They say Catholic social teaching is the Catholic Church’s best kept secret. In my experience as a Catholic, I know it’s true. Growing up Catholic and having gone to Catholic grade school, I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of the rich teaching of the Church on social justice.
Likewise, I was unaware of the Church’s teaching in an area close to my heart, the environment. I grew up with a love for nature, for the beauty of God’s creation. I focused my studies in this area, majoring in environmental science and later completing advanced studies on the environment and natural resource policy.
Through my studies and work, I began to be moved by the intimate relationship between nature and humanity, the interconnectedness of one and the other. My interest began to center on the impacts of environmental degradation, particularly on people on the margins (to whom Pope Francis has repeatedly drawn our attention). Who are those people on the margins? Communities of color and children living in heavily polluted areas. People in unhealthy work environments, such as in many factories or mines. And indigenous communities that depend on natural resources to sustain their livelihoods. I felt a need to lift up the voices of these people on the margins, those most exposed to environmental harm. This was my passion.
Then came a special moment of conversion, thanks to a homily by Father Pat Foley, during Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary in my home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the parish where I was baptized, I discovered the connection between my passion for the environment and my Catholic faith. This was the first time I learned that our Catholic faith taught of a responsibility to be stewards of God’s creation, caretakers of the environment.
With this encounter, I began a journey that brought me to the Bishops Conference to help lead the bishops’ environmental justice efforts. Here I came to appreciate the Church’s unique voice on environmental matters and distinctive contribution shaped by the Scriptures, moral teaching and a compelling body of Catholic social doctrine.
For the Church, I discovered, concern for the environment and a duty to care for creation, began in the first verses of the Book of Genesis (cf. Gen. 1:28 and 2:15). Our love and appreciation for God’s gift of creation rings out in the Psalms, with the affirmation that “the earth is the Lord’s and all it holds.” (Ps. 24:1)
Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the Church today is to link care for God’s creation and the protection of human life and dignity, natural ecology and human ecology. This message has been echoed by in papal teaching from Pope Saint John Paul II to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and is expected to be a central aspect of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.
In his address on World Environment Day, Pope Francis referred to the relationship between human ecology and natural ecology. He said:
“[C]ultivating and caring” do not only entail the relationship between us and the environment, between man and creation. They also concern human relations. The popes have spoken of a human ecology, closely connected with environmental ecology. We are living in a time of crisis; we see it in the environment, but above all we see it in men and women. The human person is in danger: this much is certain – the human person is in danger today, hence the urgent need for human ecology!
Pope Francis is calling us to reflection and conversion, to embrace a culture of solidarity and encounter.
Let us answer his call to be “protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”
Cecilia Calvo is coordinator of the Environmental Justice Program at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.
Visit the USCCB Environmental Justice Program page and follow @CeciliaVCalvo on twitter.
Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working for environmental justice.