Washington D.C. (CNA) - What does it mean to be truly pro-life? Amid debates over abortion and the death penalty, Catholic ecologists say that one issue is often overlooked in discussions involving human life and dignity - the environment.
"Environmental truths are very much linked to and related to human life issues. They're really one in the same," said Bill Patenaude, a special lecturer in theology at Providence College and founder of the website "Catholic Ecology."
He explained that recent Popes have drawn a clear connection between the dignity of the human person and the surrounding environment.
"The Church has had a fundamental respect for nature since the very beginning and has brought it to the world," Patenaude told CNA.
Discussions abound regarding environmental problems, their causes and a proper Catholic response. Pope Francis is expected to weigh in with an upcoming encyclical later this year.
In wading through the often contentious debate surrounding environmental issues, Catholic ecologists say that the Church - both as individuals and communities - must take the opportunity to steer decisions that both steward the environment and respect humanity.
The Poor Bear the Burden
Many people think of air, water and land as an infinite resource, said Jim Ennis, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. But pollution, contamination and other environmental struggle challenge this assumption and often have the greatest adverse effect on the poor.
The subject is one that hits close to home for Ennis. In his childhood home of rural Northern California, high levels of nitrates from fertilizers contaminated the local community's groundwater.
When such problems arise, poor communities and individuals inordinately bear the burden, he continued, noting that the most vulnerable in society often lack access to technological remedies or protective resources.
Pollutants, such as nitrates, can impede the development of young and unborn children, or cause other health problems for the elderly, infirm and those with weakened immune systems. With issues such as drought or severe pollution, which can depress crop growth and thus agriculture income, the lack of treatment and prevention options can further compound economic hardships facing a community.
Ennis believes that Catholics have a duty to help address these challenges facing the poor and the environment more generally.
"Especially as a Catholic, we have a great understanding of how God has created all things," he said. "He has created human beings to be in relationship with Him, but he has also created the universe and the world as a gift as men and women, to be stewards of it, and we really can't live without it as human beings."
Human Ecology and the Holy Life
The environment can be a topic fraught with controversy. Government and non-profit groups point to record snowfalls and unprecedented high temperatures as reasons for worry. In the ocean, "dead zones" and patches of garbage grow, while reports of rising Arctic temperatures and melting sea ice continue.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says that changes in rain patterns contribute to the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses in some areas, while causing water scarcity that affects crops and vulnerable communities in other areas. In recent decades, questions about declining water and soil quality have become more prominent, while numerous organization say that global carbon dioxide levels are continuing to rise.
Debates on the science behind various claims is often heated. However, Patenaude explained, the key to a Catholic perspective on these issues is that environment must not be viewed in isolation, but rather as a matter of human dignity and living a holy life.
The three most recent Popes have focused heavily on the theme of "human ecology," which finds its basis in both the physical laws of nature and the moral natural law. Both the natural and moral law are "laws that God has hardwired into human nature" that humans violate at their own peril, he explained.
The challenge of Catholic teaching is to work for the human good while caring for the creation God has made, he continued.
Pope Benedict in particular expanded on the theological roots of the connection between humanity and the environment, Patenaude noted. The pontiff emphasized the Church's role in bringing constant truths to an often-changing world and taught that the Church is "is obliged to love in the present," a demand that requires sacrifice.
"To be an environmentalist, we have to pick up our crosses, we have to sacrifice," Patenaude said. "We have to have sacrificial self-restraint, so we sacrifice our desires for the sake of others."
Pope Francis is now continuing on the groundwork his predecessor laid, the professor continued. He noted that the Pope often comments on the "culture of waste" and will focus on the environment in his upcoming encyclical.
The Pope also draws a link between environmental and human life issues in conversations on topics including food waste and the disregard for the human dignity of the unborn and elderly, Patenaude said.
Pope Francis' teachings reject the idea that combating the culture of waste or caring for the environment should be an additional item to accomplish on top of other Catholic duties, he added.
"Lots of times we see accepting environmental responsibilities as another burden we have to add to our lives," he said. But instead, "it's part of our principal goal of trying to live a holy life."
Patentaude pointed to monastic communities as an excellent example for Catholics to emulate in their daily lives. Religious "lived in accordance with the laws of nature, they grew what they needed, they worked for that with nature, and that freed up a lot of time to pray to God for themselves and for the good of the world."
Adding additional prayers and sacrifices, such as those practiced during Lent, to one's daily routine can not only help with the spiritual life, but also with detachment from material matters, which makes people "environmentalists without even thinking about it" he said.
The Church and Environmental Policy
Because of this strong understanding of the link between respecting human dignity and care for the natural world, Catholics have an important role to play in international discussions on the potential challenges of climate change and development, said Lucia Silecchia, a law professor at The Catholic University of America.
