Holy See on Sustainable Development

«Human beings, in fact, come first. We need to be reminded of this»

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, JUNE 14, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of a position paper from the permanent observer mission of the Holy See to the United Nations for the UN conference on sustainable development that is under way in Rio de Janeiro through Friday.

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    The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, represents an important step in a process which has contributed significantly to a better understanding of the concept of sustainable development and the interplay of the three acknowledged pillars of this concept: economic growth, environmental protection and the promotion of social welfare. The process, initiated at Stockholm in 1972, had two of its high points at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, with the so-called “Earth Summit”, and at Johannesburg in 2002.

    As part of this process, a unanimous consensus has emerged that protecting the environment means improving peoples’ lives and, vice versa, that environmental degradation and underdevelopment are closely interdependent issues needing to be approached together, responsibly and in a spirit of solidarity.

    At all these international occasions the Holy See has made its presence felt less by proposing specific technical solutions to the various issues under discussion as part of the effort to attain a correct process of sustainable development, than by its insistence that issues affecting the human dignity of individuals and peoples cannot be reduced to “technical” problems: the process of development cannot be left to purely technical solutions, for in this way it would lack ethical direction. The search for solutions to these issues cannot be separated from our understanding of human beings.

    Human beings, in fact, come first. We need to be reminded of this. At the centre of sustainable development is the human person. The human person, to whom the good stewardship of nature is entrusted, cannot be dominated by technology and become its object. A realization of this fact must lead States to reflect together on the short and medium term future of our planet, recognizing their responsibility for the life of each person and for the technologies which can help to improve its quality. Adopting and promoting in every situation a way of life which respects the dignity of each human being, and supporting research and the utilization of energy sources and technologies capable of safeguarding the patrimony of creation without proving dangerous for human beings: these need to be political and economic priorities. In this sense, our approach to nature clearly needs to be reviewed, for nature is the setting in which human beings are born and interact: it is their “home”.

    A changed mentality in this area and the duties which it would entail ought to make it possible quickly to discover an art of living together, one which respects that covenant between human beings and nature without which the human family risks dying out. This calls for serious reflection and the proposal of clear and sustainable solutions: a reflection which must not be muddied by blind partisan political, economic or ideological interests which shortsightedly put particular interests above solidarity. While it is true that technology has brought about more rapid globalization, the primacy of the human being over technology must be reaffirmed, for without this we risk existential confusion and the loss of life’s meaning. The fact that technology outstrips all else frequently means that reflection on why we do things systematically yields to the pressure of how we do things, leaving no time for patient discernment. It is urgent, then, to find a way of combining technical know-how with a solid ethical approach based on the dignity of the human person. (1) 

    Along these lines, it must be emphasized that the dignity of the human person is closely linked to the right to development, the right to a healthy environment and the right to peace. These three rights shed light on how individuals, society and the environment are interrelated. This in turn results in a heightened sense of responsibility on the part of every human being for himself, for others, for creation and, ultimately, before God. Such responsibility calls for a careful analysis of the impact and consequences of our actions, with particular concern for the poor and for future generations.


    It is therefore essential to base the reflection of Rio+20 on the first principle of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted at the Rio de Janeiro Conference of June 1992, which acknowledges the centrality of the human being and declares that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”.

    To put the welfare of human beings at the centre of concern for sustainable development is actually the surest way to attain such development and to help protect creation; as noted above, this results in a heightened sense of responsibility on the part of individuals for one another, for natural resources and for their wise use. 

    Moreover, taking the centrality of the human person as a starting point helps to avoid the risks associated with adopting a reductionist and sterile neo-Malthusian approach which views human beings as an obstacle to sustainable development. There is no conflict between human beings and their environment, but rather a stable and inseparable covenant in which the environment conditions the life and development of human beings, while they in turn perfect and ennoble the environment by their creative, productive and responsible labour. It is this covenant which needs to be reinforced; a covenant which respects the dignity of the human being from his or her conception. Here too it is proper to reaffirm that the expression “gender equality” means the equal dignity of both men and women.


    In the last four decades significant changes have occurred in the international community. We need but think of the extraordinary progress made in technical and scientific knowledge, which has found application in strategic sectors of the economy and society like transportation, energy and communications. This extraordinary progress coexists however with the deviations and dramatic problems of development encountered by many countries, as well as the economic and financial crisis experienced by much of present-day society. These problems increasingly challenge the international community to a continued and deepened reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals, as well as to a profound and farsighted review of the current model of development so as to correct its dysfunctions. Indeed, it is demanded by the earth’s state of ecological health, and above all by the cultural and moral crisis of humanity, the symptoms of which have been evident for some time throughout the world. (2)

    On the basis of these premises, the Holy See wishes, in the context of the Rio+20 process, to examine certain particular issues which have clear ethical and social repercussions for humanity as a whole.

