Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
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United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
Renewing the Earth
An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching
A Pastoral Statement of the United States Catholic Conference (Excerpts)
November 14, 1991
Signs of the Times
At its core, the environmental crisis is a moral challenge. It calls us to
examine how we use and share the goods of the earth, what we pass on to
future generations, and how we live in harmony with God's creation.
The effects of environmental degradation surround us: the smog in our cities;
chemicals in our water and on our food; eroded topsoil blowing in the wind;
the loss of valuable wetlands; radioactive and toxic waste lacking adequate
disposal sites; threats to the health of industrial and farm workers. The
problems, however, reach far beyond our own neighborhoods and work-
places. Our problems are the world's problems and burdens for generations
to come. Poisoned water crosses borders freely. Acid rain pours on countries
that do not create it. Greenhouse gases and chlorofluorocarbons affect the
earth's atmosphere for many decades, regardless of where they are produced
Opinions vary about the causes and the seriousness of environmental problems. Still, we can experience their
effects in polluted air and water; in oil and wastes on our beaches; in the loss of farmland, wetlands, and forests;
and in the decline of rivers and lakes. Scientists identify several other less visible but particularly urgent problems
currently being debated by the scientific community, including depletion of the ozone layer, deforestation, the
extinction of species, the generation and disposal of toxic and nuclear waste, and global warming. These important
issues are being explored by scientists, and they require urgent attention and action. We are not scientists, but as
pastors we call on experts, citizens, and policymakers to continue to explore the serious environmental, ethical,
and human dimensions of these ecological challenges.
Environmental issues are also linked to other basic problems. As eminent scientist Dr. Thomas F. Malone reported,
humanity faces problems in five interrelated fields: environment, energy, economics, equity, and ethics. To ensure
the survival of a healthy planet, then, we must not only establish a sustainable economy but must also labor for
justice both within and among nations. We must seek a society where economic life and environmental
commitment work together to protect and to enhance life on this planet...
Catholic Social Teaching and Environmental Ethics
The tradition of Catholic social teaching offers a developing and distinctive perspective on environmental issues. We
believe that the following themes drawn from this tradition are integral dimensions of ecological responsibility:
a God-centered and sacramental view of the universe, which grounds human accountability for the fate of the
a consistent respect for human life, which extends to respect for all creation;
a worldview affirming the ethical significance of global interdependence and the common good;
an ethics of solidarity promoting cooperation and a just structure of sharing in the world community;
an understanding of the universal purpose of created things, which requires equitable use of the earth's
an option for the poor, which gives passion to the quest for an equitable and sustainable world;
a conception of authentic development, which offers a direction for progress that respects human dignity and
the limits of material growth.
Although Catholic social teaching does not offer a complete environmental ethic, we are confident that this
developing tradition can serve as the basis for Catholic engagement and dialogue with science, the environmental
movement, and other communities of faith and good will.
A. A Sacramental Universe
The whole universe is God's dwelling. Earth, a very small, uniquely blessed corner of that universe, gifted with
unique natural blessings, is humanity's home, and humans are never so much at home as when God dwells with
them. In the beginning, the first man and woman walked with God in the cool of the day. Throughout history,
people have continued to meet the Creator on mountaintops, in vast deserts, and alongside waterfalls and gently
flowing springs. In storms and earthquakes, they found expressions of divine power. In the cycle of the seasons
and the courses of the stars, they have discerned signs of God's fidelity and wisdom. We still share, though dimly,
in that sense of God's presence in nature. But as heirs and victims of the industrial revolution, students of science
and the beneficiaries of technology, urban-dwellers and jet-commuters, twentieth-century Americans have also
grown estranged from the natural scale and rhythms of life on earth.
For many people, the environmental movement has reawakened appreciation of the truth that, through the created
gifts of nature, men and women encounter their Creator. The Christian vision of a sacramental universe–a world
that discloses the Creator's presence by visible and tangible signs–can contribute to making the earth a home for
the human family once again. Pope John Paul II has called for Christians to respect and protect the environment,
so that through nature people can "contemplate the mystery of the greatness and love of God."
