Sustainability and Catholic Social Thought

I. Excerpt from Papal Address on World Day of Peace, January 1st, 2008

(For the full speech, visit:

Part 7. The family needs a home, a fit environment in which to develop its proper relationships. For the human family, this home is the earth, the environment that God the Creator has given us to inhabit with creativity and responsibility. We need to care for the environment: it has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion. Human beings, obviously, are of supreme worth vis-à-vis creation as a whole. Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man. Rather, it means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves. Nor must we overlook the poor, who are excluded in many cases from the goods of creation destined for all. Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances. If the protection of the environment involves costs, they should be justly distributed, taking due account of the different levels of development of various countries and the need for solidarity with future generations. Prudence does not mean failing to accept responsibilities and postponing decisions; it means being committed to making joint decisions after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.

Part 8. In this regard, it is essential to “sense” that the earth is “our common home” and, in our stewardship and service to all, to choose the path of dialogue rather than the path of unilateral decisions. Further international agencies may need to be established in order to confront together the stewardship of this “home” of ours; more important, however, is the need for ever greater conviction about the need for responsible cooperation. The problems looming on the horizon are complex and time is short. In order to face this situation effectively, there is a need to act in harmony. One area where there is a particular need to intensify dialogue between nations is that of the stewardship of the earth's energy resources. The technologically advanced countries are facing two pressing needs in this regard: on the one hand, to reassess the high levels of consumption due to the present model of development, and on the other hand to invest sufficient resources in the search for alternative sources of energy and for greater energy efficiency. The emerging counties are hungry for energy, but at times this hunger is met in a way harmful to poor countries which, due to their insufficient infrastructures, including their technological infrastructures, are forced to undersell the energy resources they do possess. At times, their very political freedom is compromised by forms of protectorate or, in any case, by forms of conditioning which appear clearly humiliating.

II. Environmental Justice and the Catholic Church

(From The National Religious Partnership on the Environment

The Catholic Church’s engagement with environmental issues derives from its belief that Christians have a responsibility to work for the well being of all humanity. The foundations for Catholic environmental concern are found in the Church’s doctrine of the goodness of creation and in its firm resolve to defend the dignity of each human being, especially the poor and vulnerable. “Environmental justice” expresses the Church’s conviction that the human dimension must be kept in focus whenever ecological issues are discussed.The Catholic Church carries out its teaching and service on behalf of the earth and its people through an extensive institutional network: parish churches, parochial schools, hospitals, religious orders and their communities, dioceses, archdioceses, and state Catholic Conferences, and national Catholic organizations. As a religious communion spanning the globe, the Catholic Church brings an international perspective to issues of environment, peace, justice, and economic development.

Church leaders have called on Catholics to recognize environmental stewardship as their Christian responsibility and have illuminated the social justice values at stake in environmental policy. Catholic scholars have explored and developed these insights, showing how the message of environmental stewardship and justice is rooted in Church teachings.

That message has become part of the fabric of Catholic life, from the local parish to national organizations and associations. Worship and education play a key role in connecting care for creation with Catholic spirituality, motivating concrete actions to promote environmental justice. Whether by modeling environmentally responsible stewardship of buildings and grounds, advocating just and sustainable public policies, or addressing environmental problems and reaching out to those most afflicted by them, Catholics are making a difference in their communities and their world.

Since 1993, the Environmental Justice Program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported and encouraged these sorts of local efforts by parishes and dioceses. Its website provides background information, resources, and abundant and inspiring examples of how people of faith can respond to a planet in need.

Catholic Scholarship on Faith and the Environment Scholarship plays a critical role in developing a distinctively Catholic approach to environmental concerns. Careful thinking is needed to discern a faithful path through the current welter of conflicting secular and religious ideas about God, humanity, nature, and society.

Catholic scholars have risen to the challenge. They are exploring:

  • A God-centered understanding of creation, and of human beings' special place in the web of life and their relationship to their fellow creatures.
  • Applications of Catholic social teaching to environmental issues — particularly concepts of natural law, the common good, concern for the poor, and respect for life.
  • How Catholic liturgy and spirituality can express God’s presence in the natural world and nurture care for creation and the pursuit of social justice.
  • The insights of eminent Catholic theologians into the nature of the physical world, and ways to reformulate them in the light of current science and identify their moral implications for today.

Such thinking is not merely an intellectual exercise. As tested ideas are integrated into teaching, proclamation, and programs, the work of scholars contributes a solid foundation for responsible church involvement in the environmental arena.

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops Environmental Justice Program has sponsored a series of conferences beginning in 1994. These events have engaged a wider circle of Catholic scholars and universities in research, writing, teaching, and discussions of faith and ecology and have broadened awareness of Catholic environmental thought both within and beyond the Church. The most recent of these conferences, “The Person, the Poor, and the Common Good: A Catholic Dialogue on the Environment,” was held in October 2004 at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Environmental concerns have also been entering the mainstream of Catholic scholarship through:

III. Catholic Education and the Environment

Environmental justice is an essential part of Catholic faith. Establishing that fact in the hearts and minds of Catholics is the aim of a variety of educational programs throughout the Church.

  • Parish education helps integrate church social teaching on the environment into parish life, grounding the congregation’s environmental justice ministry.
  • Environmental curricula in Catholic schools connect science and social studies with faith and the values of justice and stewardship. Often, these combine learning with environmentally responsible behavior, advocacy, and community service.
  • Leadership training programs give clergy and laity the skills and understanding needed to carry this work forward.

