, such as faster transportation and the modernisation of agriculture,
would be identified as being among the main contributors to the environmental crisis. Yet John
XXIII speaks with the uncritical, optimistic voice of his times, which saw science and technology
as a means to achieving human self-fulfilment, partly through domination over the forces of
There is, however, a recognition that all is not well, such as in the increasing disparity
between the economic wealth of different countries and regions in the world. In response to this
growing imbalance, John reaffirms and develops the principle of subsidiarity, first formulated in
CST by Pius XI in QA, whereby the importance of, whenever possible, making all decisions
locally is promoted in opposition to political and economic centralisation.
A new development in MM, perhaps because of John’s own rural roots, is a concern for
the needs of agriculture and rural populations rather than a focus purely on industrial workers.
MM begins to address “the peculiar difficulties of farmers” (n. 133), which naturally includes
humanity’s relationship to nature:
Those who live on the land can hardly fail to appreciate the nobility of the work they are
called upon to do. They are living in close harmony with Nature – the majestic temple of
Creation. Their work has to do with the life of plants and animals, a life that is
inexhaustible in its expression, inflexible in its laws, rich in allusions to God the Creator
and Provider. They produce food for the support of human life, and the raw materials of
industry in ever richer supply. (n.144).
There is in these words absolutely no sense of the limited resources of nature and
therefore the damage of over-exploiting these resources. This fundamental attitude is repeated
with reference to the potential problem of human over-population. Although MM does recognise
that dramatic growth in human population over the coming decades is a real possibility, it is
dismissive of those who see in this growth a significant threat to human prosperity:
The resources which God in His goodness has implanted in Nature are well-nigh
inexhaustible, and He has at the same time given man the intelligence to discover ways and
means of exploiting these resources for his own advantage and his own livelihood. Hence,
the real solution is …to be found in …a renewed scientific and technical effort on man’s
part to deepen and extend his dominion over Nature. The progress of science and
technology that has already been achieved opens up almost limitless horizons in this field.
(n. 189)

How naïve and misguided these words sound now in their attitude towards Nature, which
is once again portrayed as inexhaustible in its capacity to regenerate and provide for the needs of
humanity. This is still a profoundly anthropocentric view in which humanity’s relationship to the
earth is portrayed in terms of dominion and control rather than stewardship and care:
Modern man has greatly deepened and extended his knowledge of nature’s laws, and has
harnessed the forces of nature, making them subservient to his ends. The magnitude of his
achievements deserves ungrudging admiration; nor is he yet at the end of his resources.
(n. 242)

PAUL VI, Populorum Progressio: On the Development of Peoples (1967)

Populorum Progressio (hereafter PP) marks a significant development in Catholic social

teaching by recognising that social injustice is a world-wide issue, in which the Church is called
first and foremost to respond to the suffering of the poor, who are defined as “…those peoples
who are striving to escape from hunger, misery, endemic diseases and ignorance” (n.1).
Paul writes with an urgency informed by his own journeys to areas of the world deeply
affected by poverty and injustice - Latin America, Africa and India. In particular he highlights
“…the scandal of glaring inequalities not merely in the enjoyment of possessions but even more
in the exercise of power.” (n.9). This emphasis not only on disparities of wealth but also of power
is central to PP, which recognises that it is power which enables the rich to become richer by
forcing the weak to make trading agreements and conform to economic systems which are
inherently unjust. Paul goes much deeper than any of his predecessors in analysing the causes of
poverty, recognising, for example, that one legacy of colonialism is that many of the poorest
countries have been left dependent on a single export crop. This puts their entire economy at the
mercy of decision-makers in developed nations.
Paul argues that, in the face of such extreme injustice, individual conversion and charity is
no longer enough – what is also needed is a reform of unjust structures, such as international
financial and trading systems. He exposes the prevailing wrong attitudes of unchecked liberalism,
showing that the so-called ‘free-market’ is anything but free and ensures, instead, that “…the
poorer nations remain ever poor while the rich ones become still richer.” (n.57) Paul boldly
proposes a new approach to international relations and economics based on a global solidarity
which prioritises the needs of the poorest countries. In this he saw the possibility for the full
human development of each person and all peoples:
It is a question of building a world where every man, no matter what his race, religion or
nationality, can live a fully human life, freed from servitude imposed on him by other
men or by natural forces over which he has not sufficient control; a world where freedom
is not an empty word and where the poor man Lazarus can sit down at the same table with
the rich man. (n.47)

At the heart of Paul’s insight is his widening of the understanding of poverty beyond mere
material impoverishment to include such ideas as powerlessness, lack of access to education and
cultural opportunities, and the denial of religious freedom. This in turn necessarily transforms our
understanding of authentic development beyond mere economic growth to embrace the whole
human person. This is a highly significant moment in the development of Catholic social teaching
– a moment when the magisterium raises its eyes and looks into the eyes of all humanity and is
no longer limited by ties of geographical location, social position or religion (e.g. see n.39 for the
need for co-operation with non-Catholic organisations).
However, it needs to be recognised that the encyclical still does not include in its
understanding of the whole human person the need for a clean and protected environment. There
is, for example, no explicit reference in PP to the negative effects of bad development on the
environment. The encyclical still presents an essentially anthropocentric way of looking at the
troubles of the world, although there is at least a recognition that technology and science can be
both causes and cures of unjust development. It should also be noted that when creation is
referred to, there is a significant change in language away from a vocabulary of human
domination over nature towards a greater stress on mutuality and stewardship:
Humanity, created in the image of God, must co-operate with his/her Creator in the
perfecting of creation and communicate to the earth the spiritual imprint he/she has
received. God, who has endowed humanity with intelligence, imagination and sensitivity,
has also given him/her the means of completing His work in a certain way: whether they
be an artist or craftsman, engaged in management, industry or agriculture, each person is a
creator. (n.27)

PAUL VI, Octogesima Adveniens: A Call to Action on the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum
Novarum ( 1971)

Written to mark the eightieth anniversary of RN, Octogesima Adveniens (hereafter OA)
seeks to “…take up again and to extend the teaching of our predecessors in response to the new
needs of a changing world.” (n. 1) One of the “new needs” identified in OA is urbanisation,
recognising that the traditional rural way of life is weakening, leading to mass migration to urban
areas “…where neither employment nor housing awaits them.” (n.8). In his analysis Paul VI
presents an ambivalent attitude towards this trend of increasing industrialisation:
The inordinate growth of these centres accompanies industrial expansion, without being
identified with it. Based on technological research and the transformation of nature,
industrialisation constantly goes forward, giving proof of incessant creativity. (n. 9)

The choice of vocabulary here: ‘transformation’, ‘creativity’ certainly excludes any

explicit suggestion that such industrialisation could in fact be harmful to the environment, even
though urbanisation is identified as a “new social problem”. The underlying attitude to man’s
relationship to nature is perhaps expressed in a comment which does not deal directly with the
Man is experiencing a new loneliness; it is not in the face of a hostile nature which it has
taken him centuries to subdue, but in an anonymous crowd which surrounds him and in
which he feels himself a stranger. (n. 10)

Thus nature is seen as being ‘hostile’, a force which needs to be ‘subdued’ by man. There
is no suggestion of mutual dependence here.
On the other hand, OA does recognise, in contrast to the attitude of John XXIII in MM,
that science and technology do not necessarily hold all the solutions to humanity’s problems and
are not to be accepted uncritically: “Having subdued nature by using his reason, man now finds
that he himself is, as it were, imprisoned within his own rationality; he in turn becomes the object
of science.” (n.38). Furthermore, in the face of the dominant individualism of the age, Paul VI
lays great stress on the need for greater human solidarity, including a preferential option for the
poor who should always be the Church’s primary concern.
Most significantly, in the context of this essay, OA does represent a defining moment in
the Church’s teaching on the environment. For in the encyclical’s presentation of ‘new social
problems’ there is a sub-section entitled “The Environment”, which for the first time in the
writings of the magisterium in the tradition of Catholic social teaching recognises the threat of
human activity to the environment:
Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks
destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the
material environment becoming a permanent menace – pollution and refuse, new illness
and absolute destructive capacity – but the human framework is no longer under man’s
control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is
a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family. (n. 21)

