In 1891, Pope Leo XIII articulated his vision of Catholic social teaching impacting the affairs of our world. Like Jesus, who entered the world among the poor and outcasts, Catholic social teaching endeavors to speak to the lives of people who struggle with the real and messy issues of life.
Catholic social teaching emphasizes the importance of working toward “the common good.” According to Catholic teaching, our lives and our societal structures must be concerned with what is good for the whole of humanity.
Today, perhaps no issue impacts the lives of so many as does the reality of climate change and environmental degradation. A major theme of Catholic social teaching is “care for God’s creation,” and the moral responsibility for caring for our common home falls to each of us.
Many people are aware that Pope Francis dedicated an entire encyclical to the care of God’s creation. But this text, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” builds on a long line of statements from popes, bishops’ conferences and Scripture as it outlines the crisis we face and our need to respond.
Most of us remember stories from our grandmothers or great-grandmothers about how, in their day, items were used, reused and repurposed. Throwaway plastic didn’t exist. Furniture was passed down from generation to generation. Good, classic clothing was sewn or purchased to last for years.
Perhaps nothing speaks to this environmental respect more than the beautiful quilts that we have inherited. Often, each piece speaks to a reused piece of fabric, an old wedding or christening gown, perhaps, a special garment now worn out but cut up and sewn for new use.
Today, our challenge is to return to this attitude of respect for the gifts that the resources of our world provide us. We need look no further than Genesis to see that God created the earth and commanded humans to care for this creation (Gn 2:15).
On the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops tell us that “we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.” Care for the earth is not just a nice slogan. The bishops tell us it “is a requirement of our faith.”
To solve climate change and environmental degradation, we need to view the issue as one impacting our spirituality and our faith life.
Today, we see unprecedented hurricanes and frequent “100-year” floods. We experience historic wildfires, warming ocean temperatures, melting Arctic ice and record-breaking summer heat. Resources are used and discarded with impunity. Categories of animals disappear. Often, it is the poor who are impacted most by rising coastal waters or changing environments for subsistence farming or fishing.
Pope Francis, in “Laudato Si’,” tells us, “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”
And as Pope Benedict XVI in the encyclical “Charity and Truth” expressed, “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility toward the poor, toward future generations and toward humanity as a whole.”
Catholic social teaching speaks directly to the modern scourge of consumerism. Our emphasis on having, possessing and buying uses the resources of our world in unsustainable ways.
St. John Paul II tells us that modern people have a “desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow.” All of us must look at this desire in our own lives and question our own culpability.
In the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” which was compiled under St. John Paul, the Vatican tells us that in modern times, “the aspect of the conquest and exploitation of resources has become predominant and invasive, and today it has even reached the point of threatening the environment’s hospitable aspect: the environment as ‘resource’ risks threatening the environment as ‘home.'”
We humans have developed the ability to exploit resources at an incredible rate. And so we do. Rather than treat our environment, with the creatures that abound in it, as our sacred and shared home, we use it as only a commodity and we risk destroying it.
Many Catholic dioceses, universities and schools are attempting to address this important aspect of Catholic social teaching by converting to solar, composting on their campuses, cutting carbon emissions and using less. Under Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City began installing solar panels in 2008. The Vatican has banned single use plastic bags and has committed to zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Yet we have a responsibility as individuals to live out Catholic social teaching, which tells us we are much more than what we have and consume.
Each of us constructs a quilt from the fabric of our lives. Each piece is cut from cloth that reflects our values. By deciding to consume less, to reuse, repurpose, recycle, we deepen our commitment to the loving Creator who gives us every good gift and desires that we share with all of humanity for the common good.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.