Catholic colleges, universities, campus ministries and seminaries offer opportunities for connecting faith and the environment through more advanced studies, such as:

  • Undergraduate majors and minors in environmental studies, ethics, and policy (e.g., University of Portland, Marquette University, Santa Clara University);
  • Graduate degrees (e.g., Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, St. Thomas University, The School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University); and
  • Non-Degree programs (e.g., St. Thomas More Catholic Campus Ministry, TREES – Theological Roundtable on Ecological Ethics and Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union.

Read more about these programs here.

Catholic Perspectives on Environmental Justice and Peace Renewing the Earth
An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching

A Pastoral Statement of the United States Catholic Conference
November 14th, 1991 (Excerpt)

Justice and the Environment

The whole human race suffers as a result of environmental blight, and generations yet unborn will bear the cost for our failure to act today. But in most countries today, including our own, it is the poor and the powerless who most directly bear the burden of current environmental carelessness. Their lands and neighborhoods are more likely to be polluted or to host toxic waste dumps, their water to be undrinkable, their children to be harmed. Too often, the structure of sacrifice involved in environmental remedies seems to exact a high price from the poor and from workers. Small farmers, industrial workers, lumberjacks, watermen, rubber-tappers, for example, shoulder much of the weight of economic adjustment. Caught in a spiral of poverty and environmental degradation, poor people suffer acutely from the loss of soil fertility, pollution of rivers and urban streets, and the destruction of forest resources. Overcrowding and unequal land distribution often force them to overwork the soil, clear the forests, or migrate to marginal land. Their efforts to eke out a bare existence adds in its own way to environmental degradation and not infrequently to disaster for themselves and others who are equally poor. Sustainable economic policies, that is, practices that reduce current stresses on natural systems and are consistent with sound environmental policy in the long term, must be put into effect. At the same time, the world economy must come to include hundreds of millions of poor families who live at the edge of survival. 

Read the complete statement.

Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation
Pope John Paul II
January 1st, 1990 (Excerpts)

5. These biblical considerations help us to understand better the relationship between human activity and the whole of creation. When man turns his back on the Creator's plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order. If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace: "Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away" (Hos 4:3).

12. But there is another dangerous menace which threatens us, namely war. Unfortunately, modern science already has the capacity to change the environment for hostile purposes. Alterations of this kind over the long term could have unforeseeable and still more serious consequences.

Despite the international agreements which prohibit chemical, bacteriological and biological warfare, the fact is that laboratory research continues to develop new offensive weapons capable of altering the balance of nature.

Today, any form of war on a global scale would lead to incalculable ecological damage. But even local or regional wars, however limited, not only destroy human life and social structures, but also damage the land, ruining crops and vegetation as well as poisoning the soil and water. The survivors of war are forced to begin a new life in very difficult environmental conditions, which in turn create situations of extreme social unrest, with further negative consequences for the environment. 

Read the complete statement

For more information on Catholic perspectives on environmental justice:

  • Read "Environmental Justice" in Renewing the Face of The Earth and articles on environmental justice in Africa, Latin America, and Europe in Let the Earth Bless the Lord, parish resource packets available from the U.S. Conference of Catholic BishopsPublishing Services.

IV. United States Catholic Conference’s Environmental Justice Program


In an effort to help the United States Catholic Church develop the capacity to meet the environmental challenge, the United States Catholic Conference’s (USCC) Environmental Justice Program (EJP) has developed a threefold pastoral strategy that is rooted in the spiritual, sacramental, and social justice traditions of the Catholic Church. Developed in response to Pope John Paul II’s 1990 charge to Catholics to care for nature as God’s creation, this strategy entails integrating environmental concerns into the lives of Catholic people in the United States, connecting ecological and social justice issues, and addressing environmental matters at the local level. To implement this pastoral strategy, specific programs have been established in the areas of education and outreach, leadership development, regional project funding, and public policy. Environmental issues are addressed in relation to the Church’s scripture, theology, prayer, worship, and ministry, in order to facilitate the recognition of divine presence in creation and in order to enable United States (US) Catholic people to commit to caring for nature as God’s gift to humanity.



Geographic Location

United States of America

Duration of Project



The National Catholic Rural Life Conference’s (NCRLC) involvement with rural and agricultural issues led the United States (US) bishops to address broader environmental concerns in the late 1980s. In 1990, a symposium was held to discuss how the USCC could attend to these concerns. That same year, Pope John Paul II broached the topic in his “World Day of Peace” message, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility. In 1991, the US bishops reiterated the Pope’s environmental concern by issuing their own statement, Renewing the Earth, which helped prepare the way for the USCC’s official membership in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) and the establishment of the USCC Environmental Justice Program.

Partner Organizations

National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE)

National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC)

Campaign for Human Development (CHD)

Catholic Relief Services (CRS)

National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW)

Long-Term Goals

To help the US Catholic Church and US Catholics address contemporary ecological concerns by working within the framework of the Catholic tradition at various levels.


Walter E. Grazer, “Strategy for Environmental Engagement: Building a Catholic Constituency” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, eds. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions; Harvard University Press, 2000) 578–87.

Additional Research Resources

None Listed.

Contact Information

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Environmental Justice Program

Office of Social Development and World Peace

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

3211 4th Street, N.E.

Washington, DC 20017–1194

Ph:(202) 541-3000

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Last Updated: 12/14/05