These words signal the end of the belief that creation is an inexhaustibly renewable
resource at the service of human development. This is indeed a significant moment and yet, at the
same time, it needs to be recognised that this is still an essentially anthropocentric way of seeing
the problem. Man is portrayed as the destroyer but also as the victim of nature, rather than
recognising the impact of human destruction on other species and environments. Yet the problem
of the environment has finally been recognised and named as an issue which demands serious
reflection and a response from Christians who “…must turn to these new perceptions in order to
take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared
by all.” (n.21)


What is striking from this brief survey of Catholic social teaching from RN to OA is that
on a great variety of issues the Church has been able to speak with a distinct, prophetic and
counter-cultural voice by counteracting the prevailing, largely self-serving political ideologies
and economic systems of successive generations. It has done this by calling humanity to radical
reform in the following seven key areas:
1) The fundamental promotion of human dignity and welfare as the starting
point for all political, economic and social endeavour.
2) The promotion of Christian virtues of moderation and charity and thus the
rejection of greed and selfishness.
3) The promotion of models of co-operation, solidarity and a concern for the
common good rather than confrontational relationships such as class struggles
and racism.
4) The promotion of a preferential option for the poor rather than a self-serving
concern for the needs of the rich and the powerful.
5) The promotion of the principle and practice of subsidiarity in opposition to
the prevailing trends towards centralisation and globalisation.
6) The campaign to see authentic development not in purely economic terms but
as concerning the whole human person and all people.
7) The promotion of human obligations and not only human rights.

However it is also clear that, in the first eighty years of modern Catholic social teaching,
this counter-cultural stance did not include a defence of creation in the face of human destruction
of the environment. As shown above, the perception expressed in RN that nature is something
“stable and perpetually lasting”, an ever-renewable resource which is to ‘perfected’ by human
activity, remained unchallenged until the 1960’s. The Church speaks with the prevailing language
of the times by describing humanity’s relationship to the environment in terms of domination
whereby nature is seen as a hostile force which needs to be subdued. There is certainly no
recognition of the possibly irreparable damage done to the environment since the rise of
industrialisation and of the effects of this destruction on humanity and creation as a whole.
However, these perceptions begin to change with the widening of the horizons of Catholic
social teaching in PP with the embrace of a truly global perspective, although even here the key
concepts of authentic development and the common good still do not include the understanding
of the fundamental human need for a clean environment. It is only with OA, at the beginning of
the 1970’s, that the threat of human activity to the environment is explicitly named, even though
humanity’s relationship to nature is still at times expressed in terms of domination and
subjugation. It is still an essentially anthropocentric way of seeing the problem with no
recognition of the effects of human activity on other species and yet, at last, there is an
understanding that the problems of the environment should be of concern to “the followers of
Christ”, who bear a responsibility for the care of the earth. This recognition has not as yet
developed into a systematic theology of the environment or proposals for practical action – these
are challenges which would await Paul VI’s successor. And thus it is to John Paul II’s response to
these environmental challenges which this paper will now turn.




The election of John Paul II in October 1978 came at a critical time for the development
of an ecological awareness within CST. As environmental concerns began to claim a more central
position in political, social and economic debate from the 1960’s onwards, Christians showed
themselves to be largely latecomers, rather than pioneers, in these matters. The World Council of
Churches, for example, only began to talk of “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation” at its
Vancouver conference in 1983.
The Catholic Church in 1978, as shown in chapter one, had certainly not progressed very
far in its own response to the growing ecological crisis. John Paul inherited a tradition which was
struggling to develop from its largely anthropocentric focus and certainly struggling to find its
own authentic and distinctive voice within the ecological debate. The aim of this chapter is to
show that John Paul II, in the twenty eight years of his pontificate, did indeed make a significant
and transforming contribution to the Church’s developing tradition of ecological awareness. This
was a contribution which John Paul II expressed in both word and action.


Redemptor Hominis (1979)

John Paul II published his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (hereafter RH), on the
fourth of March, 1979, the first Sunday of Lent, within six months of being elected pope. He
begins his encyclical by declaring, with reference to his choice of papal name, his deep affection
for his immediate predecessor, John Paul I, as well as “…my love for the unique inheritance left
to the Church by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and my personal readiness to develop that
inheritance with God’s help.” (n.2) This inheritance he explicitly identifies as the work of the
Second Vatican Council, convened and opened by John XXIII and “later successfully concluded
and perseveringly put into effect by Paul VI” (n.3).
John Paul highlights in RH the main themes of this ‘inheritance’ which loom most
urgently in this post-Conciliar period – a period which he describes as “this new advent of the
Church” as she prepares for the approaching Jubilee of the year 2000. He identifies these
principal themes as: 1) the need to understand ever more clearly the identity and mission of the
Church (including responding to the Council’s call for the need for greater collegiality within the
Church); 2) the need for a new evangelisation; 3) the need to be faithful and persistent in
responding to the Council’s call for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; 4) the renewal of fidelity
to the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. In addition to these concerns, John Paul also
writes with considerable urgency about the social, political and economic problems of the day,
reaffirming the foundational principles of CST such as the need for effective solidarity between
people and nations (n.16), the need for true human freedom and peace (n.16), the importance of
pursuing authentic development (n.15) and the common good (n.17). In all of the above John
Paul calls upon the Church to be rooted in the mystery of Christ the Redeemer, who “fully
reveals man to himself”14.

14 VATICAN II, Gaudium et Spes, n.22.

However, it is striking that in RH John Paul weaves into his analysis of the above themes
a recurring concern for the problems of the environment. Thus, he observes that:
…exploitation of the earth not only for industrial but also for military purposes and the
uncontrolled development of technology …often bring with them a threat to man’s natural
environment, alienate him in his relations with nature and remove him from nature. Man
often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for
immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should
communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master” and “guardian”, and not as
a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer”.15

Within the tradition of CST this is a new way of talking about the environment,
recognising the damage caused by man’s alienation from the rest of nature. Moreover, John Paul
goes beyond merely identifying the problem to analysing its causes. He looks beyond the failings
of the political and economic systems currently dominant in the world, and beyond the
irresponsible use of technology and exploitative modern industrial and agricultural practices and
gazes into the human soul itself. Firstly he notes the deep disquiet which affects the human soul
at the end of the second millennium:
Man lives increasingly in fear. He is afraid that what he produces…can radically turn
against himself; he is afraid that it can become the means and instrument for an
unimaginable self-destruction... Why is it that the power given to man from the beginning
by which he was to subdue the earth turns against himself, producing an understandable
state of disquiet, of conscious or unconscious fear and of menace?16

This fear, he argues, comes from the failure to underpin technological developments with
the necessary moral and ethical development. Man, who was created to be God’s co-creator in the
world, is increasingly becoming slave to his own invention. True human progress, John Paul
argues, would make man “more mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of his humanity,
more responsible, more open to others, especially the neediest and the weakest” (n.15). Surveying
the grave moral disorder which he sees in the contemporary world, John Paul concludes that
humanity, despite its apparent technological progress, is in fact regressing spiritually and morally.
This interior sickness is manifested, for example, in an unhealthy materialism which values
‘having’ over ‘being’, in increasing selfishness and in the domination of personal interests over