Reverence for the Creator present and active in nature, moreover, may serve as ground for environmental
responsibility. For the very plants and animals, mountains and oceans, which in their loveliness and sublimity lift
our minds to God, by their fragility and perishing likewise cry out, "We have not made ourselves." God brings them
into being and sustains them in existence. It is to the Creator of the universe, then, that we are accountable for
what we do or fail to do to preserve and care for the earth and all its creatures. For "[t]he LORD'S are the earth
and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it" (Ps 24:1). Dwelling in the presence of God, we begin to
experience ourselves as part of creation, as stewards within it, not separate from it. As faithful stewards, fullness
of life comes from living responsibly within God's creation.
Stewardship implies that we must both care for creation according to standards that are not of our own making
and at the same time be resourceful in finding ways to make the earth flourish. It is a difficult balance, requiring
both a sense of limits and a spirit of experimentation. Even as we rejoice in earth's goodness and in the beauty of
nature, stewardship places upon us responsibility for the well-being of all God's creatures.
B. Respect for Life
Respect for nature and respect for human life are inextricably related. "Respect for life, and above all for the
dignity of the human person," Pope John Paul II has written, extends also to the rest of creation (The Ecological
Crisis: A Common Responsibility [=EC], no. 7). Other species, ecosystems, and even distinctive landscapes give
glory to God. The covenant given to Noah was a promise to all the earth.
See, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature
that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of
the ark (Gn 9:9-10).
The diversity of life manifests God's glory. Every creature shares a bit of the divine beauty. Because the divine
goodness could not be represented by one creature alone, Aquinas tells us, God "produced many and diverse
creatures, so that what was wanting to one in representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another .
. . hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better
than any single creature whatever" (Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, question 48, ad 2). The wonderful variety of
the natural world is, therefore, part of the divine plan and, as such, invites our respect. Accordingly, it is
appropriate that we treat other creatures and the natural world not just as means to human fulfillment but also as
God's creatures, possessing an independent value, worthy of our respect and care.
By preserving natural environments, by protecting endangered species, by laboring to make human environments
compatible with local ecology, by employing appropriate technology, and by carefully evaluating technological
innovations as we adopt them, we exhibit respect for creation and reverence for the Creator.
C. The Planetary Common Good
In 1963, Pope John XXIII, in the letter Pacem in Terris, emphasized the world's growing interdependence. He saw
problems emerging, which the traditional political mechanisms could no longer address, and he extended the
traditional principle of the common good from the nation-state to the world community. Ecological concern has now
heightened our awareness of just how interdependent our world is. Some of the gravest environmental problems
are clearly global. In this shrinking world, everyone is affected and everyone is responsible, although those most
responsible are often the least affected. The universal common good can serve as a foundation for a global
In many of his statements, Pope John Paul II has recognized the need for such an ethic. For example, in The
Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, he wrote,
Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone. . . . [I]ts
various aspects demonstrate the need for concerted efforts aimed at establishing the duties and obligations
that belong to individuals, peoples, States and the international community (no. 15).
Governments have particular responsibility in this area. In Centesimus Annus, the pope insists that the state
has the task of providing "for the defense and preservation of common good such as the natural and human
environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces" (no. 40).
D. A New Solidarity
In the Catholic tradition, the universal common good is specified by the duty of solidarity, "a firm and persevering
determination to commit oneself to the common good," a willingness "to ‘lose oneself' for the sake of the other[s]
instead of exploiting [them]" (Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [=SRS], no. 38). In the face of "the
structures of sin," moreover, solidarity requires sacrifices of our own self-interest for the good of others and of the
earth we share. Solidarity places special obligations upon the industrial democracies, including the United States.
"The ecological crisis," Pope John Paul II has written, "reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity,
especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized" (EC, no. 10). Only
with equitable and sustainable development can poor nations curb continuing environmental degradation and
avoid the destructive effects of the kind of overdevelopment that has used natural resources irresponsibly.
E. Universal Purpose of Created Things
God has given the fruit of the earth to sustain the entire human family "without excluding or favoring anyone."
