In advance of Pope Francis’ major encyclical on climate change — to be officially released on June 18 — former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum made headlines for telling the pope to stay out of the climate change debate, arguing that the Catholic Church should focus on “what [they’re] really good at, which is theology and morality.”
But the Catholic Church actually has a long history of involving itself in environmental causes, from deforestation to climate change.
“The Catholic Church has a strong tradition of attending to matters of importance to the world the church inhabits,” Teresa Berger, professor of liturgical studies at the Yale Divinity School, told ThinkProgress in an email. “In recent decades, ecological concerns have been of growing concern. The pope’s encyclical responds to these, in a quite natural progression of concerns that have marked previous papacies.”
According to Laurel Kearns, associate professor of sociology of religion and environmental studies at Drew University, the Catholic Church has long looked at environmental issues through a moral lens. She noted that both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II set precedent for Francis’ encyclical by speaking publicly about climate change, and also pointed to orders like the Franciscans, who have worked on environmental issues for decades.
“I think people don’t often realize how long religious groups have been working on climate change,” Kearns told ThinkProgress.
Here are some of the most noteworthy times the Catholic Church has taken a strong stance on environmental issues.
Saint Francis of Assisi: The original Catholic environmentalist
Pope Francis paid homage to the Church’s patron saint of animals and ecologists by naming his encyclical “Laudato Si” (“Praised Be”), a line taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures.”
Saint Francis composed the canticle in 1225, and dedicated the first of its three parts to praising the Lord through various natural elements, including “Sister Mother Earth / who sustains and governs us.”
Pope Paul VI: ‘Man and his environment are more inseparable than ever’
In 1971, on the 80th anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum — considered the foundational text of Catholic social teaching — Pope Paul VI published an apostolic letter entitled Octogesima Adveniens — “A Call to Action.” In the letter, he listed 11 new social problems that the Church should confront, including the environment.
“While the horizon of man is thus being modified according to the images that are chosen for him, another transformation is making itself felt, one which is the dramatic and unexpected consequence of human activity,” Paul VI wrote. “Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. ”
In 1972, Paul VI addressed the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, asserting that “man and his environment are more inseparable than ever.” Paul VI condemned the growth of weapons both nuclear and biochemical, but also spoke to “the imbalances caused in the biosphere by the disorderly exploitation of the physical reserves of the planet.” He called for “clear-sightedness and courage” in addressing environmental problems that he argued would impact both present and future generations, and ended by invoking the example of Saint Francis’ love of nature.
U.S. Catholic Bishops: Environmental problems represent ‘moral challenge’
CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
In 1981, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on the moral implications of the global energy crisis, titled “Reflections on the Energy Crisis.” In the statement, the USCCB argued that energy planners must take into account the impact of energy production on human life, arguing that if it’s in the interest of the common good to make sacrifices related to energy use, mankind should make those sacrifices “cheerfully.”
“Future resource restrictions may force us to rethink our expectations; they may even lead to
substantial changes in our way of life,” the statement read. “This means rising above a preoccupation with material gain.”
In 1991, the USCCB issued a pastoral statement which called the environmental crisis “a moral challenge” and argued that environmental ethics are an integral part of Catholic teaching — a move that gave environmental concerns added legitimacy within the Church.
“What I have heard time and time again from local groups is that if the bishops say something, it’ll be a lot easier for us,” Kearns said. “To go even farther than that, and to have it listed as a Catholic social teaching, was even more significant.”
Pope John Paul II: Environmentalism ‘is linked to a command of God’
Pope John Paul II, who was elected to the papacy in October of 1978, didn’t waste time in using his position to speak about environmental issues. In 1979, a year after becoming pope, he named Saint Francis as the patron saint of ecologists, and in 1985, he told the United Nations that “the Church’s commitment to the conservation and improvement of our environment is linked to a command of God.”
His most famous statement on the environment came in 1990, however, when he issued his World Day of Peace statement. In the statement, he warned that the Earth was in danger not just from a nuclear arms race, or regional conflicts, but also a “a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life.”
In his statement, he introduced the ecological crisis as a moral problem, highlighting things like “industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants” that all contribute to the degradation of the environment.
He also called for moral solidarity between industrialized and developing nations in solving the ecological crisis, arguing that “newly industrialized States cannot, for example, be asked to apply restrictive environmental standards to their emerging industries unless the industrialized States first apply them within their own boundaries.”
Dorothy Stang: Killed after opposing deforestation
CREDIT: AP Photo/Mario Quadros
Sister Dorothy Stang was 73 years old when she was shot and killed by two hired gunman off of a highway in the Brazilian Amazon. Stang had been in Brazil since 1966, working for the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission and attempting to stop industrial interests from violently removing pastoral farmers from their land.
Stang became a strong opponent to deforestation, testifying before a Brazilian congressional committee in 2004. According to her obituary in the Guardian, she named several industrial logging operations that were illegally seizing land during her testimony.
Following her death, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva signed a decree protecting some 9.3 million acres of forest in memory of Sister Stang’s work.
Kentucky Nuns fight fracking
Established in 1812, the Sisters of Loretto first dedicated themselves to educating poor children in the Kentucky town in which the congregation was formed. Today, sisters that remain in Loretto have thrown themselves into another cause — fighting fracking.
When two energy companies asked the sisters for permission to survey their land — which sits on the proposed route of the Bluegrass Pipeline that would carry natural gas from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio through Kentucky down to the Gulf Coast — the sisters politely turned them away.
But the nuns weren’t finished: they continued protesting the pipeline at community meetings, singing at an open house information session held by the companies before being told to be quiet.
“I guess my fear is damage to the environment, and damage that is difficult to repair — and maybe even not able to repair — of soil, of water, or air,” Sister Maria Visse told PBS in 2014. “We were given a place on this planet, these trees, this grass, these animals, ourselves, to be healthy people, to be balanced and healthy, and I see an imbalance in what’s happening both to our resources and to ourselves.”
Catholic nuns, Kearns points out, have long been interested in ecological issues. In 1980, the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, NJ, inherited 231-acres of land. They decided to turn the land into a farm called Genesis Farm, meant to serve as “a demonstration plot of what it meant to practice reverence for the creation,” according to Kearns. Today, the Dominican Sisters at Genesis Farm are part of a movement of Green Nuns — Catholic sisters from a number of different orders that focus on championing ecological concerns.