15 JOHN PAUL II, Redemptor Hominis, London, 1979, n.15.

16 JOHN PAUL II, Redemptor Hominis,n.15
the common good. John Paul notes that: “A civilisation purely materialistic in outline condemns
man to slavery...” (n. 16)
Gazing into the human soul, John Paul ultimately identifies humanity’s deepest malaise as
the loss of respect for the dignity and value of human life. It is this blindness to the worth of
every individual and all peoples which he blames for the horrors of the twentieth century:
…the welfare of man – or, let us say, of the person in the community – must, as a
fundamental factor in the common good, constitute the essential criterion for all
programmes, systems and regimes. If the opposite happens, human life is, even in times
of peace, condemned to various sufferings and there is a development of various forms of
domination, totalitarianism, neo-colonialism and imperialism, which are a threat also to
the harmonious living together of nations. (n.17)

Amongst the forms of domination which are a consequence of this contempt for human
life is the destruction of the natural environment which is likewise seen as something to be used
or abused according to selfish individual or group needs. Once the sanctity of human life is
violated, John Paul argues, all forms of life are at risk.
John Paul is writing here in response to the Council’s fundamental question, “What is
man?” 17 - the answer to which determines our understanding of the dignity and worth of the
human person. Conscious of the shadow which atheism has cast over the human soul, John Paul
writes with obvious reference to the concern of the Council fathers expressed in Gaudium et Spes
over the harmful effects of atheism “…which casts man down from the noble state to which he is
born.” 18 The Council fathers asserted that “[human] dignity is grounded and brought to
perfection in God.”19 – a belief which John Paul clearly perceives needs to be reasserted with
great urgency at the end of the twentieth century. The Council fathers had also recognised the
essential restlessness of the human soul - “every man remains a question to himself”20 - and had
declared in response that: “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the
mystery of man truly becomes clear.” (GS, 22) This is the essential teaching which John Paul
desires to hold up as the foundation stone for his pontificate for, as he states in the opening words
of RH: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.” (n.1)

17 VATICAN II, Gaudium et Spes, n.12.

18 Ibid, n.21.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
In response to this degradation of humanity, John Paul seeks in RH to re-assert human
dignity and for this he once more draws inspiration from the teaching of the Second Vatican
Council and in particular those chapters of Lumen Gentium which concern man’s “kingship”, that
is to say his call to share in the kingly function of Christ himself 21. With clear reference to the
creation narratives of Genesis, John Paul states:
The essential meaning of this “kingship” and “dominion” of man over the visible world,
which the Creator himself gave man for his task, consists in the priority of ethics over
technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over
matter. (RH, n. 16)

This “kingship” of each individual, established by God at the creation of the world, has
been confirmed by Jesus Christ, who, through his Incarnation, united himself with every human
and called them to share in his kingly ministry. The fundamental challenge for humanity at the end
of the second millennium, John Paul argues, is to be found in “…rediscovering in oneself and
others the special dignity of our vocation that can be described as “kingship”. (n.21)
Through rediscovering its essential dignity, humanity will necessarily reawaken in itself a
sense of moral responsibility and solidarity. Likewise, John Paul argues that through once again
taking up his God-given role as ‘king’ within creation (but crucially a king who serves rather than
dominates), man will once more come into right relationship with the environment and the rest of
creation. This is the crucial contribution of John Paul II to the ecological debate – not only to
identify environmental destruction and name it as an issue to which Christians have a moral
responsibility to respond but to go deeper still and to connect the environmental problem with its
fundamental cause – humanity’s increasing disregard for the sanctity of human life and, as a
consequence, for the sanctity of all forms of life in creation. John Paul argues that it is only
through restoring respect for human life, created in the image and likeness of God and incarnated
in the person of Jesus Christ, that humanity will be able to reverse its destruction of the natural
environment and reclaim its God-given role as steward of creation.
Finally, John Paul turns to the essential role of the Church in bringing about this spiritual
and moral reawakening in our increasingly disordered world. If, through the Incarnation, Jesus
Christ has united himself with every person, then, John Paul argues:

21 c.f. VATICAN COUNCIL II: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, nn.10 and 36.
The Church therefore sees its fundamental task in enabling that union to be brought about
and renewed continually. The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person
may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life,
with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of
the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that
truth. (RH, n.13)

The Church must be ever more deeply aware of this identity and mission. Through her
faithfulness to her mission, the Church can help the world to rediscover the dignity of the whole
human person, a vital element of which, John Paul makes clear in RH, is living in right
relationship with the natural environment as “a noble and intelligent “master” and “guardian”, and
not as a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer””. In this return to man’s God-given role to act a
responsible steward of creation, humanity must learn to once again imitate Christ, the Redeemer
of man and the Redeemer of the world.

I have written at some length about RH because it is the foundational document, not only
of John Paul’s pontificate, but also of his contribution towards the environmental debate. For here
he sets out his fundamental approach to the issue which will inform his subsequent teaching on
what the Christian response should be to the environmental crisis. Firstly he acknowledges the
problem and teaches that this is one which all Christians have a moral responsibility to address.
Secondly, he analyses the deepest causes of the problem, showing that the destruction of the
environment is not an isolated issue but one which is a direct consequence of the loss of respect
for human dignity and for the value of human life. This failure to recognise the ‘kingly’ dignity
conferred on humanity by God in turn prevents humanity from fulfilling its God-given role as
‘servant king’ to all creation. Through re-establishing this essential link between care for human
life and care for creation, John Paul restores to the Church’s teaching the wholeness of God’s
vision for humanity within creation.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On Social Concern (1987)

John Paul continued this development in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis
(hereafter SRS). Written in part to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of PP, John Paul
reaffirms the need for “an authentic development of man and society which would respect and
promote all the dimensions of the human person...”22 He places this need within the specific
context of the current evils of that time – the Cold War, the international arms trade and the ever-
increasing threat of nuclear war. Arguing that development cannot be understood in purely
economic, technological or political terms but that it must embrace a moral dimension, John Paul
insists that:
Nor can the moral character of development exclude respect for the beings which
constitute the natural world, which the ancient Greeks – alluding precisely to the order
which distinguishes it – called the “cosmos”. Such realities also demand respect...

This explicit concern for all creatures is a significant new emphasis in CST, one which
John Paul argues is based on three principal considerations. Firstly, because the cosmos is a an
ordered system, it is impossible to exploit for economic purposes various elements of this order –
plants, animals – without there being destructive consequences for the whole cosmos (this, of
course, is the exact point which Rachel Carson had made twenty five years earlier in Silent
Spring). Secondly, John Paul rejects the insistence of previous encyclicals such as RN and MM that
the resources of the natural world are inexhaustible – using them as if they were ever renewable,
he argues, “seriously endangers their availability not only for the present generation but above all
for generations to come.”23 Thirdly, he highlights the disastrous consequences of irresponsible
development on the quality of human life as “the direct or indirect result of industrialisation is,
ever more frequently, the pollution of the environment, with serious consequences for the health of
the population.”24
In the light of these three factors, John Paul calls for a radical conversion of the human
heart in its relationship with the rest of creation. No longer can humanity treat the natural world
with a disdainful absolute power, using and disposing of resources and created beings for its own
short-sighted benefit. Instead humanity must rediscover a sense of respect and responsibility for
the cosmos of which it is a part – an attitude which John Paul finds at the very origins of creation:
The limitation imposed from the beginning by the creator himself and expressed
symbolically by the prohibition not to “eat of the fruit of the tree” (cf. Gen 2:16-17)
shows clearly enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only
22 JOHN PAUL II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n.1 in D O’BRIEN and T. SHANNON (eds), Catholic Social Thought –
The Documentary History, Maryknoll, N.Y., 1992, p.395.
23 Ibid, n.34.
24 JOHN PAUL II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, N.34.
to biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity.