Human work has enhanced the productive capacity of the earth and in our time is as Pope John Paul II has said,
"increasingly important as the productive factor both of non-material and of material wealth" (CA, no. 31). But a
great many people, in the Third World as well as in our own inner cities and rural areas, are still deprived of the
means of livelihood. In moving toward an environmentally sustainable economy, we are obligated to work for a just
economic system which equitably shares the bounty of the earth and of human enterprise with all peoples. Created
things belong not to the few, but to the entire human family.
F. Option for the Poor
The ecological problem is intimately connected to justice for the poor. "The goods of the earth, which in the divine
plan should be a common patrimony," Pope John Paul II has reminded us, "often risk becoming the monopoly of a
few who often spoil it and, sometimes, destroy it, thereby creating a loss for all humanity" (October 25, 1991
address at conference marking the presentation of the Second Edition of the St. Francis "Canticle of the Creatures"
International Award for the Environment).
The poor of the earth offer a special test of our solidarity. The painful adjustments we have to undertake in our
own economies for the sake of the environment must not diminish our sensitivity to the needs of the poor at home
and abroad. The option for the poor embedded in the Gospel and the Church's teaching makes us aware that the
poor suffer most directly from environmental decline and have the least access to relief from their suffering.
Indigenous peoples die with their forests and grasslands. In Bhopal and Chernobyl, it was the urban poor and
working people who suffered the most immediate and intense contamination. Nature will truly enjoy its second
spring only when humanity has compassion for its own weakest members.
A related and vital concern is the Church's constant commitment to the dignity of work and the rights of workers.
Environmental progress cannot come at the expense of workers and their rights. Solutions must be found that do
not force us to choose between a decent environment and a decent life for workers.
We recognize the potential conflicts in this area and will work for greater understanding, communication, and
common ground between workers and environmentalists. Clearly, workers cannot be asked to make sacrifices to
improve the environment without concrete support from the broader community. Where jobs are lost, society must
help in the process of economic conversion, so that not only the earth but also workers and their families are
G. Authentic Development
Unrestrained economic development is not the answer to improving the lives of the poor. Catholic social teaching
has never accepted material growth as a model of development. A "mere accumulation of goods and services, even
for the benefit of the majority," as Pope John Paul II has said, "is not enough for the realization of human
happiness" (SRS, no. 28). He has also warned that in a desire "to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to
grow," humanity "consumes the resources of the earth, subjecting it without restraint . . . as if it did not have its
own requisites and God-given purposes."
Authentic development supports moderation and even austerity in the use of material resources. It also encourages
a balanced view of human progress consistent with respect for nature. Furthermore, it invites the development of
alternative visions of the good society and the use of economic models with richer standards of well-being than
material productivity alone. Authentic development also requires affluent nations to seek ways to reduce and
restructure their over consumption of natural resources. Finally, authentic development also entails encouraging
the proper use of both agricultural and industrial technologies, so that development does not merely mean
technological advancement for its own sake but rather that technology benefits people and enhances the land.
H. Consumption and Population
In public discussions, two areas are particularly cited as requiring greater care and judgment on the part of human
beings. The first is consumption of resources. The second is growth in world population. Regrettably, advantaged
groups often seem more intent on curbing Third-World births than on restraining the even more voracious
consumerism of the developed world. We believe this compounds injustice and increases disrespect for the life of
the weakest among us. For example, it is not so much population growth, but the desperate efforts of debtor
countries to pay their foreign debt by exporting products to affluent industrial countries that drives poor peasants
off their land and up eroding hillsides, where in the effort to survive, they also destroy the environment.
