Pope John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pope John Paul II’s message for the World Day of Peace confirmed his teaching of the moral duty of Christians to protect the environment, heralding the beginning of “ecotheology.”

Summary of Event

Although Pope John Paul II’s message Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation was written for the World Day of Peace, World Day of Peace (1990) January 1, 1990, it was first issued almost a month earlier, on December 8, 1989, and was anticipated by many earlier addresses by the pontiff. Although it did not carry the ecclesial authority of an encyclical, this message had a profound impact on Roman Catholic teaching on ecology. Catholic environmentalist groups such as the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology (NACCE), based in Washington, D.C., and an offshoot group, the North American Conference on Religion and Ecology (NACRE), took heart from the Peace Day message, and their memberships increased significantly. More important, the papal teaching gave conservative Catholics a theological ground for reconciling the biblical concept of “dominion” over creation with the nurturing sensibility demanded by what the pope called an “ecological crisis.” Environmental awareness Ecotheology Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation (John Paul II) [kw]Pope John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message (Dec. 8, 1989) [kw]John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message, Pope (Dec. 8, 1989) [kw]Environmental Message, Pope John Paul II Issues an (Dec. 8, 1989) Environmental awareness Ecotheology Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation (John Paul II) [g]Europe;Dec. 8, 1989: Pope John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message[07460] [g]Italy;Dec. 8, 1989: Pope John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message[07460] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Dec. 8, 1989: Pope John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message[07460] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 8, 1989: Pope John Paul II Issues an Environmental Message[07460] John Paul II

By using the language of Genesis in his Peace Day message, Pope John Paul II was able to demonstrate that the doctrine of “dominion” does not imply the kind of radical opposition to ecology that some Christian fundamentalists had proposed. The word appears in a prelapsarian context, he observed, and the Fall abrogated the intended dominion, breaking the harmony between humanity and the rest of creation. By connecting the ecological crisis with sin and the Fall, the pope was able to discuss ecology as a moral issue.

The moral duty of caring for creation was a consistent part of the pope’s thought from the beginning of his pontificate. His first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (1978), Redemptor Hominis (papal encyclical) offered his earliest interpretation of the biblical concept of dominion as stewardship rather than domination (section 16). In the apostolic letter Inter Sanctos (1979), Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saint Francis of Assisi to be the patron saint of ecology, urging all the faithful to imitate the saint’s respect for the integrity of creation. In a September 12, 1983, address to scientists and artists, the pontiff urged his listeners to preserve and nurture the earth.

Two years before the Peace Day message, on December 30, 1987, the pope issued the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns), On Social Concerns (papal encyclical) in which he included ecological issues under the category of social concerns and officially designated them as moral concerns for Roman Catholics everywhere. This document also turned to Genesis for the language of “ecotheology,” citing God’s injunction after Adam and Eve’s sin “to till the ground.” The encyclical is unambiguous in insisting that “dominion” does not mean domination and that there are clear moral limits to the human uses of creation. In fact, even the concept of use is flawed, the pope said, if it does not honor the inherent value of all creatures based on their own relationship to God. Failure to respect each creature’s relationship to God is a grave moral issue.

Although Sollicitudo Rei Socialis is not restricted to the topic of ecology, as is Peace with God the Creator, it carries greater weight with the Roman Catholic faithful by virtue of its status as an encyclical, which is solemnly binding as a moral teaching. Section 29 of the 1987 encyclical uses the same language from Genesis that later informed the ecological address Peace with God the Creator. Here the pope uses the word “dominion” (section 29) but defines it by making it synonymous with the Edenic mandate of cultivating the garden of the world (section 30). Economic development (the major topic of the encyclical), the pope says, must not occur at the expense of polluting the environment (section 34). This language makes the preservation of the integrity of the environment a moral imperative.

The collapse of European communism in the two years following the proclamation of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis led John Paul II—the first pope from a Warsaw Pact nation—to realize that the events of 1989 would reorder the practical applications of any ecologically sound economic development of the world. Although the pope’s thoughts on the events of 1989 and their consequences would not see publication until the encyclical Centesimus Annus of May 2, 1991, they must have influenced the Peace Day message with which he closed 1989. The language of the 1991 encyclical again echoes Genesis and attributes humanity’s destruction of the environment to the “anthropological error” of confusing dominion with domination.