This is an interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives which is radically different from
what Lynn White Jr. in The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis had argued to be the Church’s
traditional reading of these texts.
Finally, John Paul concludes the encyclical by calling on individuals to play their part in a
peaceful campaign to “secure development in peace, in order to safeguard nature itself and the
world about us.”25 The case for an ecological conversion has at last been clearly and urgently
expressed. Sean McDonagh criticises John Paul for not consistently including this call for
ecological conversion in all of his encyclicals at this time. He cites, for example, John Paul’s
failure to include man’s alienation from the natural world among those features of our “shattered
world” for which humanity needs to do penance in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et
Paenitentia (1984).26 This is a valid criticism, but even McDonagh cannot deny the importance and
ground-breaking contribution of John Paul’s 1990 Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace.

The Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace

Yet in 1990 John Paul went further still by, for the first time in the history of the Papacy,
dedicating an entire papal document to the subject of the environment. His message for the 1990
World Day of Peace, entitled And God Saw That It Was Good, linked humanity’s abuse of nature
to the growing threat to world peace. Conflicts over the ownership of natural resources to be
plundered for short-term gain as well as the widespread decline in the quality of life caused by
environmental degradation create, John Paul argues, a “sense of precariousness and insecurity...
[which]... is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.”27
On a positive note he recognises a significant awakening in public awareness concerning
the widespread destruction of the environment and the resultant understanding that “we cannot

25 Ibid, n.47.
26 See S. McDONAGH, The Greening of the Church, New York, 1990, p.180.
27 JOHN PAUL II, And God Saw That It Was Good, Message of Pope John Paul II for the 1990 World Day of
continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past.”28 Arguing the need for this growing
ecological awareness to be based on a morally coherent worldview, John Paul sets out the basis for
a Christian ecological understanding. This he roots first and foremost in scripture, tracing this
understanding, as he had done in SRS, right back to the creation narratives of Genesis in which
God delights in creation and entrusts it to man. Adam and Eve were called to be co-workers with
God in His unfolding plan of creation, “exercising their dominion over the earth with wisdom and
love.”29 Yet humanity’s decision deliberately to go against the Creator’s plan “resulted not only in
man’s alienation from himself, in death and fratricide, but also in earth’s ‘rebellion’ against him”30
Human sinfulness, the Pope argues, is thus the primary reason for the destruction of the intended
harmony between humanity and the rest of creation. It was this disharmony which Christ came to
reconcile through his death and resurrection so that creation, like humanity, could thus be freed
from the bondage of sin and decay. As the author of the letter to the Ephesians argues, this is
Christ’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, all things in heaven and earth.”
(Eph. 1:10) John Paul concludes:
These biblical considerations help us to understand better the relationship between
human activity and the whole of creation. 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. If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace.
“Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the
field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away” (Hosea 4:3)31

In the document’s second section, John Paul develops this argument to stress that the
ecological crisis is therefore at its deepest level a moral problem. As examples of this, he
highlights the indiscriminate application of scientific and technological advances which, rather
than contributing responsibly to the care of the environment, have been used for selfish short-term
gains with harmful long-term effects. The destruction caused by the dumping of industrial waste,
the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation and the use of herbicides, coolants and
propellants are all powerful examples showing that “we cannot interfere in one area of the
ecosystem without paying due attention to the consequences of such interference in other areas and

28 Ibid.
29 Ibid, part I.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
to the well-being of future generations.”32 The resulting atmospheric and climate changes affect the
entire human community and therefore, John Paul urges that all elements of the human family –
individuals, states and international bodies – need to recognise their shared responsibility to protect
the environment. John Paul describes this as “the urgent need for a new solidarity”33 in the face of
the ecological crisis, especially between developing and industrialised nations.
Analysing the roots of this moral problem, John Paul argues that both the exploitation of
human labour and the exploitation of the environment are the results of a fundamental lack of
respect for life itself – a disrespect which can only have disastrous results for humanity and indeed
for all of creation. Economic development, including the areas of biological and genetic research,
needs to be underpinned by fundamental ethical principles:
Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate
guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress...These
principles are essential to the building of a peaceful society: no peaceful society can
afford to neglect either respect for life or the fact that there is an integrity to creation.34

John Paul sees the environmental crisis as a wake-up call for humanity showing that
individual and collective greed and selfishness can only have disastrous consequences for all.
There is therefore a need for international cooperation and solidarity rather than self-serving
nationalism and selfish economic interests. John Paul also argues that: “The right to a safe
environment is ever more insistently presented today as a right that must be included in an updated
charter of human rights.”35 This is a significant contribution to our growing understanding of what
it means to be fully human – this includes not only the right to education and work, to freedom of
expression and religion, but also the fundamental right to a clean and secure environment.
John Paul stresses the need to recognise how intimately connected the environmental crisis
is to other evils of our times, particularly poverty and war. It is the rural poor who are already
being most directly affected by the destruction of habitats and soil degradation, thereby caught in a
vicious circle of needing to clear ever larger areas of new land just in order to survive. Likewise,

32 JOHN PAUL II, And God Saw That It Was Good, Message of Pope John Paul II for the 1990 World Day of
part II.
33 Ibid, part IV.
34 Ibid, part II.
35 Ibid, part III.
some of the most indebted developing countries are destroying their natural ecological heritage and
resources in order to boost export incomes to pay off debts. As John Paul concludes:
In the face of such situations it would be wrong to assign responsibility to the poor alone
for the negative environmental consequences of their actions. Rather, the poor, to whom
the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their
poverty. This will require a courageous reform of structures as well as a new way of
relating among peoples and states.36

In the same way, war leads to incalculable environmental damage, particularly as many
modern forms of chemical, bacteriological and biological weapons are specifically designed to
maximise the destruction caused to an enemy’s land and ecological system both in the immediate
present and for future generations. Just as human life and social structures/infrastructures can be
destroyed by war so whole ecological systems from the water table through to soil and crops can
be ruined by conflict. There is also a recognition that the shortage of natural resources including
essentials like water will become a cause of war.
As part of a renewed human solidarity, John Paul also calls for societies and individuals to
take a serious look at their lifestyles, especially those dominated by consumerism and the need for
instant gratification. There is an urgent need to recognise the consequences of such essentially self-
centred lifestyles and a conversion of heart to rediscover a more ethical, environmentally
responsible lifestyle:
Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a
part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of
a few.37

John Paul therefore calls for “an education in ecological responsibility: responsibility for
oneself, for others and for the earth.”38 The starting point for such an education should be the
family – ‘the first educator’ – but should extend through governmental and non-governmental
organisations, through Church and religious bodies, indeed through all sectors of society. This
would lead to a conversion of attitudes and behaviour. Such a conversion will be strengthened by a
growing appreciation of the beauty and restorative power of nature. We protect and care for that

36 JOHN PAUL II, And God Saw That It Was Good, Message of Pope John Paul II for the 1990 World Day of
part IV.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid.
which has value for us and so there needs to be an ever stronger awareness of the goodness and
beauty of creation as a reflection of God’s glory. In conclusion John Paul writes:
When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace
within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the
earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe
which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of
choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of
future generations.39

In a significant final observation, John Paul reminds all Catholics that this moral obligation
to care for all of creation is a central and integral part of their Christian faith. Respect for life and
the dignity of the human person – such fundamental and well-established tenets of Catholic belief
and practice – must, John Paul concludes, also extend to respect for the rest of creation. This is an
urgent appeal to the Catholic faithful to expand their understanding of what it means to be a
Catholic to include a personal and collective responsibility to care for and protect the environment.
Such an appeal makes And God Saw That It Was Good a truly historic document and significant
advance in the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice related to the environment.

