As this issue of The Catechetical Review was going to print, there were indications that Pope Francis would soon publish an encyclical on the topic of ecology. As a preparation for this encyclical, Fr. Peter Conley examines a central theme in the ecological teaching of St. John Paul II: the responsibility to safeguard the environment as a natural consequence of who the human person is.
At the “book ends” of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis of Assisi (in 1979) and then St. Benedict (in 1997) patrons for the care of God’s creation.[i] The saintly pontiff’s teaching on ecology was never substantively treated as the subject of a teaching document. Hence, its richness has tended to remain nestled within the earth of his many encyclicals, addresses, and messages. A few years ago, prompted by the discovery of an initial clue to the treasure trove that awaited me, I began some eager spadework to excavate what I could of John Paul II’s wisdom on the topic of ecology. His insights are of immense benefit to those we teach, particularly as young people today are coming to age in a world that is more and more engaged with the environmental issues.
The concept of “human ecology” first made an appearance in Catholic social teaching in Centesimus Annus in 1991. John Paul II’s insight was that the term “ecology” had become almost exclusively applied to the natural environment in debates about conservation. In this encyclical he observed: “not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God’s gift to man.”[ii] In the mind of this pope, the proper stewardship of the natural world is a good that is required of humanity. However, a balanced view of ecology begins with a correct understanding of the ecology of the human person.