The recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has brought the issue of responsibility for the earth to the forefront of many people’s thoughts. Are the earth and its resources ours to be used as we please? Is conservation merely a political issue? What does “being green” have to do with being Christian?

For Pope Benedict XVI, the answer is simple: “Before it’s too late, we need to make courageous choices that will re-create a strong alliance between man and Earth,” he said in one of his first addresses as pontiff. “We need a decisive ‘yes’ to care for creation and a strong commitment to reverse those trends that risk making a situation of decay irreversible.” 

For his environmental commitment, Pope Benedict has been dubbed “the green pope” by the media. The title isn’t simply honorary. Under his leadership the Vatican became the world’s first carbon-neutral country, meaning greenhouse gas emissions are offset through renewable energies and carbon credits. In addition, he has had the cement roof tiles of the Paul VI Audience Hall replaced with 2,400 solar panels that convert sunlight into some 300,000 kilowatt-hours of power each year, which is equivalent to the needs of about 100 families. In addition, windmills have been installed at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence, and a solar energy system is used on 740 acres north of Rome at Santa Maria di Galeria, site of a transmission center for Vatican Radio. Not to mention, his own home in Bavaria uses solar power as well as restores energy to the German energy grid. 

Faith and Creation 

But being the scholar he is, Pope Benedict has also examined the topic of conservation from the theological side. He even dedicat ed an entire chapter of his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) to the environment. Through the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace he has issued 10 commandments of the environment, teachings about the relationship between faith and creation. Although he did not write them himself, they reflect the essence of his teaching and message. 

So what are we to learn about environmental issues from these 10 commandments? 

The pope’s concerns might be summarized in four broad statements: 

First and foremost, Pope Benedict stresses the absolute link between the goodness of creation and the absolute good of its Creator. As he told the youth of Italy in one of his first public addresses, “The beauty of creation is one of the sources where we can truly touch God’s beauty, we can see that the Creator exists and is good, which is true as Sacred Scripture says in the Creation Narrative — that is, that God conceived of this world and made it with His heart, His will and His reason, and He found it good.” 

To Pope Benedict, environmental issues are a moral imperative sewn into our responsibility to be co-creators with God. “I believe,” he says, “that true and effective measures against the waste and destruction of creation can only be realized and developed, understood and lived, when creation is considered from the point of view of God; when life is considered on the basis of God and has its major dimensions in responsibility before God; life that one day will be given by God in its fullness and never taken away.” 

At the same time, he reminds us that the earth is not a sentient being. In other words, those who would claim that the earth is somehow divine or sacred in and of itself are mistaken. The earth is a creation, not a creator, and we must never worship the creation, only the One who created it. 

Second, although attention to environmental issues is essential to continued life on this planet, people always take precedence. The needs of nature can never supplant human dignity. This doesn’t mean that we can do anything we want in the name of “human progress,” but rather that development must always be measured against both the environmental impact as well as the implications for humanity. In other words, nature must be used for humanity’s needs, but never abused for humanity’s wants. 

Third, global poverty and the environment are linked with peace and justice. Without equitable and just sharing of the earth’s goods, peace will be impossible, and without peace, poverty cannot be eradicated. All four must be present if we are to “renew the face of the earth.”  

Fourth, environmental issues are not the prerogative of any one political or even religious ideology. When it comes to the environment, we are one people on one planet, and we all must do our share. For nations, this means protection through legislation; for individuals, it means changes in lifestyle that move away from consumerism. We literally are all in this together. As the pontiff said at the World Day of Peace 2009, “Does not every one of us sense deep within his or her conscience a call to make a personal contribution to the common good and to peace in society?” 

Care for God’s Creation 

Pope Benedict’s insights give Catholics a broad blueprint for the integration of faith with current environmental and scientific concerns, by calling us to make “our style of life … a form of witness, and that our words express the faith in a credible way as an orientation in our time.” 

So then, what are we, as Catholics, supposed to do with regard to the environment? 

Pope Benedict doesn’t dictate specifics, but his teachings about the environment and the Church’s overall instruction in this area rest on the foundational belief that when God created this world He “saw that it was good.” In our care for God’s creation we become co-creators with God in the process of the formation of a new heaven and new earth. All our actions, both on an individual and national level, should be guided by a balance of conservation and development, with the understanding that the goods of the earth, such as food, water, clothing and shelter, are to be shared by all, not hoarded by the few. 

As the pope wrote in Caritas in Veritate, “Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others” (No. 51). Or, as he said when he was still the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “We can win the future only if we do not lose creation.” TCA

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker is the author of “Ten Commandments for the Environment: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks Out for Creation and Justice” (Ave Maria Press).

Ten Commandments of the Environment (sidebar) 

1) The Bible lays out the fundamental moral principles of how to confront the ecological question. 

2) We should not reduce nature to a mere instrument to be manipulated and exploited; nor should we make nature an absolute value, or put it above the dignity of the human person. 

3) The question of the environment entails the whole planet, as it is a collective good. Our responsibility toward ecology extends to future generations. 

4) It is necessary to confirm both the primacy of ethics and the rights of man over technology, thus preserving human dignity.  

5) Nature must not be regarded as a reality that is divine in itself; therefore, it is not removed from human action.  

6) Ecological questions highlight the need to achieve a greater harmony both between measures designed to foment economic development and those directed to preserving the ecology, and between national and international policies. 

7) Concern for the environment means that we should actively work for the integral development of the poorest regions. 

8) Collaboration, by means of worldwide agreements, backed up by international law, is necessary to protect the environment. 

9) Lifestyles should be oriented according to the principles of sobriety, temperance and self-discipline, both at the personal and social levels. 

10) A spiritual response must be given to environmental questions, inspired by the conviction that creation is a gift that God has placed in the hands of mankind, to be used responsibly and with loving care.