Centesimus Annus: On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (1991)

This advance was consolidated in John Paul’s encyclical Centesimus Annus (hereafter CA),
published in 1991 to mark the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. In CA John Paul sets out
to “look back” at the achievements of RN and of the hundred years of CST which it inspired, to
“look around” at the “new things” which now face the world at the end of the twentieth century,
and finally to “look forward” to the possible challenges of the third millennium. Amongst the “new
things” of the final decade of the twentieth century, John Paul highlights what he calls “the
ecological question.” This he links directly with the rise of humanity’s ever more self-centred
materialism and short-sighted consumerism whereby: “ his desire to have and to enjoy rather
than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive

39 JOHN PAUL II, And God Saw That It Was Good, Message of Pope John Paul II for the 1990 World Day of
part V.
and disordered way.”40 Humanity, John Paul argues, has forgotten that it has a responsibility to
care for and develop the earth rather than use it arbitrarily for its own purposes:
Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man
sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of
nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him. (n.37)

John Paul challenges humanity to look beyond the satisfying of its present needs and
appetites to recognise its duties and obligations toward future generations. Central to this new way
of living must be a recovery of a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world – a beauty
which “enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them.”
(n.37) As before, John Paul seeks to look deeper into the causes of the seemingly irrational
destruction of the natural environment. In doing this, he emphasizes that although the protection of
endangered species and habitats is an urgent challenge for our times, it must not be forgotten that
this will only be achieved if humanity also works to prevent the destruction of what John Paul calls
“the human environment”. He clarifies this by explaining that the effort must be made to:
...safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic “human ecology.” Not only has God
given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for
which it was given, but man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the
natural world and moral structure with which he has been endowed. (n.38)

As an example of this danger to the “human environment”, John Paul cites the serious
problems of modern urbanisation. Here it should be noted that the end of the twentieth century saw
for the first time in the history of humanity a greater number of people living in urban rather than
rural areas. This unprecedented human migration away from a more agricultural lifestyle is
dramatically seen in the rise of twenty “megacities”, mostly in the developing world, with
populations of over ten million, such as Mexico City, Mumbai, Shanghai and Karachi41. This
explosion of urbanisation has often resulted in poor urban planning whereby large sections of the
poorest city-dwellers are forced to live in shanty-towns with little or no infrastructure,
education/health facilities or employment opportunities. In such conditions the transcendent dignity
of the human person as the visible image of the living God is diminished and individuals are unable
to fulfil their potential. John Paul argues passionately that this denial of human dignity is at the root
40 JOHN PAUL II, Centesimus Annus, 1991, n.37 in D O’BRIEN and T. SHANNON (eds), Catholic Social
Thought – The Documentary History, Maryknoll, N.Y., 1992, p 467.
41 cf. J. McNEILL, Something New Under the Sun – An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century, London,
2000, pp76-83.
of modern totalitarianism, which by denying man his transcendent dignity then denies him those
rights – freedom of expression, religion and education – which no individual, group or State should
ever deny another.
It is important to note how John Paul repeatedly stresses this argument that defence of the
natural environment must be rooted in defence of the human person. Someone who is economically
and politically marginalised, living in a shanty-town with no education or health facilities and no
prospect of employment, cannot be expected to prioritise protection of the environment above the
daily battle for personal survival. John Paul stresses here the importance of the family, the
foundational structure of the “human environment” in which “man receives his first formative
ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it
means to be a person.” (CA, n.39) Only by once again building up social cohesion and solidarity,
rooted in healthy family and married life, can humanity have the ability to act in true freedom and
responsibility in its relationship with the rest of the natural world. We can see in this the emergence
of a specific and original contribution by the Church to the wider ecological debate – the
recognition that by fulfilling her mission to be “a sign and safeguard of the transcendence of the
human person”42 the Church is in turn promoting those human conditions and attitudes necessary to
safeguard the rest of the natural environment.

Ecumenical Declarations and the Call to Ecological Conversion

The beginning of the Third Millennium saw a significant development in John Paul’s
ecological message. He increasingly targeted this message towards youth and ecumenical/inter-
faith dialogue. It was at a gathering of young people in Assisi that he declared that humanity had
reached such a critical moment in its relationship with the rest of creation that there was an urgent
need now for an ecological conversion:
It is necessary, my dear young friends, to stimulate and sustain the “ecological
conversion” which over the last decades has made humanity more sensitive when
facing the catastrophe toward which it is moving. Man is no longer “minister” of the
Creator. However, as an autonomous despot, he is understanding that he must finally
stop before the abyss.43

42 VATICAN II, Gaudium et Spes, 76; cf. JOHN PAUL II, Redemptor Hominis, n.13.
In terms of ecumenical dialogue, John Paul acknowledged that the Roman Catholic
Church had much to learn as regards ecological issues from other Christian traditions, particularly
the Orthodox tradition. This led him in June 2002 to sign a joint declaration on the environment
with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople “for the good of all human beings and for the care
of creation”44 Recognising that humanity was betraying its God-given mandate to be stewards of
creation, the two leaders once again appealed for an ecological conversion in the human heart:
What is required is an act of repentance on our part and a renewed attempt to view
ourselves, one another, and the world around us within the perspective of the design for
creation. The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and
spiritual. A solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we
undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change
in lifestyle and of sustainable patterns of consumption and production. A genuine
conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we act and think.45

The two leaders root their call for ecological justice in the two commandments of Christ to
love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Love of God must include respect and care for
his creation just as love of neighbour requires responsible ecological stewardship, which prohibits
the selfish destruction of the environment without regard for those in need today and for the needs
of future generations. Recognising that the ecological crisis is also a spiritual and moral crisis, the
two leaders conclude:
In this perspective, Christians and all other believers have a specific role to play in
proclaiming moral values and in educating people in ecological awareness, which is
none other than responsibility towards self, towards others, towards creation.46


Jesus himself gives us the best example that fundamentals of faith are most powerfully
communicated through a combination of word and action. His physical signs and gestures – the
washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, his carrying of the cross – resonate within us at a

43 JOHN PAUL II, Address to Young People in Assisi, August 26, 2001 at (access 14/03/08).
Environment, June 10, 2002 at (access 28/03/08).
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid.
deeper level which transcends language, time and culture. John Paul II understood that in a world
where images can be beamed across the globe by satellite in a matter of seconds, the message of
his teaching needed to be communicated as much through the visual sign as through the
spoken/written word. The wealth and poignancy of so many images from the twenty eight years of
John Paul’s pontificate are surely one of the principal reasons why he was able to forge such an
affinity with peoples of different faiths and cultures. The image of him sitting at prayer in prison
beside his would-be assassin Ali Agca, his placing of a written prayer in a crevice of the Wailing
Wall during his Jubilee Year pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his opening of the Jubilee doors in St
Peter’s flanked by leaders of other Christian churches are just some of the images which spoke to
humanity of his profound faith lived out in bold and prophetic actions.
Likewise, in the context of John Paul’s teaching on the environment, one of his most
striking and repeated signs was his kneeling down to kiss the earth (or at least the airport tarmac!)
when he arrived in any country on pilgrimage. He explained how this reverence for the earth was
rooted in the love of patria, so central to the experience of the Polish people who had so often
known the loss of their ‘native land’.47 This bond with the land, he explained, was not only
material but spiritual, a sign of respect for the culture and tradition of a given nation but also, at a
deeper level still, a sign of reverence for the created world which binds together all of humanity.
This kissing of the earth as he stepped on to each new land was a sign which he insisted upon even
when ill-health made it impossible for him to bend down – instead a bowl of that country’s earth
was offered for him to kiss as the first act of each pilgrimage abroad.
Besides this symbolic act of reverence for the earth, John Paul manifested his love for
nature through the time he made simply to be in nature, particularly in the mountains which for
him spoke so powerfully of the glory of God. Whether in the Tatry mountains of his native Poland
– the mountains he had explored in his youth and early years of priestly ministry – or in the
Apennines, Dolomites or Alps of his adopted Italy, John Paul sought rest and renewal far removed
from the urban sprawl below. This love of the mountains was one he sought to communicate to
Every time that I have the opportunity to rest in the mountains and contemplate these
landscapes, I thank God for the majestic beauty of creation. I thank him for his own