Although ecological concerns were clearly a major part of John Paul II’s thinking from the beginning of his pontificate, the pope’s scientific advisers and commissions in the late 1980’s increasingly called for a precise theological statement of the moral import of ecology. Shortly before stepping down as president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in October, 1988, Carlos Chagas Chagas, Carlos urged the pope to speak out on the issue and offered the services of the academy to help disseminate the message. Monsignor Diarmuid Martin, Martin, Diarmuid secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, called at the same time for a papal document on the environment.

The Franciscan Order, heirs of the patron saint of ecology, opened an Institute of Environmental Studies in Rome in late 1989. The Nova Spes Foundation, Nova Spes Foundation a Catholic organization dedicated to harmonizing science and religion, invited the pope to deliver its year-end address in 1989 on the theme of “Man, the Environment, and Development: Towards a Global Approach.” Whether by chance or by insight, Cardinal Franz König, König, Franz president and founder of Nova Spes, had anticipated the topic of the pope’s Peace Day message, which was issued nine days before the Nova Spes conference took place.

On the eve of the publication of the pope’s Peace Day message, the Christian world seemed receptive to it. In June, 1989, the World Council of Churches World Council of Churches had held conferences in Bern, Switzerland, and San Antonio, Texas, on the topic of “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation.” In conjunction with the United Nations, it had declared Sunday, June 18, 1989, an “environmental Sabbath” in which clergy of all denominations were urged to preach on the cherishing of creation. When Pope John Paul II issued Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation on December 8, 1989, his voice was thus in harmony with those of many of the world’s other religious leaders.

Significance

Reaction to the pope’s World Day of Peace message was immediate, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church. Although relatively short (slightly more than thirty-three hundred words) and classed as a message rather than as an encyclical, Peace with God the Creator was the only papal document in the two-thousand-year history of the Church to deal exclusively with ecology. It prompted Catholic leaders in the area of environmental issues to act. The U.S. Catholic Conference Social Action Committee issued a policy paper early in 1990 on the relationship between economics and the environment that precisely reflected the environmental concerns expressed in the pope’s 1987 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

One of the most visible American Catholic environmental activists, the Reverend Donald B. Conroy, Conroy, Donald B. had resigned from the NACCE (founded in 1986) only one year before the pope’s Peace Day message. Conroy’s splinter group, the North American Conference on Religion and Ecology, North American Conference on Religion and Ecology used the impetus of the pope’s address to boost its image and membership. From May 23 through May 26, NACRE sponsored a high-profile ecology and religion summit titled “Caring for the Creation.” Participants included astronomer Carl Sagan, Sagan, Carl Great Britain’s Prince Philip, and U.S. senator Al Gore of Tennessee. The event was held shortly after the twentieth annual observance of Earth Day Earth Day (April 22, 1990), and the Earth Day committee urged the congregations that had participated in the previous June’s “environmental Sabbath” to include ecological themes in their worship.

The experience of sharing views with religious leaders at the NACRE summit led Sagan and others to organize a similar conference in May, 1992, under the auspices of Sagan’s group, the Joint Appeal. Joint Appeal The text of that group’s policy brief was published in the March 1, 1992, issue of the high-circulation magazine Parade, which is distributed by many major newpapers.

The publication of the brief is often misrepresented as an instance of scientists pleading with churches; the earlier dialogue at the NACRE conference is often ignored. One of the reasons for the misrepresentation is a long-standing contention among ecologists that Western religion is fundamentally opposed to environmentalism. The origin of this thesis was an essay by historian Lynn Townshend White, Jr., White, Lynn Townshend, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” "Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, The" (White)[Historical Roots of Our] which was published in the March, 1967, issue of Science magazine. The essay threw down the gauntlet to Western churches, blaming their cosmology and dogma for ecological ruin. Christians and Jews responded to White’s essay in two distinct ways. One group embraced White’s thesis and called for reform of dogma and cosmology in the West; this response was typified by theologians such as Father Thomas Berry, Berry, Thomas who called for a retelling of Genesis for the twentieth century. A second group denied the premise that the Judeo-Christian tradition is antienvironmentalist and sought to correct misinterpretations of Genesis. Pope John Paul II’s Peace with God the Creator belonged to this second category.

