Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

American Catholics and the Environment, 1960-1995

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

American Catholics and the Environment, 1960-1995

Article excerpt

PATRICK ALLITT*

In 1991 the American Catholic bishops published "Renewing the Earth," their first pastoral declaration on the environment, and two years later the United States Catholic Conference established its Environmental Justice Program. Many other churches had taken similar steps in the 1970's and 1980's, placing environmental issues on the agenda of American Christianity. These developments encouraged Catholics to think in new ways about the natural world, about their relationship with it, and about God's purposes. Problems came with the opportunities, however. One was the difficulty of attributing religious significance to issues such as global climate change (alleged human-induced global cooling in the 1970's, warming in the 1990's) around which swirled basic scientific disagreements. A second was the danger of pursuing incompatible goals, such as trying to continue the Catholic tradition of working to alleviate poverty but at the same time trying, for environmental reasons, to restrain economic growth. A third was the risk of diluting or losing the Christian message by adopting an outlook with a distinctly antiChristian pedigree-at a time when Catholics were devoting special attention to the protection of human life, for example, some environmentalists were arguing against the idea of favoring humanity at the expense of other species. A fourth problem, voiced especially by Catholic conservatives,was recent American Catholicism's tendency to conform to secular trends at the expense of its own traditions. One disgruntled Catholic wrote, in 1990:"Environmental enthusiasm is likely to make inroads into any part of the U.S. Catholic church not firmly rooted and grounded in orthodox faith. The moral torpor, the widespread sense of accidie, is palpable in the pews after the American hierarchy's twentyfive year effort to transform the Church into a gentler, kinder annex of the Department of Human Services"' By now it is possible to explain how some American Catholics came gradually to accept environmental ideas while others remained convinced that they were incompatible with their faith.

Modern American environmentalism had developed in response to public dissatisfaction about polluted air, land, and water in the 1950's and 1960's. Some of the pollution was plain to see, hear, and smell: urban sprawl, choking smog, the Cuyahoga River on fire, ocean oil spills off Santa Barbara, dying fish in harbors, lakes, and rivers, jet aircraft contrails and noise, bill-boards, litter, and irresponsible aerial spraying of pesticides that killed farm animals, birds, and pets as well as insects. Other environmental threats, by contrast, were invisible except through extensive study or the use of sophisticated scientific instruments: radioactivie fallout, overpopulation, and changes in the atmosphere and climate. Environmentalism was a pragmatic affair at first, with clear aims: to stop or reduce pollution, improve air and water quality, clean up the rubbish, protect endangered species and their habitats, set aside beautiful areas of wild country for parks, wilderness areas, or wild and scenic rivers, and increase public education about the connections between living things. But it soon took on philosophical overtones, leading some environmentalists to advocate a complete overhaul of humans' self-conception and big changes in the American way of life.2

Environmental issues, especially those with earth-changing implications, raised not only scientific and technical questions but also religious ones. What role did the Earth itself play in the Christian drama? What did the Bible say about it? Did God want people to dominate the natural world and exploit its resources, or to tread lightly upon its surface and cause the least possible disturbance? Did "nature" include or exclude human beings, and what were the implications for theories of "natural law"? What counted as relevant evidence in answering these questions? …

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