The Coming Encyclical on the Environment and the Sanctity of Human Life

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims at th end of his weekly open-air general audience on September 4, 2013 in St.Peters square at the Vatican. The pontiff asked for a big turnout at a Vatican vigil on Saturday for peace in Syria and thanked the world's faithful and non-believers for their …

“The world presents itself before man’s eyes as evidence of God, the place where his creative, providential and redemptive power unfolds.”

These words conclude Chapter Ten of the most comprehensive document to date from the Magisterium regarding the Church’s social teachings, The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. That chapter is titled “Safeguarding the Environment,” a theme about which Pope Francis will issue an encyclical (titled “Laudato Sii”) this Thursday.

Many people within pro-life circles have asked me in advance about the encyclical because the teaching about care for the environment has so often been hijacked by those who promote abortion and population control. And certainly, no matter what the Pope says in this encyclical, that teaching will be hijacked again.

I do not have any private information about the encyclical, but in advance of its release, I do want to say something about the public information we all have: there is a body of Church teaching about the environment. And Pope Francis is not going to contradict it.

Chapter Ten of the Compendium, which quotes heavily from Scripture, from the Second Vatican Council, from previous encyclicals of various popes, and from other addresses that popes have given on the subject of the environment, places environmental concerns squarely in the context of the dignity of life of the human person, which in fact is the foundation and context of every social justice issue. The Compendium develops the theme of relationship, making it clear that the environment, the human person, and the proper relationship between the two can be understood only in reference to the relationship that each has with God.

The environment is to be seen in its “creaturely dimension” (Compendium, n. 487). God made everything and found it very good (Gen. 1:31). Nature is neither an adversary nor a goddess. Nature is a creature. The human person, moreover, is the pinnacle of creation, not just another living being on an equal par with others. “At the summit of this creation, God placed man” (Compendium, n. 451). The Compendium, as Scripture itself, makes it clear that human beings are to exercise dominion over nature — a dominion assigned by God himself. Yet that dominion is conditional, not absolute. All creation deserves respect.

In other words, as in all things, we navigate between two extremes. We cannot reduce the environment just to its usefulness, nor can we forget that it exists for the good of the human person, not the other way around. We are called to protect the environment because, above all, we are called to protect human life and, because of its dignity, to preserve and enhance a suitable home for it.

You can count on the fact that Pope Francis’ encyclical will remind us of these points. You can equally count on the fact that proponents of abortion will twist his words to advance their agenda. As the Compendium states, “a sustainable use of the environment must not become a pretext for political and economic choices that are at variance with the dignity of the human person” (Compendium, n. 483).  A concrete example of what the Compendium is warning against here is the woman I encountered who had an abortion because she saw it as the responsible thing to do to reduce her carbon footprint on the environment. Indeed, if we lose sight of the dignity of every human person, any claim to see dignity in creation is hollow and self-contradictory.

In the end, the best perspective is one which Pope St. John Paul II expresses in The Gospel of Life when he says that creation is not just “matter,” but “mater,” (Latin for “mother”). There is a relationship there, a call to reverence. As the Compendium says, we should allow ourselves “to enter into its realm of mystery” (Compendium n. 487). In other words, there is a dimension we see and one we do not see. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:2). And nowhere does creation proclaim it better than in the mystery, the sanctity, of human life.


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