47 cf. JOHN PAUL II, Memory and Identity, Personal Reflections, London, 2005, pp.65-71.
beauty, of which the universe is a reflection, capable of fascinating attentive souls,
urging them to praise his greatness.48

At the heart of this personal testimony is an invitation for humanity to rediscover an

intimate relationship of attentiveness, awe and respect toward the environment. It is clear that in his
own relationship with nature, John Paul drew inspiration from the example of St Francis, whom he
named as Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979 just a few months after being elected Pope (as Lynn
White Jr had of course suggested a decade earlier). In a general audience of January 2000, John
Paul described nature as “the sister of humanity” in a clear echo of Francis’ own familial
vocabulary of “Sister Earth and Brother Sun”. There is a deeply Franciscan, poetic quality to John
Paul’s description of nature, as in this commentary on Psalm 19 from the same general audience:
Faced with the glory of the Trinity in creation, we must contemplate, sing, and
rediscover awe. Contemporary society has become dry, “not for the lack of wonders,
but for the lack of wonder” (G.K. Chesterton). Contemplation of the universe also
means, for the believer, listening to a message, hearing a paradoxical and silent voice,
as the ‘Psalm of the Sun’ suggests: “The heavens are telling the glory of God...[Ps.
19, 1]49

The phrase ‘Psalm of the Sun’ is of course an echo of Francis’ ‘Canticle of the Sun’. Like
Francis, John Paul contemplated creation and raised his praise to God, a praise which he too often
expressed in poetry:
The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams.
To me this rhythm is revealing You,
the Eternal Word.

How amazing is Your silence

in everything, in all that on every side
unveils the world of creation about us...50

As well as being a poet, John Paul also had experience of the world of theatre from his
student days. This sense of theatre was one which he brought to both liturgical celebrations and

48 JOHN PAUL II, Angelus Message, July 16, 2000 at

(access 21/03/08).
49 JOHN PAUL II, General Audience, Vatican, ZENIT translation, January 26, 2000 at (access 21/03/08).
50 JOHN PAUL II, Roman Triptych, Meditations, translated by Jerzy Peterkiewicz, London, 2003, from the poem
The Stream, p.15.
pastoral visits. I myself remember, during the years when I lived in Poland from 1990 to 2001,
how John Paul on his frequent pilgrimages to his native land repeatedly chose the most stunning
physical settings in which to celebrate an open air Mass. The landscape itself was a silent homily
in praise of the Creator. One of the most beautiful settings was amidst the forest-covered hills of
Zamość, where, in the very womb of nature, John Paul spoke the following words:
Here, the blue of the sky, the green of the woods and fields, the silver of the lakes and
rivers, all seem to speak with exceptional power...And all this testifies to the love of the
Creator, the life-giving power of his Spirit and the redemption accomplished by the
Son for man and for the world. All these creatures bespeak their holiness and dignity,
regained when the One who was “the firstborn of all creation” took flesh from the
Virgin Mary.51

It was also during this homily at Zamość that John Paul made his own the words of the
Polish Bishops in their Pastoral Letter of 1989 on the protection of the environment:
We need to realize therefore that there can be a grave sin against the natural
environment, one which weighs on our consciences, and which calls for grave
responsibility towards God the Creator.52

This is a powerful statement and possibly the first time a Pope had declared that wilful
destruction of the environment is a sin. This suffering of nature at human hands was one which
John Paul made a point of witnessing at first hand in his many pilgrimages around the world and
thereby drawing global media attention to the problem, such as in his meetings with aboriginal
peoples from Australia to Alaska. In his travels he chose to meet specifically with those living in
close relationship with the land and spoke to them heart to heart of his own love for the land: “As
one who has always been close to nature, let me speak to you today about the land, the earth and
that “which earth has given and human hands have made.”53
In expressing his solidarity with those who live and work on the land, he recognised the
wisdom of those who are reminded daily of their absolute dependence on God. He related their
wisdom to that of Jesus himself whom he held up as the model for humanity’s relationship to

51 JOHN PAUL II, Homily at Zamość, Poland , June 12, 1999 at (access 14/03/08).
52 Ibid.
53 JOHN PAUL II, God has Destined the Earth for all Men – Homily to farmers in Iowa, October 4, 1979
reproduced in The Pope Speaks, Vol. 24, 1979, p.339.
In the life of Jesus, we see a real closeness to the land... This closeness to nature, this
spontaneous awareness of creation as a gift from God, as well as the blessing of a
close-knit family – characteristics of farm life in every age including our own – these
were part of the life of Jesus. Therefore, I invite you to let your attitudes always be the
same as those of Christ Jesus.54

John Paul sought to promote dialogue on ecological issues by organising meetings and
symposia with diverse communities all of whom in some way had a contribution to make to shaping
attitudes and initiatives which could help the environment – scientists, diplomats, those involved in
tourism, families. As he wrote in RH: “The Church must speak of this threat to all people of good
will and must always carry on a dialogue with them about it.” 55 This desire for dialogue highlights
John Paul’s understanding that on ecological issues, the Church needed to listen as well as to speak,
to learn as well as to teach. In this he showed great humility – a virtue which he recognised had to
be at the heart of humanity’s renewed relationship with the rest of creation.


I have tried to show in the above analysis the immense contribution which John Paul II
brought to the Church’s development of an ecological awareness within its own tradition. This
contribution was rooted in both his own personal relationship with nature and his understanding that
the insights of the Church’s tradition of social teaching – ideas such as solidarity, authentic
development, the common good – needed to be “expanded” so as to embrace the challenges of the
ecological crisis. This “expansion” meant first and foremost a shift away from the largely
anthropocentric focus of CST so as to recognise the integrity and value of all creation. This
commitment to engaging in environmental issues was a commitment which was central to John
Paul’s teaching from the very beginning of his papacy, as symbolised by his naming of St Francis as
the patron saint of ecology within just a few months of his election. Below I would like to offer a
summary of the main developments which John Paul brought to the Church’s ecological
understanding and praxis during the twenty eight years of his papacy:

54 Ibid, p.340.
55 JOHN PAUL II, Redemptor Hominis, n. 16.
1) Firstly, John Paul simply recognises and names the problem – man in the modern
industrial age has alienated himself from the rest of creation. Man often sees no other
meaning in his natural environment than what serves for his immediate use and
consumption. In this attitude there is a fundamental failure to understand that humanity is a
part of nature and not apart from nature which is an ordered and mutually interdependent
system. Thus the survival of each part of the web of life, including humanity, depends on
the health of the whole. In essence, humanity cannot harm the environment without also
harming itself.

2) Recognising that we only value and care for that which we love, John Paul encourages
humanity to rediscover an attentive and familial relationship with nature, including a sense
of awe and wonder at the beauty of creation. John Paul thus appeals to head and heart,
inviting us to reconnect with “Sister Nature”, echoing the spirituality of St Francis and
indeed Jesus’ own intimacy with creation. There is in this a theological affirmation that
creation is sacred because God dwells in all creation and all creatures participate in the
Divine Goodness. Just as God dwells in us so he reveals himself to us in all the creatures of
the universe. Thus to eliminate any species is to destroy a mode of divine presence and
communication with us.

