Neither Tyrant Nor Tree-Hugger

A Christian Vision of the Environment

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

ROME, FEB. 12, 2005 ( The new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates an entire chapter to environmental issues, in recognition of the subject’s increasing importance. The opening numbers urge Christians to view the environment with a positive attitude, to avoid a gloom-and-doom mentality, and to recognize God’s presence in nature.

We should look to the future with hope, recommends the Compendium, “sustained by the promise and the covenant that God continually renews” (No. 451). In the Old Testament we see how Israel lived its faith in an environment that was seen as a gift from God. Moreover, “Nature, the work of God’s creative action, is not a dangerous adversary.”

The Compendium also calls to mind the opening of the Book of Genesis, in which man is placed at the summit of all beings and is entrusted by God with caring for all of creation. “The relationship of man with the world is a constitutive part of his human identity. This relationship is in turn the result of another still deeper relationship with God” (No. 452).

In the New Testament Jesus makes use of the natural elements in some of his miracles and reminds the disciples of his Father’s providence. Then, in his death and resurrection, “Jesus inaugurates a new world in which everything is subjected to him and he creates anew those relationships of order and harmony that sin had destroyed” (No. 454).

Science and technology

The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the progress made by science and technology in extending our control over the created world. Bettering our lives in this way is in accord with God’s will, concluded the Council fathers. They also noted that the Church is not opposed to scientific progress, which is a part of a God-given human creativity.

But, adds the Compendium, “A central point of reference for every scientific and technological application is respect for men and women, which must also be accompanied by a necessary attitude of respect for other living creatures” (No. 459). Therefore, our use of the earth should not be arbitrary and needs to be inspired by a spirit of cooperation with God.

Forgetting this is often the cause of actions that damage the environment. Reducing nature to “mechanistic terms,” often accompanied by the false idea that its resources are unlimited, leads to seeing development in a purely material dimension, in which first place is “given to doing and having rather than to being” (No. 462).

If we need to avoid the error of reducing nature to purely utilitarian terms, in which it is only something to be exploited, we also need to avoid going to the other extreme of making it an absolute value. An ecocentric or biocentric vision of the environment falls into the error of putting all living beings on the same level, ignoring the qualitative difference between humans, based on the dignity of the human person, and other creatures.

The key to avoiding such mistakes is to maintain a transcendent vision. Acting responsibly toward the environment is more likely when we remember God’s role in creation, explains the Compendium. Christian culture considers creatures as a gift from God, to be nurtured and safeguarded. Caring for the environment also falls within a responsibility for ensuring the common good, in which creation is destined for all. The Compendium also notes that we have a responsibility toward future generations.


A section of the chapter focuses on the issue of biotechnology. The new possibilities offered by these techniques are a source of hope, but have also raised hostility and alarm. As a rule, notes the text, the Christian view of creation accepts human intervention, because nature is not some sort of sacred object that must be left alone.

But nature is also a gift to be used responsibly and, therefore, modifying the properties of living beings must be accompanied by a careful evaluation of the benefits and risks of such actions. Moreover, biotechnology needs to be guided by the same ethical criteria that should orient our actions in the social and political spheres of action. And the duties of justice and solidarity are also to be taken into account.

Regarding solidarity the Compendium asks for “equitable commercial exchange, without the burden of unjust stipulations” (No. 475). In this sense it is important to help nations to achieve a certain autonomy in science and technology, transferring to them knowledge that will help in the process of development. Solidarity also means that, along with biotechnology, favorable trade policies are needed in order to improve food and health.

The Compendium also reminds scientists that while they are called upon to work intelligently and with perseverance to resolve problems of food supply and health, they should also remember that they are working with objects that form part of humanity’s patrimony.

For entrepreneurs and public agencies in the field of biotechnology the text recommends that along with a concern for making a legitimate profit they also keep in mind the common good. This is particularly applicable in poorer countries, and in safeguarding the ecosystem.

Sharing goods

A section of the chapter is also devoted to the question of sharing the earth’s resources. God created the goods of the earth to be used by all, notes the Compendium, and “They must be shared equitably, in accordance with justice and charity” (No. 481). In fact, international cooperation on ecological issues is necessary, as they are often problems on a global scale.

Ecological problems are also often connected with poverty, with poor people unable to cope with problems such as the erosion of farming land because of economic and technological limitations. And many poor people live in urban slums, afflicted by pollution. “In such cases hunger and poverty make it virtually impossible to avoid an intense and excessive exploitation of the environment” (No. 482).

The answer to these problems is not, however, the policies of population control that do not respect the dignity of the human person. The Compendium argues that demographic growth is “fully compatible with an integral and shared development” (No. 483). Development should also be integral, continues the text, ensuring the true good of people.

The universal destination of goods is to be kept in mind regarding natural resources, and particularly so when it comes to water. Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects a large number of people and is often the source of disease and death.

For the developed world, the Compendium offers some words on appropriate lifestyles. At the individual and community level, the virtues of sobriety, temperance and self-discipline are recommended. We need to break with a mentality based on mere consumption, as well as being aware of the ecological consequences of our choices, the text urges.

The Compendium concludes its chapter calling for our action toward creation to be characterized by gratitude and appreciation. We should also remember that the world reveals the mystery of God who created and sustains it. Rediscovering this profound meaning of nature not only helps us to discover God, but is also the key to acting responsibly regarding the environment.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation