Pope Francis, in the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si states: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us”. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
Pope Francis often speaks of our “common home” and he praises all who strive for the upkeep of this home and challenges Christians to a radical ecological conversion. He says, “The urgent challenge to protect our common home is includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. Here I want to recognise, encourage and thanks all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share.” (Laudato Si)
Laudato Si is the Church’s most extensive work in the area of the environment and in it Pope Francis speaks of the causes of the current crisis. He speaks of a striking political impotence and the mindless economic exploitation of the earth which results. The core reason for the crisis is man himself, in a general disturbance of his relationship with creation.
Sustainability: a new social principle?
The pope also goes as far as to suggest a possible new social principle, that of sustainability. This principle relates to and puts into action the traditional principles of social ethics with regard to human living conditions and the survival of the earth itself. When we talk about stability we refer to safeguarding the long-term stability of the earth’s ecosystem and its natural ability to regenerate its resources. Of course, this concern for the earth’s ecosystem is not an end in itself. Ultimately we must work for the unconditional dignity of the human person. Man is the centre of the world, not nature and not animals, even though we know that it benefits man when care is taken to keep nature intact and when animals have species-appropriate habitats. Protecting nature and protecting mankind are two sides of the same coin for Christian ethics.
It is helpful to bear in mind that the concept of sustainability can also become an ideology; only rarely then does it appear as something socially and technologically feasible, as a political plan that should be put into action forcefully. The Christian faith is critical of ideologies, for it does not believe in perfect solutions. It does mobilise all possible forces to achieve sustainable, just, and dignified human living conditions, but in the end, it lives by the hope that God will ultimately perfect what we human beings cannot achieve, even with the best intentions, namely, a paradise that actually works.
We need to be careful to use the resources of the earth sparingly and in a more thoughtful way so that as many people as possible can have the chance to share in it. The Church is the oldest ‘global player’ and is therefore capable of worldwide responsibility for the ecological crisis. And it is only responsibility that will turn the tide.
The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the ‘precautionary principle’, which does not mean applying rules but certain guidelines aimed at managing the situation of uncertainty. This requires that decisions be based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives, including the decision not to intervene.
The use of new biotechnologies can be a source of hope and enthusiasm on the one hand, and of alarm and hostility on the other. There is no reason why humanity cannot intervene in nature, provided it is done responsibly. The acceptability of the use of biological an biogenetic techniques is one part of the ethical problem. Another is the need to evaluate accurately the real benefits as well as the possible consequences in terms of risks. Modern biotechnologies have powerful social, economic and political impact locally, nationally and internationally. They need to be evaluated according to the ethical criteria that must always guide human activities and relations in the social, economic and political spheres. Above all the criteria of justice and solidarity must be taken into account.
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