Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
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United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
Reflection on Climate Change and Environmental Stewardship (Excerpts)
Most Rev. Thomas G. Wenski, Archbishop of Miami
Chairman, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development
...The Catholic should care deeply about an effective and efficient
economic system that meets the needs of people as much as possible.
Even so, the Church’s teaching in this area is concerned primarily with
the degree to which that economic system is truly at the service of the
human person, and the extent to which the economy creates conditions
for us to thrive precisely as created daughters and sons, made in the
image and likeness of a loving and merciful God. This is why a purely
economic analysis of the worth of individuals, or collectivist ideas that
leave aside the inherent dignity of the human person cannot fit in a
Catholic world view...
In our care of creation, the Church is, not surprisingly, consistent. The
Catholic conception of stewardship of the environment is also rooted in
the dignity of the human person and his relationship with God. This
relationship finds its origin for us, “in the beginning.” The book of Genesis is meant to draw us into God’s creative
activity. We should reflect on the Holy Spirit moving mightily over the waters, and God setting into motion powerful
and dynamic effects; from nothing—an idea we can’t even grasp—comes a great tidal wave of activity, an
unfathomable but ordered, clearly ordered, creation. What must that have looked like, this incredible masterwork
of motion and formation? Perhaps we will be granted a glimpse of it in the life hereafter.
The inspired Word found in Genesis should capture our attention on another point, too. As God ordered creation,
set into motion the laws of nature and adorned the universe with diverse and stunning species, he made our first
parents out of the very earth he would set them over as caretakers. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God formed Adam “
out of the dust of the ground.” Adam’s body was intimately connected with the Earth. Though God was capable of
making him from nothing, he chose to use the materials that he had already created as part of his earlier work to
make the first human being. What should strike us about God’s choice here is that he intended a clear intertwining
and interconnectedness of our physical well-being and the condition of the environment from which we we’re
formed. This foundational concept ties our care for the world to our first moments in history, and we ought not
neglect that our responsibilities originate here, at the dawn of time.
Our contemplation must not stop at this point, of course. Adam and Eve were not simply created things among
many others. When God breathed the breath of life, something of his own spirit, into them, we learn that human
beings, unlike other things, were “made in [his] image, after [his] likeness” (Gen 1:26). It is not by accident that
scripture points us to a set-apart mode of creation, to an aspect of the human person that is exalted in the created
order. When Adam and Eve were placed in the center of the garden, God saw that his work was very good, indeed.
Lest we doubt this, God provides us with a great charge, the basis for our understanding of our role in caring for
what has been entrusted to us:
...“let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over
all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own
image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and
God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the birds
of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:26-28).
At that moment we began to wrestle with concepts of stewardship and dominion. Human beings contended with the
careful balance of developing the gifts of the natural order for human thriving with the preservation and protection
of those gifts in responsible ways for the good of all people and future generations.
These themes are as important for us as they were for Adam and Eve, perhaps more so given the dimness with
which we see our place in God’s plan after the Fall. In our work for an authentic stewardship of the earth, we must
balance these key concepts rooted in our religious belief, in particular stewardship, dominion, and human ecology.
Stewardship can seem an elusive term these days. For the Catholic, it often evokes uncomfortable images of the
collection basket and the bishop’s annual appeal. Still, we really must understand the ecological stewardship God
intends for us in order to make our work meaningful. We connect with my earlier point that the Church cares
about these matters precisely because the human person and his proper end are in the balance.
Stewardship implies a commission to care for something that is not our own. For every gift we receive, be it
intellectual, physical, environmental, we are charged to look after it for the good of another. Primarily, all is a gift
from God, for his glory and honor; we steward all on his behalf. Secondarily, the gifts entrusted to our care are for
the good of human beings according to God’s plan, to be cultivated and used responsibly for the development of
the human person toward his eternal reward.
A critical misunderstanding that can take our stewardship of any gift astray is the idea that the thing stewarded is
nurtured for its own sake. In the case of money, focus on wealth for wealth’s sake has wrought evils, individual and
communal, throughout the history of mankind, including poverty that cries out to God for justice. The same is true
of power in public affairs. If not used for the common good, those governed typically pay the heavy price for the
pursuit of unbridled power.
For our natural environment, we must resist any idea that the goods of the earth inhabit some disordered place
above and apart from the human race. When we begin to see human beings as blight, as a force to be resisted
rather than nurtured by our care of the environment, then we have upended God’s plan and his purpose in placing
us at the center of his earthly creative action. Human beings may act in ways that critically wound our natural
ecology, and we must combat these approaches. By placing nature above the good of the human person, however,
we risk abandoning the project of changing hearts toward something greater.
