What does Christianity teach about the place of the environment in political and personal ethics? I can think of no clearer statement than that provided by Pope John Paul II in his 1991 Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus. In one passage, the pope addresses environmental issues by saying that ecological problems result when “man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error.… Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and, in a certain sense, create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are.”
The pope then moves to an environmental problem he considers “more serious”: the “destruction of the human environment, something which is by no means receiving the attention it deserves.” In particular, he calls attention to man’s sinful nature and the need for man to respect the “natural structure and moral structure with which he has been endowed.” The first and fundamental structure for human ecology is the family, through which a person receives formative ideas about truth and goodness and the faith. “The family is sacred,” says the pope. “It is the place in which life, the gift of God, can be properly welcomed and protected against the attacks to which it is exposed and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth.”
Underlying the pope’s statements is an idea fundamental to the entire Judeo-Christian religious tradition–that man is given primacy in the created order. This fact, however, also brings with it several important implications with regard to the environment: first, man is to use the resources of the earth responsibly and to the betterment of all of human society; second, goodness and evil are not embedded in the material world itself but are brought to the material world by the choices we make about whether to follow God’s commandments; and, finally, the sanctity of life must be the primary concern of human political and economic organization. Indeed, respecting God’s created order does not mean that it cannot–or must not–be used for the benefit of humankind; rather, a belief in the sanctity of life requires that we accept our responsibility to have dominion over nature, as Holy Scripture teaches us.
In fact, we know from all of history and Christian teaching that man’s survival and thriving depend on exercising responsible dominion over creation, tilling and keeping the Garden, owning property and transforming it to the betterment of the human condition–always with an eye toward doing God’s will with the aim of salvation. Indeed, the 1965 Vatican document, Gaudium et Spes, also recognizes this fact, pointing out that modern man seeks to harness the “immense resources of the modern world” for his own good, and teaching that this end–the achievement of the good–can be fulfilled only in service of Christ, who strengthens and sustains us spiritually and makes possible our salvation–salvation that cannot be found through the immanence of the world’s resources but only through the transcendence of an incarnational faith.