The Church's Teaching
The Church has long called us to care for one another and to respect and care for God’s creation. Beginning with Genesis, we are reminded that the earth is God's gift to all creatures. We are also reminded of the special responsibility which humans have to safeguard and enhance the created world. Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly within it and to foster its productivity. The New Testament continues to describe this message of liberation for humanity and all creation. This "new creation" disposes us to live carefully on the earth, with respect for all God's creatures. The Christian way of life, as lived by the Saints Benedict, Hildegard, Francis and Clare, reflects a God-centered and sacramental view of the universe. (Renewing the Earth, pp. 4-5)
Catholic social teaching reinforces these scriptural insights by offering a distinctive perspective on environmental issues shaped by the central themes of respect for human life, the common good and an option for the poor - placing the needs of the poor and vulnerable first (Renewing the Earth, pp. 4-5) In his 1990 message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II stated,
"The complexity of the ecological question is evident to all. There are, however, certain underlying principles which, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and the specific competence of those involved, can direct research towards adequate and lasting solutions. 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. ... 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." (no. 7)
The common good is the second vital theme. Every human person is a social being. Each one of us is a member of the human family. We need others in a world ever more connected, particularly in terms of our environment. Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gn. 4:9) challenges us to think about our obligation to care for others. Sacred Scripture and our Church teachings remind us of our duties of solidarity and of our commitment to promote human dignity and the common good.
The third theme, the option for the poor, is an essential part of our effort to achieve the global common good. As Catholics, we are challenged to act in solidarity with “the least among us” and on behalf of the one human family. The option for the poor is embedded in the Gospel and in the Church's social teaching. It makes us aware that the poor suffer most directly from environmental decline and often have the least access to relief from their suffering. Justice is rooted in compassion for our own weakest members. (Renewing the Earth
, p. 8)
Certainly among the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society are our children, born and unborn. As Pope John Paul II said in his statement at the World Summit on Children (September 29, 1990), “In the Christian view, our treatment of children becomes a measure of our fidelity to the Lord himself.” While childhood should be a happy, secure, and safe time of growth and development, for too many children it is not. “The lives, dignity, rights and hopes of literally millions of children are at risk.” (Putting Children and Families First
, p. 1 and Renewing the Earth
, p. 9-10)
Members of the church follow the example of Jesus, therefore, when they carry out the work of healing -- not only by providing care for the physically ill, but also by working to restore health and wholeness in all facets of the human person and the community. (Health and Health Care: A Pastoral Letter of the American Catholic Bishops
, p. 4) Down through the centuries, the church has carried on the work of healing through diverse forms and structures. The church community from its earliest days has provided hospitable places of care and comfort for those in need of healing. Church-sponsored programs and institutions offer examples of healing ministry forming a rich heritage which we must confidently and gratefully renew and adapt to the needs of today. (Health and Health Care: A Pastoral Letter of the American Catholic Bishops
, p. 5)
An essential element of our religious tradition regarding human rights is the understanding that the works of mercy and the works of justice are inseparable... The works of mercy call Christians to engage themselves in direct efforts to alleviate the misery of the afflicted. The works of justice require that Christians involve themselves in sustained struggle to correct any unjust social, political and economic structures and institutions which are the causes of suffering. Our hands must be the strong but gentle hands of Christ, reaching out in mercy and justice, touching individual persons, but also touching the social conditions that hinder the wholeness which is God’s desire for humanity. (Health and Health Care: A Pastoral Letter of the American Catholic Bishops
, p. 6)
We respond to the call to act with mercy and justice when we meet the challenge of ensuring a safe and healthy environment for our children. We are guided by Catholic social teaching and our religious tradition within the new and changing circumstances which present themselves as environmental and health questions. We are called to act within our own lives and institutions as well as in our community’s social, political and economic structures and institutions to protect all God’s children.