Pope Francis on the Environment: Part Seven


156. “Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics.”

157. “Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development.”

“Outstanding among those groups is the family, as the basic cell of society. Finally, the common good calls for social peace, the stability and security provided by a certain order which cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated, violence always ensues. Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good.”

Notice that this document on the environment includes and gives precedence to concern for the individual, the family, and society. The integral ecology of Pope Francis rebukes the left for putting the environment above the good of humanity, and rebukes the right for ignoring the environment, and the needs of the poor.

158. “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.”


159. “The notion of the common good also extends to future generations. The global economic crises have made painfully obvious the detrimental effects of disregarding our common destiny, which cannot exclude those who come after us.”

We hand on to the next generation the environment and all the developments of human society. We hand on our knowledge, our examples, and our words. We also hand on all of the problems we created by our selfishness and greed. We must have a concern for the good of future generations, as well as a concern for our fellow man today.

160. “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results.”

Concern for future generations is only one element in the integral ecology of Pope Francis. “It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity.” His ecology is led by the love of God and neighbor, and guided by a strong commitment to ethics. His ecology is unlike any ecology found in government, politics, or international secular organizations.

161. “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”

Earlier, in paragraph 61, Pope Francis spoke of setting aside the doomsday predictions of some environmentalists. But here he delves into the possibility that we could so harm the earth as to leave a set of very grave environmental problems to future generations. He is right. While we should not readily accept every exaggerated claim of harm to the environment, we cannot deny that a world of over 7 billion persons, in a highly industrialized society, can cause grave and lasting harm to nature.

162. “Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification.”

The integral ecology of Pope Francis criticizes modern society for its ethical and cultural decline, for the environment includes individuals and social groups, as well as the natural world around us.


163. “now we shall try to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.”


164. We must “ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries.”

“A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries. Such a consensus could lead, for example, to planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water.”

The idea of a global consensus does not contradict the Catholic principle of subsidiarity:

It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, 79)

As Christians, we seek a global consensus whereby all persons live in the love of neighbor, with good will towards one another. We proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, and hope that everyone will accept Christ. But a global consensus does not imply a global authority. Each person is entitled to own private property, yet there is a common destination of all good, a type of general ownership. These two types of ownership are balanced against one another: specific and general ownership. Similarly, solving the world’s problems requires grassroots efforts, from individuals and small groups, as well as a national, regional, and global efforts.

165. ” We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.”

Here we have a judgment of the prudential order, which seems correct to my mind, that fossil fuels are highly polluting and need to be replaced. This type of assertion is not a teaching, and certainly not a required belief, but

166. ” Worldwide, the ecological movement has made significant advances, thanks also to the efforts of many organizations of civil society.”

167. “The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro is worth mentioning. It proclaimed that ‘human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development’.”

168. “Among positive experiences in this regard, we might mention, for example, the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes, with its system of reporting, standards and controls. There is also the binding Convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, which includes on-site visits for verifying effective compliance. Thanks to the Vienna Convention for the protection of the ozone layer and its implementation through the Montreal Protocol and amendments, the problem of the layer’s thinning seems to have entered a phase of resolution.”

Based on these examples, the Pontiff is not proposing a global authority to force compliance with environment standards, but rather a set of cooperative agreements with incentives for compliance. Still, this type of global approach must be used cautiously — as the Pontiff points out in n. 170 below.

169. “As far as the protection of biodiversity and issues related to desertification are concerned, progress has been far less significant. With regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few…. We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.”

I suggest that prayer, self-denial, works of mercy, and the spread of the Gospel are more effective than international conventions and political wrangling at serving the common good.

170. “Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries. Imposing such measures penalizes those countries most in need of development. A further injustice is perpetrated under the guise of protecting the environment. Here also, the poor end up paying the price.”

171. ” The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”

Pope Francis here sharply criticizes a favorite approach to global warming on the political left: carbon credits. This encyclical is far less liberal than the mass media would have us believe.

172. “For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.”

“In any event, these are primarily ethical decisions, rooted in solidarity between all peoples.”

What a vast difference there is between political environmentalism and the integral ecology of Pope Francis! He focuses on ethics and the common good. He puts the needs of the poor above the needs of the environment, while seeking the good of both. And he’s correct that poverty, consumerism, and corruption are serious problems in their own right, as well as serious obstacles to solving environmental problems.

173. “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention. Relations between states must be respectful of each other’s sovereignty….”

A balance is needed between global agreements and local sovereignty, which follows the principle of subsidiarity. Pope Francis emphasizes the global perspective, but he is not suggesting the imposition of a solution by a global authority.

174. “The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges.”

175. “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions.”

— 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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