Pope Francis on the Environment: Part Two

32. “The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.”

33. “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity.”

It is a problem that careless human activity is snuffing out thousands of species. I think the holy Pontiff is over-emphasizing this point, though, saying that these species are an “extremely important” resource. My point of view is that the increase in numbers of the human race requires us to transform the face of the earth for our use. We need homes, yards, roads, commercial buildings, and agricultural land. And this requires us to take away habitat from plant and animal species. We should do so more carefully, with concern for the preservation of nature. But we cannot live on this earth, in great numbers, and also keep nature just the way it has been. So some species will necessarily go extinct.

My disagreement on this point is not doctrinal. The Pontiff is expressing a prudential judgment, not teaching a doctrine. Catholics can disagree with the prudential judgment of a Pope or Council without sin. Also, my disagreement is mostly a matter of emphasis and a balancing of the goods in this life. So I do not wholly disagree.

34. “But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly.”

Technological advances sometimes cause more problems than they solve. For example, round-up ready crops are genetically modified to grow despite the presence of an extremely powerful herbicide. A better approach is organic agriculture, using conventionally bred varieties of a crop.

35. “Highways, new plantations, the fencing-off of certain areas, the damming of water sources, and similar developments, crowd out natural habitats and, at times, break them up in such a way that animal populations can no longer migrate or roam freely. As a result, some species face extinction. Alternatives exist which at least lessen the impact of these projects, like the creation of biological corridors, but few countries demonstrate such concern and foresight.”

Pope Francis is clear that he is not suggesting an end to development or a condemnation of highways, agricultural land, dams, etc. He proposes instead continued development with a concern for lessening the impact of these necessary projects. His position is not the same as some liberal commentators who show no concern for the needs of the human community, and who exalt nature above every human need.

36. “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.”

A recurrent theme in this encyclical is the misuse of capitalism and technology, due to the exaltation of profit above compassion. Pope Francis is not condemning capitalism or technology. He is simply decrying its misuse, due to selfish motives and apathy toward those in need. It is a common mistake on the political right to speak as if capitalism and technology will solve all problems, when the real solution is love of neighbor and the incorporation of morality into every type of human endeavor.

37. “Some countries have made significant progress in establishing sanctuaries on land and in the oceans….”

38. The Pope mentions tropical forests, great aquifers, and glaciers as natural resources in need of preservation. But then he balances this need against the sovereignty of each nation. “A delicate balance has to be maintained when speaking about these places, for we cannot overlook the huge global economic interests which, under the guise of protecting them, can undermine the sovereignty of individual nations.” In other words, we don’t preserve nature at any cost.

39. “The replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures, is rarely adequately analyzed.” Yes, it is a serious problem that areas rich in biodiversity are being destroyed in order to cultivate crops, and without any concern for the true needs of humanity and the good of nature. The motive of profit drives the global agricultural economy, sometimes doing more harm than good to humanity, while also destroying the beauty of nature.

A monoculture is a large area of land planted with only one particular variety of crop. The lack of diversity in crop varieties reduces the nutrition of the food. Monocultures are also highly susceptible to devastation from insects and plant diseases. Then there is the loss of the species originally occupying that land.

But again, the Pontiff is not suggesting zero development or zero increase in agriculture. The human race needs food, especially since world hunger is a grave problem (mentioned later in this encyclical). We must show greater concern for nature when growing crops, but this does not imply that no new agricultural land can be developed.

40. “What is more, marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feeds a great part of the world’s population, is affected by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of certain species.”

The human race cannot survive by hunting and gathering. There is too little food produced by nature for any given area of land. Agriculture is essential to civilization. But we currently produce most of our seafood from the water equivalent of hunting and gathering. There is not enough water habitat for this approach to continue to feed the world. So, in my view, we must transition to responsible aquaculture, the water equivalent of agriculture, in order to produce seafood.

41. “All of this helps us to see that every intervention in nature can have consequences which are not immediately evident, and that certain ways of exploiting resources prove costly in terms of degradation which ultimately reaches the ocean bed itself.”

42. “Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analyzing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment.”


43. “Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.”

The above quote summarizes the entire encyclical: how does harm to the environment effect our lives, and what might we do to reduce that harm?

44. Life in many cities is far from ideal: “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

45. “In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty.” The holy Pontiff does not oppose the ownership of property. But he is right to criticize the misuse of ownership.

46. “The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on” many aspects of life in the modern world. These changes have not always been for the better.

47. “Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.”

“Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”

Again, notice the balance in the Pope’s point of view. He criticizes modern technology and the internet, along the same lines as many commentators before him. But he also sees the usefulness of this type of communication. Many times, people misunderstand Pope Francis because they assume that when he criticizes, a condemnation is also implied. But criticism is not condemnation. Capitalism deserves criticism, but that does not imply we should switch to communism or some extreme version of socialism. Modern technology deserves criticism, but that does not imply that we should go back to a level of technology from the 18th or 19th century.


48. “For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go.”

Harm to the environment affects the poor more than other populations.

49. First, the Pope criticizes “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power” for having a numbed conscience that neglects the needs of the poor. They live and work surrounded by affluence, separated from the needy of the world.

In my opinion, this criticism is true for most of the media commentators on the major news networks. They pour out an endless flood of superficial opinions, which tend to revolve around their own political biases (liberal or conservative), with little or no regard for the needy of the world.

The Pope also wrote: “At times this attitude exists side by side with a ‘green’ rhetoric.” Pope Francis presents a fairly liberal point of view on the environment, but he also criticizes the political left for using green rhetoric, while not truly caring about the environment and its effects on humanity.

“we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

50. “Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’.”

This criticism applies to the U.S. and to many European nations. It is reprehensible when these nations try to impose contraception and abortion on other nations and cultures, in contradiction to the consciences of the people. It is a grave crime to require the sinful spread of contraception and abortion as a condition for reception of humanitarian aid.

— More on the topic in future posts —

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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