    First, the definition of a new model of development, to which Rio+20 seeks to contribute, must be completely anchored in, and permeated by, those principles which are the basis for the effective protection of human dignity. These principles are fundamental for the correct implementation of a development marked by special concern for persons who are in most vulnerable situations, and thus they guarantee respect for the centrality of the human person. These principles call for: 
•    responsibility, even when changes must be made to patterns of production and consumption in order to ensure that they reflect an appropriate lifestyle;
•    promoting and sharing in the common good;
•    access to primary goods, included such essential and fundamental goods as nutrition, education, security, peace and health; in this last case, it must always be noted that the right to health stems from the right to life: abortion and contraception are gravely opposed to life and can never be health issues. Health is about care and not mere services: this commodification of health care places technical concerns ahead of human concerns;
•    a universal solidarity capable of acknowledging the unity of the human family;
•    the protection of creation which in turn is linked to inter-generational equity; moreover, inter-generational solidarity requires taking into account the ability of future generations to discharge developmental burdens; 
•    intra-generational equity, which is closely linked to social justice;
•    the universal destination not only of goods, but also of the fruits of human enterprise.

    These principles should be the glue holding together the shared vision which will light up the path of Rio+20 and post-Rio+20. For its part, Rio+20 could contribute significantly to the definition of a new model of development, to the extent that the discussions at the Conference serve to construct that model on the basis of the principles mentioned above.


    Another fundamental principle is that of subsidiarity, as a consolidation of that international governance of sustainable developmentwhich is one of the principal subjects to be discussed at Rio+20. Nowadays the principle of subsidiarity, also in the international community, is increasingly considered a means of regulating social relations and thus concomitant with the definition of rules and institutional forms. A correct subsidiarity can enable public powers, from the local level to the highest international instances, to operate effectively for the enhancement of each person, the protection of resources and the promotion of the common good. Nonetheless, theprinciple of subsidiarity must be closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa. For if subsidiarity without solidarity lapses into social privatism, it is likewise true that solidarity without subsidiarity lapses into a welfare mentality which is demeaning to those in need. (3)  This must be all the more clearly evident in reflections of an international character such as those of Rio+20, where the implementation of these two principles must result in the adoption of mechanisms aimed at combating the current inequities between and within States, and thus favouring the transfer of suitable technologies to the local level, the promotion of a more equitable and inclusive global market, respect for commitments made to provide aid for development, and finding new and innovative financial instruments which would put human dignity, the common good and the protection of creation at the centre of economic life.

    In the context of applying the principle of subsidiarity, it is also important to acknowledge and enhance the role of the family, the basic cell of our human society and “the natural and the fundamental group unit of society”, as mentioned in Art. 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, it is the principle of subsidiarity’s last line of defence against totalitarianism. For it is in the family that the fundamental process of education and growth begins for every person, so that the principles mentioned above can be assimilated and passed on to future generations. For that matter, it is within the family that we receive our first, decisive notions about truth and goodness, where we learn what it means to love and to be loved, and so, in concrete, what it means to be a person. (4)

    Discussions on the international framework for sustainable development should therefore be grounded in a principle of subsidiarity which would fully enhance the role of the family, together with the principle of solidarity; they should include the fundamental concepts of respect for human dignity and the centrality of human beings.


    A third issue to which the Holy See wishes to draw attention in the framework of the Rio+20 process is the linkage between sustainable development and integral human development. Together with material and social welfare, consideration must also be given to the ethical and spiritual values which guide and give meaning to economic decisions and consequently to technological progress,inasmuch as every economic decision has a moral consequence. The technical economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor by nature inhuman and antisocial. It pertains to human activity and, precisely as human, needs to be ethically structured and institutionalized. (5)

    Certainly this presents a complex challenge, yet emphasis must be placed on the importance of passing from a merely economic concept of development to a model of development that is integrally human in all its aspects: economic, social and environmental, (6) and based on the dignity of each person.

    This means further anchoring the three pillars of sustainable development in an ethical vision based precisely on human dignity. The challenge can be met concretely by launching the process of determining a series of sustainable development goals through the promotion of innovative efforts to fine-tune older and newer indicators of development in the short and medium term. These indicators should be capable of effectively verifying improvement or deterioration not only in the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, but also in its ethical aspects, taking into consideration resources and needs, and access to goods and services, be they material or immaterial.


    A fourth area of interest for the Holy See has to do with the green economy. As the debate which took place during the preparatory meetings for Rio+20 made clear, a great number of concerns exist about the transition to the “green economy”. This concept, which has yet to be clearly defined, has the potential to make an important contribution to the cause of peace and international solidarity. It is nonetheless essential that it be applied in an inclusive manner, directing it clearly to the promotion of the common good and the elimination of poverty on the local level, an element essential to the attainment of sustainable development. Care must also be taken lest the green economy give rise to new ways of “conditioning” commerce and international aid, and thus become a latent form of “green protectionism”. It is also important for the green economy to be principally focused on integral human development. From this standpoint, and in the light of the identification of suitable patterns of consumption and production, the green economy can become a significant tool for promoting decent work and prove capable of fostering an economic growth which respects not only the environment but also the dignity of the human person.

    The Holy See trusts that the outcome of Rio+20 will not only be successful but also, and above all, innovative and farsighted. In this way it will contribute to the material and spiritual welfare of every individual, family and community.


1.  Cf. POPE BENEDICT XVI, Address at the Collective Presentation of Credential Letters by Several Ambassadors (9 June 2011).
2.  Cf. BENEDICT XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, 32.
3.  Cf. ibid., 58.
4.  Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 39.
5.  Cf. BENEDICT XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, 36 and 37.
6.  Cf. Angelus Message of JOHN PAUL II for 25 August 2002,
the Sunday before the opening of the Johannesburg Summit.

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