Pope Francis on the Environment: Part Eight


In this section, the Pontiff applies the principle of subsidiarity. He balances his previous call for global efforts with national and local responsibility and authority as well.

176. “Questions related to the environment and economic development can no longer be approached only from the standpoint of differences between countries; they also call for greater attention to policies on the national and local levels.”

177. “Given the real potential for a misuse of human abilities, individual states can no longer ignore their responsibility for planning, coordination, oversight and enforcement within their respective borders.”

178. “True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good.”

179. “local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instil a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.”

“Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”

180. “There are no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations.”

181. “Here, continuity is essential, because policies related to climate change and environmental protection cannot be altered with every change of government.”

Pope Francis chides politicians for their partisanship and refusal to develop plans that are acceptable across the political spectrum. He sees “pressure from the public and from civic institutions” as having an important role in overcoming this partisanship.


182. “An assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views. On the other hand, the forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for favours, usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate.”

183. “A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders, who can offer a variety of approaches, solutions and alternatives. The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest. We need to stop thinking in terms of “interventions” to save the environment in favour of policies developed and debated by all interested parties.”

Pope Francis is optimistic that people can act according to good morals, and overcome selfish immediate goals, whether economic or political. Of course, he is describing the correct approach. But it is difficult to achieve in this fallen sinful world.

184. “The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information.”

The Pope is not against development, industrialization, expansion of agriculture, and use of natural resources to meet human needs. But he wishes us to behave at all times with the love of God and neighbor as our guide. Ethics must pervade our every endeavor, whether economic, political, or environmental.

185. “In this discernment, some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.”

186. “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof.”

The burden of proof that a project does more harm than good should not fall on the poor of the affected region, but on those who are proposing and funding the project.

In Roman Catholic moral theology, any act which can be reasonably anticipated to do more harm than good is an immoral act. In the three fonts of morality, the third font is the circumstances, which depends for its morality on the totality of the good and bad consequences of the act to all persons affected. So the Pope’s assertion, that a project which does more harm than good should be halted, is entirely in accord with Catholic moral teaching. This encyclical proposes that ecology be based on ethics, not on an exaltation of nature, as if it were a god to be worshiped.

187. “This does not mean being opposed to any technological innovations which can bring about an improvement in the quality of life.”

188. “Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.”

When the Pope speaks about scientific questions, he is not teaching a doctrine, but working from human knowledge to make judgment of the prudential order. The Church has two types of authority: the teaching authority and the temporal authority. The latter makes judgment of the prudential order based on mere human knowledge, and those judgments are fallible. So the Pope can delve into matters of judgment, assessing scientific information and political proposals, but this does not imply a decision of doctrine.


189. “Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.”

The integral ecology of Pope Francis includes politics, economics, and especially human life.

Pope Francis is pro-business: “it is the real economy which makes diversification and improvement in production possible, helps companies to function well, and enables small and medium businesses to develop and create employment.” He does not condemn capitalism, as many persons falsely claim. Rather, he criticizes the way that capitalism is implemented. Criticism is not condemnation.

190. “Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.”

I’ve heard this view of the free market expressed on political talk shows. Various commentators claim that the free market will solve the problems faced by humanity, as if the free market were magical or god-like. But the Pontiff is clearly correct in saying that capitalism and a free market economy are not sufficient to address or solve many problems. He is not condemning the free market, but only pointing out its limitations and the need for its moderation based on conscience.

191. “If we look at the larger picture, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable. It is a matter of openness to different possibilities which do not involve stifling human creativity and its ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels.”

Pope Francis is not against production or profits. He simply wishes those with the most influence over the economy to take into account human needs and our stewardship over creation.

192. “Productive diversification offers the fullest possibilities to human ingenuity to create and innovate, while at the same time protecting the environment and creating more sources of employment. Such creativity would be a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities, for we would be striving intelligently, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality of life. On the other hand, to find ever new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items and quick profit, would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial.”

There is no inherent conflict between economic development and ethical use of our resources. We can protect nature and seek a higher quality of life for all human persons, especially the poor, while creating more sources of employment and a diversified economy.

193. “We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

194. “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.”

195. “Yet only when ‘the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations’, can those actions be considered ethical.” [Inner quote from Pope Benedict XVI].

196. “What happens with politics? Let us keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity, which grants freedom to develop the capabilities present at every level of society, while also demanding a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power.”

“The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society.”

197. “Often, politics itself is responsible for the disrepute in which it is held, on account of corruption and the failure to enact sound public policies. If in a given region the state does not carry out its responsibilities, some business groups can come forward in the guise of benefactors, wield real power, and consider themselves exempt from certain rules, to the point of tolerating different forms of organized crime, human trafficking, the drug trade and violence, all of which become very difficult to eradicate.”

The integral ecology of Pope Francis includes concern for ethics in politics and business, and concern for the harm done to humanity by grave crimes. This approach to ecology is thoroughly Christian, since we understand the plan of God to include every aspect of human life and creation.

198. “Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation. It is to be hoped that they can acknowledge their own mistakes and find forms of interaction directed to the common good. While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable.”

— 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.

Please support my work by purchasing one of my books or booklets. Thanks.

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One Response to Pope Francis on the Environment: Part Eight

  1. Paul says:

    Thanks for this series on Laudato si’, Ron.

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