Remarks of Archbishop Thomas G.  Wenski, Chair, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development
June 10, 2015


Brothers, Bishop Cantú and I are happy to speak with you today about a significant moment in the life of the Church. As you know, shortly after we leave St. Louis, Pope Francis will release an encyclical on the awesome responsibility of stewarding creation.

In September, our Holy Father comes to the United States, and the content of the encyclical will be one of the many topics heightened by his visit.

On Tuesday, a number of you joined Bishop Cantú and me for a workshop on the encyclical. We highlighted many resources to help support you in communicating with the faithful on this important teaching.

Some may be asking why we are talking about a document that we haven't seen. Like you, Bishop Cantú and I don't have an advance copy just yet.

Even so, we do have quite a bit to draw from:

  1. We have a rich tradition of teaching around stewardship of creation, rooted firmly in scripture.
  2. We have the teaching of the popes before Pope Francis, particularly St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
  3. The Holy Father has spoken about care for creation from the first moment of his pontificate, so we have his own words.
  4. We also have a lot of insight from speeches given by Cardinal Turkson and others who are close to the drafting of the encyclical.

Given all these resources, there's a great deal we can say about what to expect.

The Catholic Voice

But before I go on, I want to emphasize an important point.

As bishops, we know God gave humankind a charge to till and cultivate the earth. Scripture is clear on the point. We can either bring our rich understanding of our role as stewards to the conversation, or we can retreat from the global debate, allowing other voices to carry the day – in particular, the voices of those who view the number of human beings in the world as the primary ecological problem.

But we know that we can't opt out of this conversation. We're called to engage in public life and work for the common good. As environmental solutions are sought and ideas implemented, we have a significant responsibility to ensure that these solutions care for creation while resisting a culture of waste, protect the poor and vulnerable, and respect the sanctity and dignity of life. As she does in so many areas, the Church can stand in the breach against human desires to debase God's created order and the universe he set in motion.

Scripture and Our Tradition

Our roots are found in scripture, and the Holy Father has turned our attention here again and again. The Book of Genesis draws us into God's creative activity. We reflect on the Holy Spirit moving mightily over the waters. God sets into motion powerful and dynamic effects; from nothing comes a great tidal wave of activity, an unfathomable but ordered, clearly ordered, creation.

As God adorned the universe with diverse and stunning species, he made our first parents out of the very earth he would set them over as caretakers. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God formed Adam "out of the dust of the ground."

Conversations on ecology are enriched by our understanding that Adam and Eve were not simply created things among many others. When God breathed the breath of life, something of his own spirit, into them, we learn that human beings, unlike other things, were "made in [his] image, after [his] likeness" (Gen 1:26). Scripture highlights that the human person has a high place in the created order. When Adam and Eve were placed in the center of the garden, God saw that his work was very good, indeed.

Just after God had created Adam we read: "The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it." (Gen 2:15)

We teach that humanity was charged with this cultivation for all time. We are to approach the use of resources and the goods of the earth with our hearts aimed toward the glory of our Creator, and our eyes wide open to the needs of our sisters and brothers, including those who will come after us.

Pope Francis will continue to call people of faith to bring this Genesis perspective to the weighty conversations on ecology that loom large before us.

Previous Popes

Brothers, we resist the idea that Pope Francis is speaking in a vacuum on ecology. We know that other Popes have helped to unfold this important teaching of the Church. In 1990, while warning about the depletion of the ozone layer, Saint John Paul II wrote:

Theology, philosophy and science all speak of a harmonious universe, of a "cosmos" endowed with its own integrity, its own internal, dynamic balance. This order must be respected. The human race is called to explore this order, to examine it with due care and to make use of it while safeguarding its integrity.

Pope Benedict XVI was known as the "green pope" because of his various pronouncements on the environment, especially in Caritas in Veritate, and because of measures he took to reduce Vatican City's carbon footprint.

In a message for the celebration of the 2010 World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Benedict asked: "Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?"

Expected Themes

With this context, I turn for a moment to expected themes. The Pope is likely to speak about the idea of an "integral ecology," the concept that our care for one another and the way we relate to the environment are intimately related. We're called to cooperate with God's design in our relationship with the natural world and in our relationships with one another. When one suffers the other will as well.

For the past two years, Pope Francis has been challenging us to resist the "throwaway culture" and build a culture of solidarity and encounter. He will surely continue to ask the world to abandon practices that casually discard both people and the gifts of the earth.

The Pope and we bishops are not scientists, but we are pastors — and in so far as climate change affects human beings, it is a moral issue. The poor have a first claim on our consciences in matters pertaining to the common good. They have contributed least to climate change yet suffer most from its consequences. Knowing Pope Francis as we do, concern for the poor will be central to the encyclical.

There will be more, and no doubt much that is unexpected as well. As shepherds, we can help to create space for people of good will to consider the Holy Father's message on the environment prayerfully, humbly, and with open hearts and minds.

And of course we aren't novices on this topic, brothers. In 1991, we issued our first statement on the environment, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching. Almost 15 years ago, in 2001, we issued our climate change statement, "Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good. These documents covered many similar themes to those the Pope will tackle. Our desire then for real dialogue and to take on the big questions on care for creation with a spirit of solidarity and innovation still holds today.

Bishop Cantú will now provide some insight into the international aspects of the encyclical and we will take some questions. Thank you.

Remarks of Bishop Oscar Cantú
Chairman, Committee on International Justice and Peace

Archbishop Wenski has laid out some of the likely major themes of Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical.  As Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, I would like to focus on its global implications.