3) John Paul thus affirms that all of God’s creatures have an intrinsic value. Nature is not
just useful to us humans but is valued and loved in itself, for itself, by God in Christ. As
confirmation of this, John Paul offers a reading of the Genesis creation narratives which
(contrary to Lynn White’s interpretation) highlights the goodness of all creation for “God
saw all that he had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31). The writer of the first
chapter of Genesis leaves no doubt that the goodness of creation is its central message – it
is repeated seven times. Therefore, we who are made in God’s image ought to reflect
God’s attitude towards nature and act as stewards to creation, fulfilling God’s will that man
should act as an intelligent and responsible “guardian” and not as a selfish and reckless
“exploiter” of nature.
4) As well as identifying the problem, John Paul goes deeper to analyse its causes. For this
he looks beyond the failings of modern politics, economics and science to gaze into the
human soul itself. He recognises a profound disquiet and fear in the human heart at the
dawn of the third millennium, caused most fundamentally, he argues, by a loss of respect
for the dignity and value of human life. Technological and scientific advances have not
been underpinned by a corresponding moral and ethical development so that man has
become a slave to his own invention. John Paul concludes that, in an increasingly
materialistic and atheistic world, humanity, despite its apparent technological progress, is
in fact regressing spiritually and morally. Human life is increasingly seen in purely
material terms and therefore to be used for selfish personal gain like any other commodity.
This contempt for and violation of the sanctity of human life, John Paul argues, is the root
cause of human destruction of the natural environment which is likewise seen as something
to be used and abused for selfish personal and commercial gain. John Paul thus seeks to
reawaken an understanding of the essential dignity of man, who is called to be God’s co-
Creator and share in the kingly function of Christ himself. Only when man is once again
able to live in right relationship with himself will he be able to live in right relationship
with the rest of creation.

5) In order to live once again in these right relationships, John Paul directs Christians, and
indeed all people of good will, to look to the person of Jesus Christ, Redeemer of man and
Redeemer of the world. Just as Christ walks with each person the path of life, so we are to
imitate him, to walk his path. We see that Jesus lived a very simple life; he walked lightly
on the earth showing respect and love for all creation. In his preaching Jesus denounced the
greed which is at the root of the injustices of our modern world, including the ecological
crisis. John Paul thus appealed to humanity to rediscover the Christian virtues of
simplicity, moderation and self-control “lest all suffer the negative consequences of the
careless habits of a few”.56

56 JOHN PAUL II, 1990 World Day of Peace Message, part IV

6) In his search for solutions to the ecological crisis, John Paul identifies a specific voice
and role for the Church within the environmental debate. As well as directing humanity’s
gaze to Christ as a model for right living and encouraging humanity to rediscover a
personal, reverential relationship toward nature, John Paul also stresses how the insights of
modern CST can help humanity to heal its relationship with nature. He shows how
intimately connected the ecological crisis is to the other evils of our times – poverty, war,
the ever-widening gap between rich and poor – therefore argues that the fundamental CST
principles which have developed in the hundred years since RN also need to be applied to
environmental issues. Thus, as part of a renewed human solidarity, John Paul calls for
individuals, corporations and societies to review their lifestyles and attitudes in the light of
the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, the authentic development of the whole human
person and of all peoples, the common good and the promotion of a preferential option for
the poor. In this way the Church is able to help humanity to understand that the ecological
crisis is, at its deepest level, a moral crisis and that its solution is to be found not in
technological and scientific progress but, first and foremost, in a human change of heart, an
ecological conversion of attitudes and behaviour.

7) This is not to say that John Paul rejects science but simply that he stresses that all
initiatives taken to protect the environment – whether they be scientific, social or political
– need to be rooted in moral, ethical and spiritual values. John Paul sees in the ecological
crisis an opportunity for a renewed human solidarity based on the cooperation of peoples
of all faiths and all cultures. John Paul therefore calls for both dialogue and humility. He
firstly appeals to all “followers of Christ” to recognise, in a way which perhaps they have
previously failed to do, that care for all creation is an integral part of their Christian faith.
Then he invites Christians to recognise their need in this area to listen as well as to speak,
to enter into true dialogue with others so as to search for a shared way forward. John Paul
showed this in his own life through the many meetings and conferences he held with others
who had an important contribution to make to the environmental debate – scientists,
doctors, politicians, diplomats. He also entered into dialogue on environmental issues with
peoples of other faiths and other Christian traditions, such as the Ecumenical Patriarch
Bartholomew I of Constantinople. John Paul thus recognised that the Church needed
urgently to engage in a debate from which it had too long been absent and also to recognise
with humility that, while it had a distinctive and essential contribution to make to this
debate, it also needed to learn from the wisdom of others.

The above seven points demonstrate the depth and significance of John Paul II’s
contribution to the Church’s developing environmental awareness. The prominence and depth of the
Church’s teaching on the environment was radically enhanced during the twenty eight years of John
Paul’s papacy. This transformation, reflected as it was by a dramatic development in concern for
environmental issues within human society in general during this period, was undoubtedly
accelerated within the Church by John Paul’s personal concern for the care of the environment.
There is, however, one final observation which needs to be made. Significant and ground-
breaking as John Paul’s contribution was, it is nevertheless regrettable that he was unable to bring
his wide-ranging and extensive teaching on the environment together into a single encyclical
devoted exclusively to this subject. He undoubtedly wove a concern for the environment into the
fabric of many of his encyclicals from RH onwards, often including a section specifically dedicated
to the ecological crisis. His 1990 World Day of Peace Message was indeed the first papal document
dedicated to the subject of ecology and there were other significant documents and declarations
such as the 2002 Common Declaration with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. However
an encyclical on the environment would have confirmed the central importance of this subject for
all “followers of Christ”. The absence of such a definitive document has undoubtedly diminished
the impact of John Paul’s rich and diverse teaching on the environment. Important statements such
as the declaration during his homily at Zamość that wilful destruction of the environment is sinful
have not been given the prominence they deserve. As a consequence, there is a lack of recognition
both within and outside the Church, of the extent of John Paul’s contribution to the ecological
There is therefore a great responsibility placed on the Church and all who have been
enriched by John Paul’s teaching on the environment to recognise and develop his contribution to
the ecological debate.

In 1892, a year after the publication of Rerum Novarum, a Chicago businessman, W.P.
Rend, wrote as he surveyed the factories of his home city:
Smoke is the incense burning on the altars of industry. It is beautiful to me. It shows
that men are changing the merely potential forces of nature into articles of comfort for

Such language may seem “blasphemous” today but it gives a revealing window into the soul of
nineteenth century man, such as the confident engineers of the Victorian era who saw themselves
as exercising their God-given right to command and control the world around them. Yet this was
also a time when humanity was beginning to wake up to the degrading and dehumanizing effects
of industrialisation. For the Catholic Church this wake-up call came with the publication of Leo
XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which committed the Church to defending the rights of the poor and the
working classes and launched the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching. Yet the Church,
like the rest of society, failed to recognise the damage being caused to the rest of creation by
industrialisation. Nature instead was seen as an inexhaustible and ever-renewable resource.
Christians in general need to recognise humbly their own role in the distorted understanding of