Our stewardship should always seek out the divine reflection that dwells in us. God calls us to a particular balance;
any good steward endeavors to act, as closely as possible, as his or her master would act in his place, at least if
the steward hopes to keep his job. Pope Francis, in his General Audience of May 21 of this year, expressed it well:
“Creation is not some possession that we can lord over for our own pleasure; nor, even less, is it the property of
only some people, the few: creation is a gift, it is the marvelous gift that God has given us, so that we will take
care of it and harness it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”
In this balance, dominion over the earth is not reckless development, but calls us most profoundly to responsible
cultivation for the good of all. You and I should marvel that our Almighty God chose us to be “co-creators,” to be
the means by which the raw resources found around us may be gathered together, nurtured and harnessed for the
benefit of everybody. Of all the earthly creatures, only we have this clear role. The Catechism reflects on the
magnitude of this relationship:
To human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the
responsibility of "subduing" the earth and having dominion over it. God thus enables men to be intelligent and
free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of
their neighbors. Though often unconscious collaborators with God's will, they can also enter deliberately into
the divine plan by their actions, their prayers and their sufferings. They then fully become "God's fellow
workers" and co-workers for his kingdom (CCC, 307).
In Genesis, God points out to Adam and Eve the seed-producing plant and fruit-producing tree, also with its seeds.
Humans are to employ work, which they did not mind so much before the Fall, to help the things of creation reach
greater levels of perfection for the benefit of the human race. It is true that this task became more difficult after we
left the Garden, and that, even now, we are tempted by inclinations that cause us to devastate the richness of
creation and squander the gifts meant to provide for our well-being. With grace and a view toward our proper
duties as stewards of the dynamic treasures in our care, we can meet our responsibilities with joy and balance.
A word about the term “human ecology” as we transition from discussion of our theological roots to consideration
of climate change and the proposed carbon emission standards. As many of you know, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,
affectionately referred to as the “green Pope”, had much to say about the interconnectedness of the natural and
human ecologies. We look forward to Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical which will continue the Church’s
important thought in this area.
In Pope Benedict’s well-known Message on the 2010 World Day of Peace, he placed the environmental
considerations of the day squarely within the richness of Catholic thought. Quoting, in part, from Caritas in
Veritate, he wrote:
The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility
in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and
above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction. The degradation of nature is closely linked to
the cultural models shaping human coexistence: consequently, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected within
society, environmental ecology also benefits.”
With this view in mind, we consider climate change generally, and the proposed carbon emission standards
specifically. The Church is interested in these matters because of the tradition we just outlined, and because she is
what Pope Benedict described as an “expert in humanity”, even if she is not a technical expert.
The climate is a good worthy of our study and protection. We know that humans do impact their environment, and
can do so with devastating results if not acting with due regard for their activity. The degree of human effect on
climate change is hotly debated and has now become, unfortunately, a politicized issue. But we must put aside this
polarization in favor of approaches and solutions that serve the common good and preserve the precious gifts
entrusted to us.
In writing about Saint John Paul II’s call for a renewed solidarity, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote:
[H]is appeal is all the more pressing today, in the face of signs of a growing crisis which it would be
irresponsible not to take seriously. Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such
realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas,
the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the
deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental
refugees,” people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their
possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain
impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are
issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and
We cannot ignore the weight of scientific thought before us on climate change. There is no excuse for inaction
in our stewardship given this. Our scientific knowledge changes, deepens and grows by the day. Our understanding
of the human effects on climate will likewise increase. Still, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
points us to the virtue of prudence when approaching the question of our impact on the natural ecology, namely
the “precautionary principle”, whereby policy-makers consider all the risks and alternatives in deciding when and
how to act (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 469). While leaving room for deeper knowledge in
the future, we must do what appears right today for the common good and the good of the human person,
particularly those who are impacted most severely by climatological change, the poor.
...We are also reminded that action for the common good in these areas must be guided by the important
principles offered by Catholic social teaching, so that regulation and solutions might truly serve the human person
toward full flourishing...
+ Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, “Climate Change and Environmental Stewardship,” Origins Volume Number: 44,
Issue Number: 23 (November 6, 2014): Pages 385-389.
© Copyright 2015 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
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