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Deacon Gutiérrez: The consensus on the environment

As we look at where Americans agree with each other, I would like to take up the question of the environment. Let me start with my own experience. 

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, which has been called the “mistake on the lake.” The epithet was invented because the Cuyahoga River, the main river that divides Cleveland and that feeds into Lake Erie, was so polluted that it caught on fire 13 times in the 20th century, the last time in 1969. 

My family moved to Cleveland in 1980, and things had not improved all that much. When I was in high school, an abandoned industrial building on the riverside caught on fire, sending a tower of black smoke into the air over downtown Cleveland. Apparently barrels of chemicals had been left there and some spark from nearby construction lit it all up. 

Today, however, thanks to stringent environmental policies, the river is much better. While Lake Erie still has some environmental issues, they are much more manageable and are in part a result of cleaner water. 

The success of Lake Erie has been possible because Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of cleaner air and water. According to a 2017 Pew study, 74% of us believe that “the government should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” Happily, 75% of Americans report that they are concerned about helping the environment in their daily lives. And even better, 83% make the choices to live in ways that help the environment all or at least some of the time. Examples in the study were simple things like bringing one’s own bags when grocery shopping or using cleaning products with fewer harsh chemicals. 

The church’s teaching on the environment has been consistent. It was St. Pope Paul VI’s 1971 apostolic letter “On the Occasion of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum” that we have the first direct plea for the environment in Catholic social doctrine. He wrote, “Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation.” Therefore, he concludes, “The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all” (no. 21).

This teaching on the environment was developed by St. Pope John Paul II and was greatly expanded by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical “On Charity and Truth.” Pope Francis gave us the first social encyclical dedicated entirely to the environment, “Laudato Si’.”

Of course there is a good deal of division around the environment as well, particularly concerning not so much the existence of climate change, but what causes it and what is the best way to deal with it. The reasons for the division are legion, and I will not go into them here, but just say that thoughtful dialogue is needed on all sides. 

For the moment, I want only to point out that we ought to find solace in the fact that we love our land and the many gifts provided to us through the environment by our good God. To demonstrate that love and our gratitude to God, living simply and conscientiously by reducing our consumption, recycling what we do use and when possible reusing resources is in the end not that much to ask. It is, indeed, a more just way of living that will help fulfill our duty to creation, our neighbor and God.

Deacon Omar Gutiérrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at ofgutierrez@archomaha.org.

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