Consumption in developed nations remains the single greatest source of global environmental destruction. A child
born in the United States, for example, puts a far heavier burden on the world's resources than one born in a poor
developing country. By one estimate, each American uses twenty-eight times the energy of a person living in a
developing country. Advanced societies, and our own in particular, have barely begun to make efforts at reducing
their consumption of resources and the enormous waste and pollution that result from it. We in the developed
world, therefore, are obligated to address our own wasteful and destructive use of resources as a matter of top
The key factor, though not the only one, in dealing with population problems is sustainable social and economic
development. Technological fixes do not really work. Only when an economy distributes resources so as to allow
the poor an equitable stake in society and some hope for the future do couples see responsible parenthood as good
for their families. In particular, prenatal care; education; good nutrition; and health care for women, children, and
families promise to improve family welfare and contribute to stabilizing population. Supporting such equitable
social development, moreover, may well be the best contribution affluent societies, like the United States, can
make to relieving ecological pressures in less developed nations.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that rapid population growth presents special problems and challenges
that must be addressed in order to avoid damage done to the environment and to social development. In the words
of Pope Paul VI, "It is not to be denied that accelerated demographic increases too frequently add difficulties to
plans for development because the population is increased more rapidly than available resources . . ." (Populorum
Progressio, no. 37). In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II has likewise noted, "One cannot deny the
existence, especially in the southern hemisphere, of a demographic problem which creates difficulties for
development" (no. 25). He has gone on to make connections among population size, development, and the
environment. There is "a greater realization of the limits of available resources," he commented, "and of the need
to respect the integrity and the cycles of nature and to take them into account when planning for development . .
." (no. 26). Even though it is possible to feed a growing population, the ecological costs of doing so ought to be
taken into account. To eliminate hunger from the planet, the world community needs to reform the institutional and
political structures that restrict the access of people to food.
Thus, the Church addresses population issues in the context of its teaching on human life, of just development, of
care for the environment, and of respect for the freedom of married couples to decide voluntarily on the number
and spacing of births. In keeping with these values, and out of respect for cultural norms, it continues to oppose
coercive methods of population control and programs that bias decisions through incentives or disincentives.
Respect for nature ought to encourage policies that promote natural family planning and true responsible
parenthood rather than coercive population control programs or incentives for birth control that violate cultural and
religious norms and Catholic teaching.
Finally, we are charged with restoring the integrity of all creation. We must care for all God's creatures, especially
the most vulnerable. How, then, can we protect endangered species and at the same time be callous to the unborn,
the elderly, or disabled persons? Is not abortion also a sin against creation? If we turn our backs on our own
unborn children, can we truly expect that nature will receive respectful treatment at our hands? The care of the
earth will not be advanced by the destruction of human life at any stage of development. As Pope John Paul II has
said, "protecting the environment is first of all the right to live and the protection of life" (October 16, 1991 homily
at Quiaba, Mato Grosso, Brazil).
I. A Web of Life
These themes drawn from Catholic social teaching are linked to our efforts to share this teaching in other contexts,
especially in our pastoral letters on peace and economic justice and in our statements on food and agriculture.
Clearly, war represents a serious threat to the environment, as the darkened skies and oil soaked beaches of
Kuwait clearly remind us. The pursuit of peace–lasting peace based on justice–ought to be an environmental
priority because the earth itself bears the wounds and scars of war. Likewise, our efforts to defend the dignity and
rights of the poor and of workers, to use the strength of our market economy to meet basic human needs, and to
press for greater national and global economic justice are clearly linked to efforts to preserve and sustain the
earth. These are not distinct and separate issues but complementary challenges. We need to help build bridges
among the peace, justice, and environmental agendas and constituencies...
God's Stewards and Co-Creators
As others have pointed out, we are the first generation to see our planet from space–to see so clearly its beauty,
limits, and fragility. Modern communication technology helps us to see more clearly than ever the impact of
carelessness, ignorance, greed, neglect, and war on the earth.
Today, humanity is at a crossroads. Having read the signs of the times, we can either ignore the harm we see and
witness further damage, or we can take up our responsibilities to the Creator and creation with renewed courage
The task set before us is unprecedented, intricate, complex. No single solution will be adequate to the task. To live
in balance with the finite resources of the planet, we need an unfamiliar blend of restraint and innovation. We shall
be required to be genuine stewards of nature and thereby co-creators of a new human world. This will require both
new attitudes and new actions...
Call to Conversion
The environmental crisis of our own day constitutes an exceptional call to conversion. As individuals, as
institutions, as a people, we need a change of heart to save the planet for our children and generations yet unborn.
So vast are the problems, so intertwined with our economy and way of life, that nothing but a wholehearted and
ever more profound turning to God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, will allow us to carry out our responsibilities as
faithful stewards of God's creation.
Only when believers look to values of the Scriptures, honestly admit their limitations and failings, and commit their
selves to common action on behalf of the land and the wretched of the earth will we be ready to participate fully in
resolving this crisis...
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