57 J.R. McNEILL, Something New Under the Sun: an environmental history of the twentieth-century world, London,
2000, p.59.
humanity’s place in the world that an over-emphasis on human superiority and a corresponding
neglect of human responsibility have produced.
This anthropocentric blindness to the cry of nature, both within the Church and within
society in general, continued until the 1960’s when prophetic voices such as that of Rachel
Carson began to open humanity’s eyes to the catastrophic damage it was inflicting on the
environment. This was a time when humanity began to understand that it had alienated itself from
the rest of creation and that it urgently needed to reconnect and recognise the mutual
interdependence of the natural world. In simple words, there could be no healthy human
community on a sickened, toxic planet.
In this reawakening of humanity over the last half century to the extent of the ecological
crisis caused by human activity, it is fair to say that the Catholic Church has been slow to
recognise and respond to the problem. It has struggled to move beyond its anthropocentric world-
view and recognise the damage caused by human activity to the rest of creation, graphically
symbolised by the daily extinction of animal and plant species around the world58. As Sean
McDonagh notes: “For a Church that glories in being pro-life, this is a serious omission.” 59 The
Church has certainly failed to provide leadership in the ecological debate, even though in other
areas of social justice, such as global trade injustice and poverty, it has spoken with an
increasingly prophetic voice.
As I have attempted to show in this essay, John Paul II played a major role in what has
been a fundamental shift in the Church’s understanding of and response to the ecological crisis
over the last thirty years. Both in word and action he oversaw a radical reappraisal of the
Church’s anthropocentric social teaching and worldview. He demonstrated to his own Church
that care of the environment is an integral part of the Christian faith. He demonstrated to those
beyond the Church that not only is the Church concerned about the destruction of the
environment but that it also has a unique and much-needed contribution to make to the ecological
debate. The Church’s voice is badly needed at a time when humanity is coming to the realisation
that the ecological crisis cannot be solved by scientific and technological advances but needs to
be tackled through fundamental changes in human attitudes and behaviour. In short, this is a
58 In a documentary on the extinction of species, entitled State of the Planet, screened on BBC 1 on 29 November
2000, David Attenborough said that unless major protective measures were taken now we could lose up to half of the
species of our world in the next fifty to hundred years. cf S. McDONAGH, The Death of Life, Blackrock, 2004, p.10
59 S. McDONAGH, The Greening of the Church, London, p.182.
moral, ethical and spiritual crisis in which humanity is called to an ecological conversion. John
Paul worked hard to show that Christianity, both in its rootedness in the person of Jesus Christ
and in the insights of its rich tradition of spirituality, ethics and social teaching, has a crucial role
to play in this process of humanity’s ecological conversion. He also strove to open humanity’s
eyes to the fundamental connection between the loss of respect for the value and dignity of
human life and the lack of respect for the rest of creation. This is a much-needed and unique
contribution which the Church has to make to the ecological debate, which can too often seem to
place care for creation in opposition to respect for human life.
However, it needs to be accepted that, despite the personal commitment of John Paul II to
the environmental cause and the rapid expansion of the Church’s teaching on the environment
over the last thirty years, there is still a long way to go. Many within the Church have still not
heard the call to make care for the environment central to their faith and many non-Christians still
regard the Church as being in part responsible for the current state of affairs.
At the same time the extent and seriousness of the ecological crisis is becoming ever more
apparent and widely accepted. The degree to which global carbon emissions need to be reduced is
constantly being revised as the effects of climate change are recognised by successive scientific
studies to be accelerating out of control. The rapid melting of polar ice-caps, the rise in global
temperatures and the race for ever-scarcer natural resources are visible signs that humanity is
poised on the edge of an ecological abyss. The civil war in Darfur has been described by some as
the first climate-change war as peoples are displaced from their homes by degradation of their
natural environment and torn apart by the scramble for ever-diminishing natural resources,
including water. It seems that the earth may be reaching breaking point.
The Church is therefore faced with the urgent challenge of recognising its God-given
responsibility to be a prophetic leader in humanity’s journey of redemption. It is encouraging
that, since his election, Pope Benedict XVI has, despite earlier antipathy toward the
environmental movement while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith60, shown
that he is anxious to build upon John Paul’s environmental legacy. He has written explicitly about
the need to protect the environment in both Deus Caritas Est and Sacramentum Caritatis, as well
as in his annual messages for the World Day of Peace. For example, in his Message for the 2008

60 See S. McDONAGH, The Greening of the Church, p. 191.

World Day of Peace, entitled The Human Family, a Community of Peace, Benedict connects
peace within the human family and wider human community with the ecological crisis,
recognising the need to “strengthen that covenant between human beings and the environment,
which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are
journeying.”61 Benedict has also overseen a number of practical measures to reduce and offset the
carbon emissions of the Vatican City State, such as the installation of solar panels and tree-
planting through its involvement in a reforestation project in Hungary.62
However, the urgency of the ecological crisis demands that the Church take a far more
radical role. In this context, a comparison with the historical challenges facing the Church at the
time of the publication of Rerum Novarum may be enlightening. RN was written in response to a
historical process which had already been developing for some time but which was by the 1890’s
reaching a critical point. The dignity of the human person was under serious threat, symbolised
by the way in which human labour had become a commodity to be bought and sold on the market
without regard for the basic needs of the individual and the family. At the beginning of the third
millennium, the Church is once again faced with a problem which has been developing for some
time and which is now reaching a critical point. This is the destruction of the natural environment
by human activity – a destruction which has catastrophic consequences for humanity and the rest
of creation. The Church needs to offer the world a Rerum Novarum for our times – a magisterial
teaching of the highest authority on the ecological crisis and how humanity is to recover its role
as the responsible steward of creation. Just as with RN, the Church will not be the first to voice
these concerns and it will need with humility to recognise the debt owed to the pioneering and
prophetic work of others. Yet the publication of RN initiated a prophetic modern tradition of CST
which now places the Church in the forefront of many areas of social justice such as the fight
against trade injustice and poverty. The Church has the potential to make a similar radical
contribution to the ecological debate.
Indeed, the Church has a responsibility to offer boldly and generously all that it can
contribute to the ecological debate, both in terms of the riches and insights of its tradition and the
global influence it holds. There are over two billion Catholics in the world today who, working
61 BENEDICT XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace 2008, The human family, a community of peace,
published in L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican City, 19 December 2007, p. 8-9.
62 See Environmentally Sensitive – The Holy See calls for national, international strategies to help build a truly
healthy environment article in L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican City, 19 December 2007, p.10.
together with peoples of other faiths and all people of good will, have the potential to make a
decisive contribution to prevent a complete betrayal of humanity’s privileged role as the steward
of creation. The Church, along with other faith communities is in a unique position to effect this
change. The compromises and conflicts surrounding the Kyoto Agreement on Climate change
have vividly demonstrated that, even in the face of possibly irreversible ecological damage,
politicians and economic leaders are still unable to rise above their own limiting vested interests.
Evidence such as that provided by Rachel Carson on the effects of DDT and other toxic
pesticides in Silent Spring shows that scientists too often concentrate on the eradication of one
particular problem without considering the effect of their intervention on the whole ecosystem.
As John Paul II observed:
Protecting the world’s forests, stemming desertification and erosion, avoiding the
spread of toxic substances harmful to man, animals and plants – all these can be
accomplished only through active and wise co-operation without borders or political

The Church can speak and act without these limitations and constraints, especially now
that at the beginning of the third millennium it is a humbler Church without the dominant
economic role it possessed in the past which compromised its capacity to act as a restraining
moral force on society during, for example, a similar period of dramatic political, technological
and economic change such as the late Middle Ages.64

Christ said to his followers: “You are the light of the world...your light must shine in the
sight of men, so that, seeing you good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.”
(Mt. 5: 14, 16). The time has come for the Church truly to be that light to the world, caring for
the earth as God does, with love and wisdom.

63 JOHN PAUL II, An Appeal for World Conservation, The Catholic Weekly, Sydney, 9 August 1989.
64 See M. NORTHCOTT, The Environment and Christian Ethics, Cambridge, 1996, pp.42-47.