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the Vatican symposium on the environment (1990)

Climate Change and Catholic Social Teaching

God has endowed humanity with reason and ingenuity that distinguish us from other creatures. Ingenuity and creativity have enabled us to make remarkable advances and can help us address the problem of global climate change; however, we have not always used these endowments wisely. Past actions have produced both good works and harmful ones, as well as unforseen or unintended consequences. Now we face two central moral questions:

  1. How are we to fulfill God’s call to be stewards of creation in an age when we may have the capacity to alter that creation significantly, and perhaps irrevocably?
  2. How can we as a “family of nations” exercise stewardship in a way that respects and protects the integrity of God’s creation and provides for the common good, as well as for economic and social progress based on justice?

Catholic social teaching provides several themes and values that can help answer these questions.

The Universal Common Good

Global climate is by its very nature a part of the planetary commons. The earth’s atmosphere encompasses all people, creatures, and habitats. The melting of ice sheets and glaciers, the destruction of rain forests, and the pollution of water in one place can have environmental impacts elsewhere. As Pope John Paul II has said, ” We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well being of future generations.” 3 Responses to global climate change should reflect our interdependence and common responsibility for the future of our planet. Individual nations must measure their own self-interest against the greater common good and contribute equitably to global solutions.

Stewardship of God’s Creation and the Right to Economic Initiative and Private Property
Freedom and the capacity for moral decision making are central to what it means to be human. Stewardship—defined in this case as the ability to exercise moral responsibility to care for the environment—requires freedom to act. Significant aspects of this stewardship include the right to private initiative, the ownership of property, and the exercise of responsible freedom in the economic sector. Stewardship requires a careful protection of the environment and calls us to use our intelligence “to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.” 4

We believe economic freedom, initiative, and creativity are essential to help our nation find effective ways to address climate change. The United States’ history of economic, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship invites us to move beyond status quo responses to this challenge. In addition, the right to private property is matched by the responsibility to use what we own to serve the common good. Our Catholic tradition speaks of a “social mortgage” on property and, in this context, calls us to be good stewards of the earth. 5 It also calls us to use the gifts we have been given to protect human life and dignity, and to exercise our care for God’s creation.