Roman Catholic responses to the controversy over environmentalism were relatively slow in coming. The first response to White’s 1967 essay came from the academic world. In 1973, Ian G. Barbour, Barbour, Ian G. a professor of both physics and religion, published Western Man and Environmental Ethics, Western Man and Environmental Ethics (Barbour) an anthology of essays addressing White’s thesis. In 1977, the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship was founded at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the center announced that its first research topic would be “Christian Stewardship and Natural Resources.” The result, published in 1980 as Earthkeeping, Earthkeeping (Wilkinson) edited by Loren Wilkinson, Wilkinson, Loren was probably the first Christian rebuttal of White’s thesis. In 1993, the Calvin Center published an update, Earthkeeping in the Nineties, that acknowledged, among other developments, the effects of the pope’s Peace Day message.

Aside from the contention of Catholic environmentalists that the Church’s first official pronouncements on ecology should have come earlier—Father Bernard Lonergan Lonergan, Bernard called them “a little breathless and a little late”—the earliest reactions were overwhelmingly affirmative. On the first anniversary of the release of Peace with God the Creator, however, the Italian Green Party launched a public protest campaign against the Vatican’s use of a real Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square. This tradition, the Greens contended, required that a new tree be cut down each year; furthermore, because the tree was a seventy-five-foot Austrian white fir, cutting it would require cutting many other trees around it. When the Vatican ignored the protests, many environmentalists challenged the sincerity of the pope’s pronouncements on the ecology.

Even before Peace with God the Creator, calls for environmental action had come from within the Church. In 1987, the year that ended with John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Guatemala’s bishops published the pastoral letter The Cry for Land, and the bishops of the Dominican Republic published The Protection of Nature Is a Condition of Survival. In January, 1988, the bishops of the Philippines released What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land? Although the pope’s analysis of the relationship between development and ecology differs from the analyses in these three documents, the pope incorporated some of their language in his Peace Day message.

Beyond any question of activism, there are substantive differences between the pope’s views on environmentalism and those of many people involved in the mainstream environmental movement. The primary stumbling block is a fundamental disagreement on the role of population control in solving any ecological crisis. Roman Catholic doctrine clearly and irrevocably opposes any artificial form of population control, whereas most non-Catholic environmentalists see the use of birth control methods as necessary for true ecological progress. A more basic disagreement between the pope and secular environmentalists goes back to first principles: Environmentalists criticize the pope’s language as “anthropocentric”—that is, it places humanity at the center of creation. John Paul II’s reading of Genesis proclaims that anthropocentrism is not an error but a truth; the error lies in misinterpreting centrality as domination. Environmental awareness Ecotheology Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation (John Paul II)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Thomas, with Thomas Clarke. Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation Between Humans and the Earth. Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990. Text published as a companion to a thirteen-part Canadian television series that helped to popularize the ecotheology of Father Berry. Invites a revision of the Genesis story of creation that removes the anthropocentric bias and looks toward the “Ecozooic Age.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardner, Gary. “Religion and the Quest for a Sustainable World.” The Humanist 63 (March/April, 2003): 10-15. Discusses the increasing attention being paid to environmental issues by many religious groups and the need for environmentalists and people of faith to find common ground.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Roger S. Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Argues that social reform requires a combination of political and religious or spiritual practice. Chapter 7 is devoted to discussion of the environmental movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">John Paul II. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Vatican City: Vatican Publications, 1988. This encyclical concerns primarily social justice and economic development, but it also discusses the impact of these issues on ecology. Important as a precursor to Peace with God the Creator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaufman, Donald G., and Cecelia M. Franz. Biosphere 2000: Protecting Our Global Environment. 3d ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2000. Introductory textbook on ecology features a chapter titled “Religion and Ethics” that reviews the controversy over whether Western religions promote antiecological ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonagh, Sean. The Greening of the Church. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990. Presents a thorough development of a theology of the environment that is very different from, and quite critical of, that of Peace with God the Creator. Criticizes the pope’s ecotheology as overly anthropocentric and essentially “too little, too late.” Chapter 9 deals most directly with the pope’s message.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkinson, Loren, ed. Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993. Presents a Christian but non-Catholic integration of Christian and ecological ideals. Recognizes the role of Peace with God the Creator in the relationship between Christianity and ecology.

United Nations Holds an Environmental Conference in Stockholm

U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated

John Paul II Becomes Pope

Lovelock Publishes Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

The Global 2000 Report Is Issued

“Deep Ecology” Platform Is Drafted

Our Common Future Is Published

Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro

Protocol on Antarctic Environmental Protection Enters into Force

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