When I was named a bishop, a friend of mine quipped, “Life is changed, not ended.”  Indeed, all of our lives changed when we were ordained bishops.  Our concerns were no longer confined to being parochial or even diocesan.  The Second Vatican Council reminded us, “As legitimate successors of the Apostles and members of the episcopal college, bishops should realize that they are bound together and should manifest a concern for all the churches.” For us, life was indeed changed.  The horizon of our concern was broadened.

My responsibilities as your International Chairman have widened my circle of concern far beyond the confines of the Diocese of Las Cruces.  I know that as leaders of local Churches, we all understand that the welfare of our people is intimately linked to the welfare of our nation.  And in this age of globalization, we all know that the welfare of our nation, and of every one of our citizens, is linked to the health of our world.

We can expect Pope Francis to champion this global perspective in his encyclical on ecology.  In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis lamented the development of a “globalization of indifference.”  He called for it to be replaced with “global solidarity.”

The principle of “solidarity” was taught powerfully by Saint John Paul II.  The Church has come to understand that the health of the global human family is dependent on the welfare of its weakest members.  This insight is not new, but it has new implications in this age of globalization.  As Saint Paul wrote of the Church: “[A]ll the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. … If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12).  The same is true of God’s human family.

The good news is that there is a deep synergy between local and global needs. The Holy Father in his encyclical will certainly strive to help us to see these connections and to act on them.  Let me offer a few examples of linkages he is likely to explore.

First, of course, there is the obvious connection between environmental degradation and human health.  As I wrote recently in a letter of support to the Latin American Bishops’ Conference:  We have “long been concerned about the implications of extractives and mining operations throughout the world, especially in Latin America. ... [O]ur Committee is aware of the … often calamitous public health and environmental consequences of poorly regulated mining operations….”  We have heard heartbreaking stories of birth deformities terrible illnesses and premature deaths linked to poor environmental practices, sadly sometimes by U.S.-owned industries. The tragedy is that mining, which respects the environment and public health, could be a boon to Central American countries, generating employment and stability. But when poorly done, it contributes to violence, poor health and pressures to migrate north.

This brings us to a second linkage.  Ecology and human security are profoundly related.  For many years, our Conference of Bishops has followed the tragedy in Darfur, Sudan. What many people overlook is that a major driver of the conflict is ecology.  Climate shifts exacerbated droughts in the 1980s, and more and more land became desertified. The land could no longer support both herders and farmers.  Largely Arab Muslim herders came into conflict with largely African Muslim farmers.  Today, the desertification of whole regions of the Sahel is driving violent conflict in a number of countries.  Ominously, this conflict leads to a breakdown of the rule of law, and to social and economic exclusion, conditions often exploited by extremists.  The U.S. military agrees that climate change is a significant driver of instability and a major national security concern.

Third, Pope Francis will most certainly explore the linkage between ecology and the poor.  It is no secret that poor countries have contributed least to the human drivers of environmental degradation and climate change.  More highly advanced societies and their patterns of consumption and waste are much larger factors.  But ironically, those who contributed least to the problem suffer its worst impacts.  The range of tropical diseases is spreading.  Low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh, are suffering from sea level rise.  Island nations are at risk from intensified storms as the Philippines knows too well.  Agriculture is suffering.  Our relief and development agency, Catholic Relief Services, is engaging these ecological challenges every day throughout the world.

Even our own nation has not been immune to the intensification of storms, but there is a difference.  Our nation and the rest of the developed world have the resources both to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts.  Poorer nations largely lack such resources.

Here again we encounter the need for solidarity.  Not only is it important for humanitarian reasons that the United States assist poorer countries through mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund, an initiative to help poorer nations adapt to and mitigate climate change, it is also important for our own people that we do so.

Poor nations need to develop in order to reduce poverty, but we must help them to follow a more sustainable path to economic development than the one we took.  If they develop in unsustainable ways, they and all of us will suffer from the climate impacts.  But if we use U.S. generosity and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs to create renewable sources of energy and help poor countries to adopt sustainable technologies, we will all benefit.

Fourth, Pope Francis will undoubtedly explore the linkage between care for creation and agriculture. He has already spoken about “the crucial vocation of cultivating and protecting natural resources to feed humanity” and to insure “that all may be free from hunger.”   In this context, the Holy Father is likely to remind us of the “universal destination of all goods” so that the bounty of the earth meets the needs of all.

Now let me take on one false linkage that masquerades as common wisdom, the supposed link between ecology and population.  There are those whose “solution” to our ecological challenges is to promote population control aggressively in developing countries. But as we know, greenhouse gases are primarily produced by a small portion of the world’s population in advanced economies.  The real issues are consumption, waste and unsustainable practices.  The solution is not to have fewer people in developing countries, but to have more sustainable practices in both advanced and developing nations.  Having contributed the most to the problem, the developed nations need to be a bigger part of the solution, assisting developing countries in mitigation and adaptation.

I imagine that when Pope Francis goes to the United Nations in September that he will highlight the need for developed economies to make major investments in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, eliminating extreme poverty and the desperation that often drives conflict, and enabling poor countries and peoples to develop in sustainable ways.

Pope Francis, like Saint John Paul and Pope Benedict before him, will challenge the assumptions of both the left and the right.  He will call all of us to a wider vision, a global vision, to the globalization of solidarity.   He will help us lead our people to a greater appreciation of the link between the welfare of their families and wise national and global policies.

The Holy Father will call for an integral ecology that links the welfare of God’s people and God’s creation, of rich and poor, of our nation and world. His teaching could help us all rise above parochial interests and embrace what is in everyone's best interests, the common good of the human family.