"It's important to have a Catholic voice in that discussion, because a lot of what those secular environmental groups are proposing undermine the dignity of the human person," she told CNA.
"There is a tendency to see the human person as no different than anything else, denying the notion that only the human is made in the image and likeness of God." This shortsightedness, Silecchia said, can lead to ideas that threaten human life and dignity, such as population control.
By participating in the conversation about environmental protection, the Church can help to dispel false information and promote ideas that protect both the dignity of the human person and the environment, she stressed. Additionally, the Catholic Church has a perspective on the entirety of the world that secular voices engaged in environmentalism often lack, she said.
"One of the advantages of the Church is that it's global and has a real sense of what's going on around the world," Silecchia explained.
Many international players lose track of the many issues related to environmental change - such as poverty, development, and care for humanity, which the Church routinely discusses - she said.
The Church and the writings of the Popes provide guidance for how to address these issues while still respecting humanity that can apply to the formulation of international policy, she explained. First, those addressing climate change should "take a look at whether or not ecological concerns are a symptom of other moral issues" like overconsumption, disregard for human life or exploitation.
The international community can also learn from the Church's focus on solidarity and in promoting a sustainable model of economic development, Silecchia continued.
Developed nations can help to share technological knowledge and expertise with developing nations and can also help to support scientific and economic research to "look at what's practical and what's possible" to help persons in developing countries, she said.
"The Church has a very healthy respect for science and in some sense an optimism that there are some technological solutions possible if we set our minds to that," she explained. She pointed to the example of alternative energy sources and other technologies that may help developing countries without as harsh of an impact on the environment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is helping to promote domestic policies aimed at caring for the poor, the vulnerable and creation. Cecilia Calvo, environmental justice program coordinator for the conference, told CNA that the bishops have been involved in this discussion for decades. Most recently, they "have advocated for policies that address climate change and protect humanity," including standards that reduce carbon pollution.
Because of the Church's teachings, the bishops see engagement in this issue as a way to not only take better care of God's creation, but also to care for the poor and vulnerable, she said, reinforcing that a failure to steward creation "also impacts humanity, particularly the least of these."
"The bishops, in looking at environmental questions, have called for prudent action, action that promotes the common good for present and future generations, respects human life and dignity while giving a priority to the poor and vulnerable" when formulating their policies, Calvo said.
Cooperating with God: What Catholics can do at home
The U.S. bishops' conference is also encouraging lay Catholics, parishes and families to engage more in helping to care for creation. They are asking for increased prayer, learning, assessment of one's personal behaviors, action and environmental advocacy from Catholics across the country.
The goal, Calvo said, is not to separate care for the environment as a separate issue, but to support Catholics in looking "at environmental questions and challenges facing us in an integrated way."
Also, as the publication of the upcoming encyclical on creation draws near, Catholics should "learn more about Catholic teaching on the environment and listen to Pope Francis on this issue," Calvo advised.
"It's a very special moment to place attention on environmental concern through the unique lens of Catholic teaching."
Ennis also recommended steps that Catholics can take in their daily lives to work alongside nature. Most important, he said, was to cultivate a change in mindset, recognizing man's role in stewarding the world that God created.
"Human beings are not just independent parts of creation," Ennis stressed. "We as human beings are part of the overall creation, and we have a responsibility to tend and to keep the Earth."
Environmental conservation, he said, should involve "a change of heart and a change of mind to understanding how our Lord works through nature."
This is a matter of mindset, he said, likening it to the difference in approach between couples using artificial contraception versus those cooperating with their nature in Natural Family Planning.
"Just because, mechanically, you can do that, does that mean it's right?" he asked, saying that the mindset behind both artificial contraception and a disregard for the environment results in an "alienation of men and women from nature."
Instead, Ennis offered, "there's a way we can cooperate with nature and be cooperators with God."
Shifting one's viewpoint and placing greater thought on cooperating with creation may lead to small changes - such as using fewer chemicals to treat a lawn. But these little steps are importance, Ennis said, because they break with the "very mechanistic, utilitarian view" of much of Western culture. This viewpoint instead asks, "How do I work with nature that God has created?"
Working through small, incremental changes, such as recycling or reusing materials when possible, is an effort that "starts in our homes, and then moves into our communities," he said. These small changes are also measures parishes can put into effect that not only respect the environment, but can save money as well.
Ennis cautioned that skepticism over the political and social connotations associated with environmentalism could slow the creation of a culture of stewardship.
"This kind of transformation - it takes time," he acknowledged.
But he encouraged Catholics not to shy from taking whatever small steps they can to cooperate with creation. "That's the Catholic and Christian way anyway: we're often countercultural."
"It's not just a trend or a fad," Ennis said. It's a way to "care for this earth in a way that can be responsible."